Consider this column a tribute to the spirit of small-town Mississippi athletes. Consider this a shout-out to the work ethic small-town Mississippi produces decade after decade, from way down in Kiln to far up in Booneville from Ol’ Man River to the Alabama border.
Six new members were inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this past weekend. All six are from small-town Mississippi. All six grew up on grits and greens.
Count them, six: Ruthie Bolton, from McLain; Doug Cunningham, from Louisville; Deuce McAllister, from Ludlow; Steve McNair, from Mount Olive; Calvin Smith, from Bolton; and Richard Williams, from Pearl – which was a lot smaller when Williams was growing up than it is now.
They follow so many other country folk, who have represented Mississippi so well on the national and international sports stage. A short listing: Walter Payton (Columbia), Jerry Rice (Crawford), Archie Manning (Drew), Boo Ferriss (Shaw), Willye White (Money), Lucy Harris (Minter City), the famous Poole brothers (Homochitto), Johnie Cooks (Leland), Peggie and Jennifer Gillom (Abbeville) and we could go on and on and on.
What has small-town Mississippi done for us lately? Tori Bowie, 23 years young, born in Sandhill and schooled at Pisgah and Southern Miss, has run the fastest women’s 100-meters time in the world this summer at 10.8 seconds. Billy Hamilton of Taylorsville, also 23, is turning the basepaths of the National League into his personal playground. He entered the week with 41 stolen bases.
So what is it about rural Mississippi that continues to produce such athletic excellence?
I have a theory, or, better yet, theories of several factors:
• There’s a built-in, smalltown work ethic. Many of these athletes are from blue-collar families in which hard work is a way of life. You see your parents work hard and older siblings work hard, so you follow suit.
• In most cases, in these small burgs, church and school are the focal points. The athletic teams are the focus of the schools. The communities rally around the teams and the athletes. Sports are very much a part of the social fabric of the towns. No young man or woman wants to let their community down.
• There are fewer distractions. If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a hundred times in several different forms, “In the little town where I grew up there wasn’t much to do, so we just played ball…”
• There’s a certain hunger at work here. Some of these small-town athletes see sports as a superhighway to affluence and a better life.
Richard Williams will tell you he owes his success as a basketball coach at Mississippi State to small-town Mississippi.
“I had seen the success Davey Whitney at Alcorn had with rural Mississippi players, and then I saw those great teams M.K. Turk had at Southern with players from Collins and Utica and places like that,” Williams said. “I told myself that if I ever got a college job I was going to do it that way.”
So Williams got the State job and immediately recruited players from Forest, Fayette, Flora, Utica and Rolling Fork. Four years later, he won the SEC West.
“We worked those guys so hard I sometimes can’t believe they stayed with us,” Williams said.
The thing is, they were from small-town Mississippi. They were used to it.
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame .com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.