Editor’s note: This column appeared in Wednesday’s Daily Journal.
Fifty-three years ago, organizers inducted the first class into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Goat Hale, Bruiser Kinard, Dudy Noble and Stanley Robinson formed the inaugural class, and the original plaques hang in Hall of Fame and Museum today.
We will have right at 300 inductees when six more are inducted the night of July 25 in ceremonies at the Jackson Hilton. One aspect hasn’t changed in that half of a century, plus three: Mississippi continues to spawn some of the most remarkable sports talent on the planet.
Witness the Class of 2014 that will include winners of four Olympics gold medals, an NFL MVP, the leading rusher and touchdown scorer in Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints history, a man who was for years the world’s fastest human, the only man to ever coach a Mississippi team to the Final Four and one of the greatest broken field runners ever.
Each, in his or her own way, is a unique Mississippi story. It has been my grand fortune to “cover” all six during their careers.
Please allow me to reminisce briefly about each.
• McLain’s Ruthie Bolton: A two-time gold medalist in women’s basketball, Ruthie was the engine that ran the 1996 U.S. women who were the real Dream Team in the Atlanta Games. She got every loose ball, ran the offense and always guarded the other team’s best. One of 20 children born to a preacher/farmer, she played with similar grit and determination to the great Walter Payton.
• Louisville’s Doug Cunningham: As a running back and kick returner, Cunningham was a game-changing play waiting to happen, first for Ole Miss and then for the San Francisco 49ers. John Grisham, who can write a little, once wrote of an Ole Miss game during which Cunningham turned defeat into victory: “Doug Cunningham, No. 22, sprang from nowhere, took the ball, and was immediately surrounded by white jerseys. He was hit, broke a tackle, hit again, shook himself free, darted one way then the other, and suddenly emerged from a pile of humanity with his legs pumping, his knees high in the air, his hips twisting…”
• Mount Olive’s Steve McNair: I saw him for the first time as a skinny 16-year-old quarterbacking Mount Olive to the state championship. He was magic. He was for four years at Alcorn State when Sports Illustrated featured him on its cover with the headline: “Hand him the Heisman!” And he was as a three-time Pro Bowler, one-time NFL MVP for the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens.
• Ludlow’s Deuce McAllister: He will be remembered for his speed/power combination that made him the leading rusher and TD scorer in Ole Miss and Saints histories. He could push the pile or he could break away and take it to the house. Deuce will be remembered by those who covered him for his kindness and his candor, in defeat as well as in victory. Had his knees remained in tact… well, we will never know.
• Bolton’s Calvin Smith: If the quiet, unassuming Smith walked into your living room, you would never suspect that this guy was once the world record holder in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the fastest human being in the world and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. For sure, he would never tell you.
• Mississippi State’s Richard Williams: His first basketball coaching gig was a volunteer coach at a Natchez junior high where he taught math. From that, he rose, step by step, to become the first (and so far only) coach to take a Mississippi team to the Final Four. Williams could take his x’s and beat your o’s or vice-versa.
In addition to the presentation of the Class of 2014, 1989 inductee Archie Manning will receive The Rube Award (named for Michael Rubinstein) for his lifetime of contributions to Mississippi sports.
For more information – or to order tickets – go to msfame.com or call 601-982-8264.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.