NATCHITOCHES – Gratitude. Humility. Appreciation.
One listen to the 10 members of the 2019 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction class during Thursday afternoon’s news conference evoked at least one of those three emotions – if not all three of the triumvirate.
There were stories of gravel roads less traveled from 1,000-win Peabody High School boys basketball coach Charles Smith. There were plenty of “woahs” from a couple of inductees who weren’t quite sure they belonged in the company they officially will keep once they are inducted Saturday night at the Natchitoches Events Center.
Saturday’s induction will fold in video tributes for each of the 11 inductees – two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Peyton Manning arrives in town Friday – but Thursday was a chance for the 10 members of the class to speak about themselves, a feeling more than one said was not among their favorites things to do.
Talking about the ones who helped paved the road to Natchitoches, that was much easier and allowed the praise and thanks to flow effusively.
“This great honor is not because of what Charles Smith has done,” said Smith, who closed out the two-plus hour event that aired live on Cox Sports Television. “It’s because of what my mother – bless her soul, she passed away before Christmas at 92 – did. She was my first teacher. It’s because of my father, 96 years old, a World War II veteran. Putting that together, I had no choice but to be successful.”
Smith’s seven state championships put him in rarified air in state annals as do his 1,000-plus wins. He was in fine company Thursday, joined by the likes of a five-time Olympian (volleyballer Danielle Scott), a national championship college football coach (LSU’s Les Miles), a two-time Canadian Football League Grey Cup champion quarterback (Louisiana Tech’s Matt Dunigan) and legendary Southern University baseball coach Roger Cador.
It was enough to make more than one inductee’s head spin.
“Back in April, we were down here to play Northwestern (State) in baseball, and I asked (Hall of Fame Chairman) Doug (Ireland) to take me through the Hall of Fame,” said Louisiana Tech radio broadcaster Dave Nitz, a recipient of the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism. “He showed me the pictures of the people who are in here. I looked at Doug, and I said, ‘They put me in here with these people? It’s unreal.’”
Nitz has spent 44 of his 58 years in the broadcasting industry calling Louisiana Tech games. He also spent one season calling Grambling football games when the Tigers were coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson, whom Nitz will join in the Hall on Saturday night.
With a career that encapsulates more than four decades of Louisiana Tech history, Nitz has crossed paths with numerous Louisiana Sports Hall of Famers, but he will be tied to a fellow Class of 2019 member more closely than most.
“It’s interesting,” Nitz said. “Matt (Dunigan) and I went into the Louisiana Tech Hall of Fame the same day. Now he and I go into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame the same day. He’s in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. I don’t think I’ll be in that one, so he’s got one on me.”
While most of the Class of 2019 thanked people who have influenced them, Dunigan repeatedly gave thanks to the game of football for instilling life lessons that took him from his Ohio birthplace to being raised in Dallas to playing – and meeting his wife – at Louisiana Tech and then to a 14-year CFL career that led to a 20-plus-year broadcasting career with TSN.
“E.J. Lewis found me in Dallas, Texas, in 1979, along with Randy Crouch,” Dunigan said. “They brought me to Louisiana Tech. That’s where it all started for me, trying to understand the game of football. Four years at Tech, 14 years in Canada, three years as a coach and 20 years as a broadcaster, and I’m still trying to figure it out. It teaches you so much about yourself, things you have to learn. It teaches you to do the right thing, which isn’t always the easy thing. You learn quickly, you’ve got to play when you’re not healthy and still be productive. It separates the men from the boys. If there was an inch to gain in the game, I wanted to get it. It cost me my career in 1996. I’ve been dealing with post-concussion syndrome for 23 years, and I’m soldiering in that world right now.”
T. Berry Porter can commiserate with Dunigan.
Porter’s induction will be a two-for-one in terms of special places in the Hall. The cowboy from Leesville, who collected the 1949 World Champion Roper title in Boston, becomes the first rodeo competitor in the hall and will be the oldest inductee in Hall history at 92.
True to his roots, Porter is a cowboy through and through. While Dunigan lost his career to concussions, Porter lost his right arm to a John Deere tractor that ran him over.
Unabated, Porter continues to work the family farm. In fact, he was on a tractor when Ireland called to let him know of his impending enshrinement.
Echoing Nitz’ sentiments, Porter said he had the same goal throughout his life.
“I tell you what, you don’t know how proud I am to be a member of the Hall of Fame,” Porter said. “I didn’t think they’d every put a cowboy in here. I’ve been a cowboy all my life, and I tried to be a good cowboy. You can’t give up. You’ve got to keep going. I’m proud of being from Louisiana. Never once shunned it, and I hope I leave more than I take away.”
Nitz’ fellow Distinguished Service Award winner Philip Timothy felt the same away about being selected for induction to the Hall, although Timothy has a closer connection to the building that sits on Front Street.
Timothy worked tirelessly alongside Ireland in helping the Hall find a permanent home in Natchitoches, something he called therapeutic. A car accident left Timothy with a broken left ankle and kept him bed-ridden for three months.
It was during that time he helped Ireland and other driving forces deliver what stands as a monument to Louisiana’s gilded athletic past, an edifice Timothy, a veteran of both daily and weekly Louisiana newspapers who glided effortlessly between sports and outdoors coverage, entered for the first time Thursday.
“This is the first time I’ve been in this building, and I don’t know why,” he said. “Here I am, the one who nudged it along, but this is the first time I’ve come into this building. I didn’t think it was for me. It was for the athletes, the great sports heroes of this state. The Peyton Mannings. The Charles Smiths. The Les Miles. They deserve this Hall of Fame not me. I didn’t come back until now, but it’s breathtaking. I’m very, very humbled.”
Coming from a powerhouse Ferriday High School team that won 54 straight games and playing a key role on LSU’s 1958 national championship team, it would be easy for Max Fugler to have stayed less than humble.
Fugler joined a number of his former LSU teammates in the Hall, teammates who fought for his entry. When Ireland spoke of the pressure his former Tigers mates put on sports writers to elect Fugler, he broke down in tears.
“It’s the greatest feeling I could have, knowing that,” Fugler said through tears. “It’s an honor to be associated with those kind of people. We were not a team. We were a bunch of friends takking care of each other. When one guy got hurt, one filled in. Billy (Cannon) was born to be great. Johnny Robinson, what an athlete he was. He was an all-state basketball player, drafted by the Cincinnati Reds as a catcher, an eight-time All-Pro as a Kansas City Chief, intercepted more passes than any strong side safety in the history of the NFL. Me beside them? Whoa!”
Fugler’s LSU ties made him one of a quartet of inductees with deep ties to Louisiana’s capital city.
Fugler shares a tie with Miles as both led LSU to football national championships. While Fugler did it as a hard-hitting defender, Miles was the commander in chief of the Tigers’ 2007 national title team.
A tried-and-true “Michigan man” who arrived in Baton Rouge from Oklahoma State, Miles left his quirky mark on the state of LSU while trying to do so in the image of two of his former coaches – Bill McCartney and Bo Schembechler.
“(McCartney) was not only a great coach, but someone who had a great overview of his program,” said Miles, who enters his first season as the head coach at Kansas this fall. “He was a Christian who mentored me spiritually. He was special.
“Bo could grab you by the throat and knew where he had to get you to play your best football. I’m very fortunate to have been with those two men.”
Miles did it his way in Baton Rouge as did Scott, a five-time Olympic volleyball player who was a four-sport athlete (volleyball, basketball, softball, track and field) at Woodlawn High School.
She continued to play multiple sports at Long Beach State before settling on volleyball and becoming a two-time silver medalists and one of only four athletes worldwide to compete in five Olympic games.
“I want to give honor to God,” she said. “I’m grateful to be here, literally. My life these last several months, if you’ve paid attention, has had some difficulties. This is such a great honor. As some of the others expressed, it’s an honor to receive this type of recognition for something you love to do. I’m excited to be here. It’s great to hear all these stories and a wonderful class to be a part of.”
No one regaled the crowd with stories quite like Cador, the affable, quotable coach who made Southern a household name in college baseball.
Arriving in 1984, Cador found all of the Jaguars’ baseball program’s gear in one grocery cart. After calling in a favor from former minor league teammate Dusty Baker, he met Baker in Atlanta and came away with “so much gear we had to U-Haul it back to Baton Rouge.”
Cador was a much more permanent fixture than a U-Haul. He led Southern to an upset of No. 1-ranked Cal State Fullerton in an NCAA Regional and helped Rickie Weeks blaze a trail as the first Golden Spikes Award winner from a historically black college. Cador did it in a way that has become a lost art.
“Just like Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was the right man to be the first black in Major League Baseball, Rickie Weeks was the right man to be the first Golden Spikes winner from a historically black college,” Cador said. “Back in 2000, I told him, if you work hard, you can be anything you want at Southern University. He said, ‘I’ll work hard because I want to be good.’ A lot of people were saying negative things because we were an HBCU and played in a historically black conference.
“Every morning, when I got to the office at 8 a.m., I called people to tell them about Rickie Weeks and what he was doing. People were negative. Had I been angry, I would have closed listening ears. I let them be negative, but put positive thoughts in their ears. When it came time for the voting, it was Rickie Weeks for the Golden Spikes by a landslide. He won five awards that year, all by landslides.”
While Weeks blazed a trail collegiately, Dave Dixon Award winner Marie Gagnard did so professionally.
Gagnard has been a professional tennis official for nearly four decades and will work her 30th U.S. Open later this year. After becoming the first woman to receive a tennis scholarship to Louisiana College, Gagnard found a way to stay involved with the game she had to give up six years ago after a spinal issue.
Her lifelong love affair with her sport started with a simple letter from her mother, who was looking for summer activities for Gagnard and her sister.
“I have to thank my mother watching from Heaven,” she said. “One summer, we were bored. She wrote to the Town Talk to ask what there was for children to do other than Little League baseball. They said they had free tennis lessons. We both excelled, my sister and I.”
That led to a connection with Richard Cavanaugh, who mentored Gagnard and gave her a “15-minute crash course” in officiating before a 1982 exhibition between No. 1 Bjorn Borg and No. 2 Jimmy Connors in Baton Rouge.
That lit a fire in Gagnard, one that burns to this day.
“We didn’t need officials then, because it was such a gentleman’s sport,” she said. “We called our own lines. Dr. Cavanaugh asked us to be the linesmen (for the exhibition). He gave us a 15-minute crash course. When it was over, I wanted more.”