NATCHITOCHES – The eight athletes and coaches inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, like many before them, authored record-setting careers during their playing, coaching and training days.
So it comes as little surprise the induction ceremony honoring the 11-member class added another mark to its collective resume. In front of a tightly packed, record-setting crowd of 831 patrons inside the Natchitoches Events Center on Saturday night, those 11 men and women officially became part of the statewide shrine to the Pelican State’s top athletes, coaches and administrators.
“Whether they were on a track or on a field, they never forgot where they came from,” Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Chairman Doug Ireland said. “They love this state and, tonight, we give some of that love back.”
In addition to the list of record-setting athletes and coaches, the Hall welcomed a pair of longtime sports journalists and a major bowl administrator.
There were a pair of firsts, as the Hall said hello to its first horse trainer, Frank Brothers, and its first collegiate softball coach, Yvette Girouard.
Brothers, described as a self-made man by presenter Pat Morrow, was the 1991 National Trainer of the Year and trained horses that won the Belmont and Preakness Stakes in his career, a lifelong journey that started when he went to the Fairgrounds in New Orleans asking for a job.
Working his way up from the bottom, Brothers spawned a career that made him the first trainer inducted into the Hall, which includes seven jockeys and an Eclipse Award-winning owner. Having Brothers join an athletic Hall of Fame stunned even Morrow.
“When it was announced, one of our good friends called me at six in the morning and said, ‘Our most unathletic friend just got inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame,’” Morrow said.
That did not bother Brothers, who steadily climbed the ladder in the background of tracks like the Fairgrounds until he reached the pinnacle of training titles at Churchill Downs and Keaneland.
“I was at a crossroads of my life,” Brothers said. “No. 1 I didn’t have much education. No. 2, I realized I couldn’t eat all the ribbons and trophies I won (with horses as a child). No. 3, I had absolutely no money. Thankfully, the good Lord gave me common sense and, as they say in the racing game, a little bit of a feel for a horse.
“I had some great times. I’m thankful for the many owners I trained for. I’m forever grateful for their friendship. Training is not an ‘I’ sport. It’s a ‘we’ sport. The grooms, the hot-walkers, the riders, the veterinarians, the blacksmiths, I’m forever grateful for their work.”
While Brothers built his career from the ground up, his fellow first-timer, Girouard, did the same with the UL Lafayette softball program before moving down Interstate 10 to lift LSU to previously unseen heights.
Her legacy stretches long past the stretch of I-10 the “little girl from Broussard” called home for decades.
“She defined teamwork in a small, simple two-letter word – us,” presenter and 2011 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee Kyla Holas said. “To be part of us is to be part of something bigger than yourself. It became an all-inclusive family that lasts long after your playing days are over. It is the greatest gift you’ve been given. Thank you for choosing us.”
Girouard built the Lady Cajuns program from scratch, taking UL Lafayette to three Women’s College World Series berths.
After sliding over to LSU, Girouard became just the third coach to take two programs to WCWS appearances when she took the Lady Tigers to Oklahoma City in 2001 and 2004.
All of this stemmed from a pre-Title IX childhood when Girouard and her female friends weren’t allowed to play sports.
“As I said, I always felt sorry for myself, because I was good,” Girouard said. “I wanted to play, but God had other plans for me. I got to coach at my alma mater, the University of Southwestern Louisiana, which I graduated from. It was a complete labor of love, a career I never imagined.”
For Girouard, leaving a legacy for her family members meant as much as the 1,000-plus wins she compiled in vermilion and white and in purple and gold.
“My great-nieces are playing softball now, and I have them sitting at my table, because they’re going what their Nanny couldn’t do,” Girouard said.
Girouard was part of a trio of Acadiana-based inductees, including NFLers Kevin Faulk (Carencro, LSU) and Jake Delhomme (Breaux Bridge, UL Lafayette), in the Class of 2015.
Faulk and Delhomme squared off against each other in Super Bowl XXXVIII, with Faulk’s Patriots scoring a close victory.
Faulk and Delhomme took different roads to the NFL, but both brought their Cajun roots with them to Natchitoches.
“We came a long way from Carencro,” said Faulk’s presenter, Ed Cormier. “Our relationship embodies the phrase, brother from another mother. Something like this award symbolizes how far you’ve come. I used to look at the map, and there wasn’t a dot where Carencro was. Nowadays, when you look at the updated maps, there’s a star there, and we owe that to Kevin Faulk.”
Faulk, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots, turned the spotlight to his mother, who died in 2004.
“My mom instilled in me toughness, hard work, do exactly what you’ve gotta do, be you and don’t let anyone change who you are,” Faulk said. “I had the chance to leave LSU after my junior year and be a first-round pick. Dr. Tommy Karam, who runs the academic program at LSU, told me I was 18 hours away from graduating. When I heard that graduate word, I knew there would be one person I would make so proud by getting a college degree – my mom. I came back for my senior year, and we weren’t very good that year, but once I got that paper, it was all well worth it.”
While Faulk was the celebrated high school All-American, Delhomme persevered through not being drafted and then being released by the New Orleans Saints to craft a Super Bowl career of his own, leading Carolina to its first Super Bowl appearance.
“We always had DirecTV,” Delhomme’s presenter and uncle, Jack Dale Delhomme, said. “All you ever heard was, ‘Who is Jake Delhomme?’ Jake Delhomme is a gamer. Jake is a hall of fame husband, a Hall of Fame father, a Hall of Fame son, a Hall of Fame brother, a Hall of Famer to all his relatives and to the city of Breaux Bridge, to Teurlings Catholic, to UL (Lafayette).”
For Delhomme, his winning team has stretched from his childhood home to the current home he makes with his wife and two daughters, all of whom were in attendance at the Natchitoches Events Center.
“We grew up in a house rich in love,” Delhomme said, starting a halting, tear-filled speech. “Academics had to be in order. Respect of others had to be paramount. It was a solid foundation. Trees without a root system topple in turbulent weather. My root system was buried deep in the ground right from the start and watered every day by (mother and father) Marcia and Jerry.”
Like Delhomme, Avery Johnson overcame long odds to reach Natchitoches and its beautiful two-year-old museum and the Hall of Fame it houses.
After starting on a half scholarship at New Mexico Junior College, Johnson played 16 years in the National Basketball Association and won NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs.
“My life has been about vision, investment and execution,” Johnson said. “Coach (Ben) Jobe, coach Griff (Bernard Griffith), Squeak (Joe Armant), my friends from Dallas, they had a vision about our relationship. They made an investment in Avery Johnson, and I executed it.”
Johnson, who earned the nickname “The Little General” while with San Antonio, always was a leader, dating to his high school days at New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School.
“Avery didn’t like me, but we always talked about a voice in the locker room,” said Griffith, who coached Johnson as a Purple Knight. “He carried the message of what we wanted to the rest of the players. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Avery Johnson called me and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ He said, ‘I’ve got something for you to do. Come help me with the Dallas Mavericks.’ When you talk about a man who gives back, there’s a young man who actually helped me and my family get through one of the biggest tragedies in Louisiana. Anyone who knows Avery knows whatever Avery wants to do, Avery can make it happen.”
Johnson was one of two St. Augustine graduates inducted Saturday night, as he was joined by football coach Otis Washington, the architect of the Purple Knights’ powerhouse teams of the mid-1970s.
Washington was a reluctant coach, taking control of the groundbreaking program at 26 at the behest of school principal, Fr. Robert Grant, who played a pivotal role in moving St. Augustine into the Louisiana High School Athletic Association as its first primarily black school.
“What (Washington) was able to do for those young men at St. Aug was unbelievable during those times,” Washington’s presenters and former athletic director Emmett Moten said. “When St. Aug integrated the LHSAA, we were not only opposed by the schools in the LHSAA but by the black schools in the LIALO.”
Washington overcame those struggles to turn the Knights into a statewide power, highlighted by an unbeaten state championship season in 1975.
“Fr. Robert Grant saw something in a 26-year-old and had faith enough in me and enough trust to make me the head football coach at St. Augustine,” Washington said. “We became the de facto representative of the entire black community in Louisiana. I would be remiss if I didn’t extend my heartfelt gratitude to Fr. Grant, the assistant coaches who worked diligently with me through the years and the hundreds of hard-working football players who believed in the St. Augustine mission.”
During his career at Lee High in Baton Rouge and then at McNeese State, Leonard Smith had a mission – to deliver bone-rattling hits to any opposing ball carrier or receiver.
In earning the nickname “The Hitman,” Smith proved to be well ahead of his time,
“Leonard could never play under the safety rules they have now for quarterbacks,” said Johnny Suydam, Smith’s presenter and position coach at McNeese. “When Leonard blitzed, the quarterback’s safety was in jeopardy. The targeting rule, he couldn’t play under that. Leonard targeted everybody who was eligible to have a football in his hands.”
Smith turned what could have been a career-wrecking leg injury in his senior year of high school into a career-turning moment, signing with McNeese where he became the NCAA record holder for blocked field goals and the No. 17 overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.
Smith and Northwestern State running back John Stephens share the distinction of being the highest draft pick in Southland Conference history, but Smith reminded the Natchitoches crowd, “I was there first,” holding up his right ring finger.
Smith was a two-time Super Bowl participant in Buffalo, but even playing on football’s grandest stage seemed to pale in comparison to being honored by his home state’s Hall of Fame.
“I’m on Cloud 25, not 9 – 25,” Smith said. “I told people this week, I’m home. This is Louisiana. I feel like I’m home, because my home state has accepted me to be the man I am, the talent I am, the person I am, to be the best I can be for this state. Not Florida. Not Texas. Louisiana. Believe in this state. We’ve got more talent, more great coaches, more great athletes that can compete with any state in America.”
Like Smith, Pat Collins left his mark on then-Division I-AA football in Louisiana.
In 1987, Collins made the unthinkable happen – coaching then-Northeast Louisiana to the then-Division I-AA national football championship.
The roots of that success, however, was rooted in what Collins’ son and presenter, Mike, called unconditional tough love.
“Having a plan was always a key factor for him as a person,” Mike Collins said. “I was between 9 and 12 years old and my grandfather passed away. We went in the house and were piddling around. We found this box and started looking through it. We found a sheet of paper and opened it up. On that sheet of paper, it had 135, 114, 138, 120, 142, 121. I looked on there, and that was him calculating his weight, trying to gain weight so he could do what he wanted to do – play college football.”
Pat Collins spent time in the weight room, crafting his body from 135 pounds to that of a player and coach at Louisiana Tech first before leaving his mark in Monroe.
Pat Collins took his time at the podium Saturday night to thank the progeny of one of the more influential coaches in his career.
“Jim Henderson, I’m not sure where you are, but I know you’re in this audience somewhere,” Pat Collins said. “I wanted you to know how much we loved your father, Clem Henderson, who passed away recently. He coached us at Fair Park. From your appointment at Northwestern State (as university president), that apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
Pat Collins echoed his son’s sentiments on what made Collins the father a successful coach.
“Champions aren’t born,” Pat Collins said. “You’ve got to build them. You’ve got to lead them into believing in themselves. You’ve got to have a plan. What will you do to make yourself a better person? Every day I want a plan – make something happen. In making something happen in 1987, that’s exactly what we did – a national champion.”
Paul Hoolahan was awarded the Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award after helping the Sugar Bowl remain among the nation’s elite college bowl games while expanding the bowl’s reach in New Orleans and across Louisiana.
“This is a team effort and the people (at the Sugar Bowl) understand that,” Hoolahan said. “We are in the event business, and I am in a position to evaluate an event. This event (the induction) is first-class, top to bottom. I’ve loved the experience and am glad to be part of this new family.
“One of my favorite movies is ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ You’ll recall at the end of the movie, George gets a copy of ‘Tom Sawyer’ from Clarence. There’s an inscription inside that is written, ‘No man is a failure who has friends.’ I’ll tell you what, I have some friends, and I’m very proud of it.”
The night kicked off with the presentation of a pair of Distinguished Service Awards in Sports Journalism, honoring the late Bobby Dower of the Lake Charles American Press and his close friend Glenn Quebedeaux of the Daily Iberian in New Iberia.
Dower died of cancer in July 2014, but not before the LSWA could enact an impromptu award ceremony in Dower’s hospital room.
Dower’s sister, Beverly Dower Swanson, spoke on his behalf Saturday night, noting the many times her brother, who became the American Press sports editor at 25, removed himself from consideration for the award.
“There were 27 people in his hospital room, room 216 at Memorial Hospital,” she said. “Yes, Bobby Dower, you were and are worthy of having this honor bestowed upon you.”
Quebedeaux, whose run at the Daily Iberian included implementing the state’s first full agate page, delivered a moving tribute to his close friend that dampened nearly every eye in the record-setting crowd and set a sentimental tone for the rest of the evening.
“I love Bobby Dower,” Quebedeaux said, fighting back tears. “There’s something his wife, sisters and brother don’t know. The week he died, I whispered in his ear when I was leaving one of the last times, I said, ‘Bobby, I need a favor.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’
“I said, ‘One day, it doesn’t have to be any time soon, when I’m out on the lake fishing, I want you to send me a big, beautiful butterfly to let me know you made it.’ I was supposed to be (in Natchitoches) on Thursday, but I had to get an injection for a torn meniscus. I went fishing (Friday) morning. I’m out in the middle of the lake – a half-time, a mile from land – and I’ll be darned. The biggest, prettiest butterfly comes by, the same color as the tie I bought for his funeral. Some people say it’s coincidence. I don’t.
“It was Bobby Dower coming by to say, ‘I made it OK. I’m fine. I’m where I need to be, and you’re where you need to be. Just let everybody know, I made the trip OK, and I love you all.’ The only thing that would make this better is if Bobby had been here to greet me walking off the stage, but I know he’s here now.”
— Jason Pugh, Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association