There is something magical in that Delta soil
Tim Kalich, editor of The Greenwood Commonwealth, attended the Tribute to Kent Hull Banquet last month and recently wrote this piece for Leflore Illustrated. Kalich graciously allows msfame.com to reprint it.
By Tim Kalich
Rick Cleveland says there must be “something magical” in the soil to explain why four of the greatest gentlemen he’s ever met are products of the Delta.
Cleveland has been covering athletics in Mississippi for nearly half a century, mostly as a Jackson sports editor and columnist but most recently as executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Although all four of these Delta men — Charlie Conerly (Clarksdale), Boo Ferriss (Shaw), Archie Manning (Drew) and Kent Hull (Greenwood) — were sports legends, Cleveland says that’s not what made them special. “They could have been accountants. They would have still stood out in my mind as they went about life.”
They shared many traits. All were considered among the best to have ever played their position, but they were humble about their accomplishments. They had a knack for being able to make those around them feel better about themselves. They were loyal. They exemplified pure goodness.
“That four people that special all came from a very small part of a very small state” may be just coincidence, Cleveland acknowledges. But if it is, he says, it’s an awfully big one.
Conerly, who quarterbacked the New York Giants to three NFL championships in four seasons during the 1950s, might have been the most reluctant superstar Cleveland has ever interviewed.
Ferriss, a pitching phenom for the Boston Red Sox who went on to turn Delta State into a Division II baseball powerhouse, was one of the most genuine. “He treats,” says Cleveland, “the guy that sweeps out the cafeteria at Delta State the same way he would treat the king of England.”
Cleveland started covering Manning at Ole Miss and then at the New Orleans Saints. But the story Cleveland best remembers about Archie (no last name needed, really) occurred when he was traded in the twilight of his NFL career to the Houston Oilers. He and his wife, Olivia, had two young sons at the time, Cooper and Peyton. (Eli, a two-time Super Bowl winner, had yet to be born).
Archie didn’t want them to be raised without their dad at home. So after practice he would catch an early-evening direct flight to New Orleans to have dinner with the family and tuck his sons into bed, then catch the red-eye flight back to Houston to be at team meetings the next morning. Not just once in a while, but every night he could make flight connections.
These reminiscences were prompted by a tribute banquet held in September to remember the late Kent Hull, the last inductee into the Rick Cleveland pantheon of Delta gentlemen. The state Sports Hall of Fame has created a trophy in Kent’s honor, just as it has for Conerly and Ferriss. (Archie already has a national trophy named after him.)
It says something special about Kent that not only did 430 people pay $100 a plate to help fund the trophy, but almost all of them, many driving from Greenwood, turned out on a rainy day for the event.
In 1991, when Kent and his Buffalo Bill teammates were making the first of their four straight trips to the Super Bowl, Cleveland was late for media day after the bus he was riding on got lost. Kent, good for a quote since his college days at Mississippi State, was surrounded by about 100 reporters from all around the country.
“I couldn’t get within 10 deep of the stage, and everybody’s holding up microphones, shouting questions and everything,” Cleveland recalls.
Kent spotted him in the back and told everyone else there, including big fish from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the major networks, to make way for his fellow Mississippian to move toward the front.
“And now what can I do for you?” Kent asked him, as if Cleveland were the most important media person in the place.
“He didn’t have to do that. That’s just the way Kent was,” Cleveland says.
“I don’t know how it made the rest of those people feel, but it made me feel mighty damn good.”
Leflore Illustrated is a quarterly magazine published by The Greenwood Commonwealth.