Editor’s note: Your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s 53rd annual BancorpSouth Induction Banquet will be video-streamed live on msfame.com beginning at 5:30 p.m. Saturday night. Just go to msfame.com landing page and click on the prompt.
Southern Miss was down 38-35 to East Carolina with about a minute
to play. Brett Favre was directing the two-minute drill and throwing strikes. As a journalist, I had come down from the press box to the field to do post-game interviews.
Favre scrambled to his left out of the pocket at about midfield. Suddenly, he stopped and threw across and down the field. Favre and the receiver were both in my line of sight. The throw travelled at least 45 yards. It never got much higher than Favre’s release point.
It was, in a word, laser-like.
Alfred Williams, the little receiver from Meridian, turned around just as the ball arrived and caught it for the big gain that set up USM’s winning touchdown. I felt as if I had just seen a miracle.
Afterward, I asked Williams how he had known to turn around just as the ball arrived. He looked me right in the eyes and said, “I heard it.”
I said, “You WHAT?”
And he said, “I HEARD it.”
I said: “Come on, Alfred. No way.”
And Williams smiled and said, “Man, you can always hear Brett’s passes coming, especially on a windy day.”
Here’s what I love most about my job at your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum: Most of the athletes and coaches we induct are people I covered as a sports writer and sports columnist. I know most of them well and know first-hand just how splendid they were.
What follows are personal memories about each of this year’s inductees who will be honored with this weekend’s BancorpSouth Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Induction Weekend.
I’ll add one more for Favre:
This was Super Bowl XXXI, played in the Louisiana Superdome, about 50 miles from where Brett grew up in Kiln. All that week, Favre had been the star of the show. Journalists from all over the world boarded buses to tour both Favre’s hometown and Southern Miss and Hattiesburg, where Favre still makes his off-season home.
That week in a rare moment when I was interviewing Favre without hordes of other reporters for company, I asked him about his nerves. I mean, here he was on sport’s biggest stage, playing so near his hometown.
Brett grinned before he answered, “Yeah, I’ll be nervous. I’ll probably be so geeked I’ll throw my first pass 20 yards over the receiver’s head.”
We move to the Packers’ first offensive possession and their second play. Favre is under center and notices the Patriots are in a coverage that has one guy covering the speedy Andre Rison in one-on-one, press coverage. Favre clearly checks out of the called play with one that sends Rison deep. Rison beats his man and Favre throws a 54-yard touchdown strike, the first of three touchdowns Favre produces in a 35-21 Packers victory.
And here’s the memory: Favre immediately takes off his helmet and sprints to the Packers bench, pumping his helmet in the air. His facial expression says it all. He has the look of a 5-year-old riding a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. His is the face of pure, unadulterated glee.
My lasting memory of Favre is this: He made playing quarterback, arguably the toughest job in sports, look like so much fun…
Mike Dennis is one of those people who probably should have been
inducted long ago. I saw him play as a high school senior when his Jackson Murrah team lost to Laurel in the Big Eight Conference championship game. Murrah lost, but bet on this: Nearly half a decade later, those Laurel boys who had to tackle Iron Mike Dennis that night can still feel the resulting aches and pains on a cold, rainy day. Dennis, as nice a guy off the field as he was fierce on it, ran so very hard.
His high school coach, Hall of Famer Jack Carlisle, has told me a version of this on many occasions: “Mike Dennis is the best high school running back I ever coached. He was special.”
I later saw Dennis play for Ole Miss, where he was the Rebels’ last two-time All-SEC running back before Deuce McAllister came along. He was the eighth-ranked Rebels’ leading rusher in the 1964 Sugar Bowl as a sophomore in a 12-7 loss to Alabama.
Mike would have been a great pro player, as well, except for a career-ruining knee injury suffered as a rookie. As it was, he was the Los Angeles Rams’ rookie of the year.
Fast Freddie McAfee is simply one of the nicest, most upbeat people I ever covered in any sport. He was — is — a joy to be around.
He nearly always has a smile on his face.
Although I well remember Fred leading Mississippi College to a Division II national title and also covering him when he played for the Steelers in the Super Bowl, my favorite memory came at the end of his career with the Saints. New Orleans, training at Millsaps, had just drafted and signed Reggie Bush who was one of the most anticipated rookies in the NFL in years. Bush, you will remember, had won the Heisman Trophy at Southern Cal, where he wore No. 25, which just happened to be Fast Freddie’s number with the Saints.
Freddie did what nice guys do. A 16-year veteran struggling to make the team (he would), he gave his jersey to the rookie and he took No. 30.
I caught Fred coming off the practice field one miserably hot, humid day at Millsaps. It was Bush’s first day of practice for the Saints. I asked Fred his first impression of Bush.
Typically, he flashed that Fast Freddie face-wide smile.
“I’d say, all in all, Reggie Bush does a pretty good Fast Freddie imitation.”
And that, folks, is Fred McAfee…
When Southern Miss signed Clarence Weatherspoon, the late Hall of Fame coach, M.K. Turk was joyous. Really. Turk was like a kid an Christmas Eve. He couldn’t wait for what he knew was about to happen.
Said Turk, “We just signed the future of Southern Miss basketball. We
Class of 2015: Some Hall of Fame memories
just signed the franchise.”
Honestly, I didn’t know who — or what — M.K was talking about. Weatherspoon had played his high school ball at Class 1A Motley. It wasn’t as if USM had signed Al Jefferson or Othella Harrington or Chris Jackson. But Turk knew better.
Soon, we all did. This is not to say that Weatherspoon — Spoooooooon! — was not gifted, because he surely was. He was country strong and he could leap out of the coliseum. But what separated Weatherspoon from other gifted players was how hard he worked and how fiercely he played. He was a basketball version of Walter Payton. He played every second, of every minute, of every game as if his life depended on it. He was voted three times the MVP of a Metro Conference that included Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, Virginia Tech and Florida State.
In his last game playing for USM, the Eagles lost to North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament even though Weatherspoon had played especially well and as doggedly as always. He was the story for Mississippi sports reporters. It was the last game of a remarkable college career, so, post-game, we waited to interview Spoon. And we waited and we waited and we waited. Two hours.
What’s up with Spoon, we finally asked Turk, who said Spoon was undergoing the required NCAA post-season drug testing every player has to do.
Said Turk, “Spoon can’t pee in the cup. He played so hard, sweated so much, he has nothing left to give. He’s been drinking Gatorade since the game ended and he still can’t go.”
Before Steve Knight became the all-time winningest Mississippi college basketball coach at William Carey University, he was a two-sport star (baseball and basketball) at first Hattiesburg High and then USM. It has become perhaps a cliché to call a player a coach on the field or a coach on the floor, but that’s what Knight was. It came naturally for Steve, a coach’s son.
In high school baseball he was a catcher, though he would later pitch for both USM and in the Seattle Mariners organization. He directed the game as all good catchers do. He later pitched a no-hitter for USM where Hall of Famer Corky Palmer was his catcher.
In basketball he was a guard on Johnny Hurtt’s state championship team of 1973-74. He could shoot the ball proficiently himself, but his job was to get the ball to the great Purvis Short, one of the most prolific scorers Mississippi basketball has seen.
That salt-and-pepper team, at a time when integration was fairly new to Mississippi, played with more togetherness than most teams you will ever see. They shared the basketball as few teams do. They played really hard and they almost always played really well. They genuinely liked one another, which was fun to watch — and a lesson to a lot of young folks, black and white, who were watching and experiencing integration for the first time. “Hey,” many of them had to think to themselves, “this can work…”
I ran across Gwen White from time to time when she was coaching
basketball at then-Belhaven College. A group of we sports writers once played a scrimmage game against one of her Belhaven teams. We started out with seven players. Two got sick from running up and down the floor and then a third broke his ankle going up – and not very high — for a rebound. That’s when the game ended. We quit. We couldn’t match Gwen’s team with five on the floor, much less four. She understood and helped us ice the guy’s ankle.
But, back then, I didn’t know Gwen White’s story, which I have only learned in recent years. I didn’t know that this petite lady had once been one of the top scorers in Mississippi girls’ basketball. I didn’t know that she had wanted to continue playing ball at a time when opportunities just weren’t there for female players.
I had no idea she had been an outstanding high school coach, and would be again. I didn’t know she would lead girls teams to state championships in three different sports. That she would introduce both AAU basketball and AAU track and field to Mississippi girls, giving them the same opportunities girls in most other states had long enjoyed.
I didn’t know Gwen White often spent her own money — on a teacher’s salary — to keep those programs going. I just knew she was a nice lady and that her Belhaven team played good, sound basketball.
And now we know the rest of the story and why she so deserves the honor she will receive Saturday night.
Tickets remain available for Saturday night’s BancorpSouth induction banquet at the Jackson Convention Center. Call 601 982-8264.