The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame was established by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association in 1958, but it was a Hall without a hall until Natchitoches and Northwestern State University stepped up to the plate in 1971 with an offer of space on campus. The growing collection of memorabilia was shelved, reverently if somewhat inaccessibly, in Prather Coliseum for 40 years until the opening of a dazzling new Hall of Fame on June 28.
Once the decision was made to move the treasures to the heart of town, from the NSU Demons’ basketball arena to 800 Front St., world-renowned Louisiana architect Victor “Trey” Trahan III proposed an ultra-modern work of architectural art to house it, but there was some persuading to do. Doug Ireland (chairman of the Hall of Fame since 1991) chuckles when he recalls the outcry of some townsfolk who believed it would be wacky if not blasphemous to place something so startling into the mix of 19th-century structures on that street! In that “National Historic District” city! In the region designated as the “Cane River National Heritage Area”!
“Wrong,” said former mayor Bobby DeBlieux (now deceased), who had worked tirelessly, from City Hall in the 1970s and then from Baton Rouge as State Preservation Officer in the ’80s, to land that “Heritage Area” distinction. An avant-garde landmark was precisely what was needed, he declared at a public hearing in 2004, insisting that a nondescript new building or mere replica from antebellum times would seem lame at best, whereas Trahan’s creation would, in and of itself, be an instant attraction. “And that,” says Ireland, “was that.”
The new facility, as thrilling to behold as an onside kick, comes courtesy of a consortium – the Louisiana State Museum, City of Natchitoches and Louisiana Sports Writers, and it houses not only the Sports Hall of Fame but also a museum of additional sports memorabilia, a tribute to our outdoors sports and a museum of Northwest Louisiana history and culture.
Just past the entrance, Hall of Fame exhibits begin with tributes to the current year’s inductees and then blossom into a wall-to-wall celebration of 300-plus inductees from the past, representing every imaginable sport and hailing from practically every parish. First, however, invest seven minutes to see those decades of plays and playmakers summarized nicely in “Great Moments,” a tapestry of now-legendary stars and events woven from modern videos and historic footage by filmmakers Glen Pitre and Michelle Benoit.
Displays include personal memorabilia of many of the greats, with details of their careers presented via video clips, documentaries and audios, plus a push-button database on all inductees with their bios, stats and memorable quotes (all retrievable by player, sport, school or hometown). Imagine: Bob Pettit, Billy Cannon, Pete Maravich, Karl Malone, Terry Bradshaw, Bert Jones, Doug Williams, Willie Davenport, Hal Sutton … The list goes on.
Which ones are also listed in collegiate and professional halls of fame? Which were Olympians? How many were multi-sport athletes? This place has the answers, not to mention the two floors of vintage images and sports paraphernalia in categories as diverse as a 1934 Louisiana Golf Association trophy in the form of a three-foot sterling State Capitol, a wildly modified 1956 T-bird that set six world speed records at the Salt Flats, and the riding gear of jockey Eddie Delahoussaye (winner of five Triple Crown races and two consecutive Kentucky Derbies)!
A second-floor terrace overlooks Cane River Lake (once part of Red River itself), a good spot to take a breather before plunging into the upstairs section of the sports collection: historic objects and images honoring men, women, landmarks and key events, with every wall, case, kiosk and video screen covered with names you remember, or remember your dad and granddad remembering.
As the primary State Museum facility for northwest Louisiana, one section presents artifacts and graphics that define the region through stories of its hilltop/river-bottom topography, Kisatchie National Forest, the boomtown days of forestry and oil, the Caddo Indians, the era of slavery, the Union Army’s Red River Campaign of 1864 and Isle Brevelle’s creoles de couleur. A special exhibit on notable women includes contributions to arts and literature by “art colonist” Cammie Henry of Melrose, 19th-century novelist Kate Chopin of Cloutierville and Cane River’s Clementine Hunter (with a small gallery presenting samples of her nationally beloved paintings).
Artifacts like vintage guns, lures and antique duck and turkey calls fill the “Sportsman’s Paradise” tribute woods-and-water sports and sportsmen, from great artist/naturalist John James Audubon to great Sports Hall of Fame naturalist/sportsman Grits Gresham of Natchitoches.
As a lifelong promoter of outdoors life and conservation, Gresham set the standard with his mastery of every form of hunting and fishing as well as mastery of every medium of his day (newspaper columns, radio shows and countless segments of television’s “American Sportsman”). That tradition lives on in sportsman/writers like Bob Marshall of New Orleans, a winner of a Pulitzer for environmental reporting and many top conservationist awards who’s now conservation editor and regional editor for Field & Stream, “South” columnist for Outdoor Life magazine, host of Field & Stream Radio Network shows and co-host of ESPN’s “The Outdoors.”
On June 28, in front of the most modern building in Louisiana, Bob Marshall was honored with the Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism, 80-year-old Milton Retif of New Orleans (athlete, coach and “sports benefactor”) received the Dave Dixon Sports Leadership Award, and nine men and women, living and deceased, were inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame as part of the museum’s opening day ceremonies conducted by Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (ex officio guardian of the structures and treasures of the State Museum).
The honorees, most of whom spent much of the day exploring the great facility, were: Shaquille O’Neal (who stole the show by renaming the city Shaqitoches), the LSU superstar and 1996 Olympian whose middle initials became “MVP” during a 19-year NBA career; Ronald Ardoin – super-jockey from Carencro who won one in six of his 32,335 races; Tommy Hodson of Mathews, four-year starting quarterback for LSU who still holds school records for passing yardage, completions and touchdown passes; Ervin Johnson of New Orleans and Jonesville, an unknown till discovered by UNO (Sun Belt Player of the Year, second-team All-America and ABA first-round pick by Seattle; James Jones of Tallulah, star of three Southwestern Conference championship teams at Grambling and six All-Star appearances in his 10 years as a pro; Anna Koll (posthumously), phenomenal all-sport athlete from New Orleans in the 1930s; Kevin Mawae, star offensive lineman at Leesville High and LSU, then 8-time Pro-Bowler before becoming president of the NFL Players Association in an era or contentious labor disputes; Chanda Rubin, tennis star from Lafayette who won Grand Slam doubles at the Australian Open, the Wimbledon Juniors crown and seven titles on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour; and Ed “Skeets” Tuohy (posthumously), legendary Newman High School coach in New Orleans, whose teams won three state titles and 15 district championships in 15 years.
The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Museum (crt.state.la.us/museum) is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. To assist with fundraising and other support efforts, contact the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation at (318) 238-4255 or lasportshall.com.