RICK CLEVELAND: Mississippi's gridiron greats



Your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014, announced earlier this week, will include both nationally and internationally prominent Mississippians.

They have been All-Pro in the NFL, have won Olympic gold medals in track and field and basketball, have set world records, have won SEC Coach of the Year and even have won three Emmy awards. They are a special group and add greatly to the special heritage that is Mississippi sports.

It has been my great fortune to cover and know each one. What follows are the seven inductees (in alphabetical order) and my personal observations:

Ruthie Bolton: From McLain, Ruthie was one of 20 children in her family and went on to win two Olympic golf medals as one of the leaders of Team USA basketball in 1996 and 2000. She set records both at Auburn and for the Sacramento Monarchs of the WNBA. I covered her in the 1996 Atlanta Games and she was the heart and soul of that gold medal-winning team. Pound for pound, she is the most dogged and gritty competitor I ever saw play any of our games.

Doug Cunningham: Originally from Louisville, Cunningham was a standout running back, wingback and kick returner at Ole Miss where he averaged almost a first down every time he touched the ball. He then played nine years in the NFL, eight with the San Francisco 49ers. In the first game I ever witnessed at Oxford, Southern Miss led 7-0 in the fourth quarter before making the mistake of punting to Cunningham. He returned the punt 75 yards for a touchdown and followed that up with a touchdown minutes later to give Johnny Vaught’s Rebels a 14-7 victory.

Deuce McAllister: One of those rare Mississippi athletes (Archie and Boo come immediately to mind) who are known simply by their first names, McAllister set records at Ole Miss and with the Saints. He was All-SEC twice at Ole Miss and remains the all-time rushing and scoring leader. He is also the Saints all-time leading rushing leader and scored 49 touchdowns during his career. He could run around you or he could run over you, and, off the field, you never met a more polite and giving gentleman.

Steve “Air” McNair: I first saw McNair as a 16-year-old high school junior when he led Mount Olive to a state football championship. “Remember that name, Stevie McNair,” I wrote. As good as he was, I would never have suspected that he would become the NCAA’s all-time total offense leader or become the NFL’s MVP in 2003 or the NFL Man of the Year in 2005. Among the moments I’ve covered in Mississippi sports, the day he set the yardage record and gave the football to his mother remains at or near the top of my list.

Calvin Smith: Precious few people on this planet are known as “the world’s fastest human.” Calvin Smith from Bolton held that title for nearly three years. He set world records, won world championship and also won Olympic gold. He set the world record for the 100-meter dash in on July 3, 1983 when he ran it in 9.3 seconds. What I remember most about Calvin’s career is how he was cheated out of more gold by sprinters pumped up on steroids when he clearly was not.

Richard Williams: You could make a movie about Williams’ coaching career. His first basketball coaching job was as a volunteer coach at a Natchez junior high. From there, he advanced through the high school ranks, then to junior college and then to Mississippi State where he served first as a volunteer assistant. Everywhere along the way, including that first junior high team, he won championships. In 1996, he became the first coach to take a Mississippi Division I basketball team to the Final Four. He was one of those coaches who could take his X’s and beat your O’s or take your O’s and beat your X’s.

Roberts to appear

Robin Roberts of Pass Christian was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013 but was unable to attend induction ceremonies because of her well-publicized health issues. As she vowed she would, she has recovered and she is expected to be inducted with the Class of 2014. She was a standout basketball and tennis player at Pass Christian, played basketball collegiately at Southeastern Louisiana and began her TV career at WDAM in Hattiesburg. She won three Emmys at ESPN and has been a long-time friend of the  Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, helping to narrate to museum theatre’s “It’s How We Play the Game.”

The BancorpSouth Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Induction Weekend is set for July 25-26, 2014.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame of Museum.

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