I recently attended the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame event at Jackson’s downtown convention center.
I knew two of the nominees: Dave Randall, the pro at my tennis club, River Hills, and Randy Watkins, the owner of my golf courses, Lake Caroline, Whisper Lake and Patrick Farms.
It was a super hot Saturday, 110 heat index, and Ginny and I had no dinner plans, so we went to check it out. The reception started at 5:30 with dinner at 7 p.m. I wanted to see the convention center being used, since it is a beautiful building, severely underutilized.
As we walked in, I marveled at how such an enormous building could be downright chilly on such a hot, humid day. This is one of the great wonders of human engineering. Without it, Mississippi would be a fraction of its existing population.
I have always advocated celebrating November 26, the day Willis Carrier was born. He invented air conditioning and transformed the world.
We walked in and asked if we could buy tickets. Turns out they weren’t really for sale. The event revolved around selling entire tables. “Did you come here to support someone?” the nice lady asked.
“Yes we did,” Ginny chimed in. “Dave Randall.”
“How fortunate, Dave just gave me two tickets and asked me to give them to anyone who needed them. He had a cancellation at his table.”
Funny how life works like that.
We soon found Dave, friends and family. Ginny started talking to Dave’s mother-in-law and found all sorts of social connections. Mississippi is like that. I’ve known Dave for decades, but learned all sorts of interesting things about him that I never knew. People are like that.
I soon ran into Randy Watkins and asked why the greens at Patrick are firmer than the ones at Lake Caroline. He politely explained it’s just a matter of time before they soften up.
Dave Randall is probably the greatest tennis player ever to come out of Mississippi. He won a singles match in the main draw of Wimbledon.
Randy Watkins was one of the greatest junior golf players in the nation at one time. He quickly earned his tour card only to have nagging back injuries end his career before it got started. He would have been big time.
Randy moved on. What he has done with the Randy Watkins Golf Group is a great example of American can-do entrepreneurship. He took three courses on the verge of closing, renovated them, joined them in a metro three-course package deal and now has a successful business. I am one of the beneficiaries of this. Thanks Randy.
My good friend Stewart Speed was there with his fiancee Kim Purvis. I had no idea Kim’s father was Vic Purvis, one of the greatest Southern Miss quarterbacks and a member of the Sports Hall of Fame. This is the sort of thing I figured would happen if we went and it did. Vic played for the Boston (New England) Patriots until he injured his shoulder. He was a sports commentator for Southern Miss for 41 years.
I also saw Northsider Con Maloney who was getting The Rube Award for his lifetime contributions to Mississippi sports. Con helped found the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and brought professional baseball to Jackson.
Right before sitting down for the banquet I saw two friends who are on the Hall of Fame board — past president Johnny Ray and current secretary Cal Wells. They were excited about the full house and talked of how more athletes from different sports are being inducted.
Seizing the opportunity, I told them about my stellar college career in Ultimate Frisbee. I’m not sure I convinced them.
As I browsed the program, I realized I knew about half the board members in some way or another over my decades in Mississippi. Dudley Marble was sports editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth when I was in high school. I developed hundreds of his high school football photos as the darkroom technician back when there was film and noxious chemicals and red lights. Funny how life changes. Board member Carson Hughes has been in my Sunday school class forever at Covenant Presbyterian. Funny guy, Carson. Wears bow ties.
It was the biggest night in history for the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame thanks to Covid cancelling last year’s meeting. Nine great athletes were inducted and two others who made major contributions to the sports. Rick Cleveland has already well reported on each individual so I won’t go into the details, but two people blew my mind.
The first was Debbie Brock, the four foot 11 inches point guard who helped Delta State win three straight women’s basketball national championships. This was back when there were no divisions. Delta State had to beat UCLA, LSU and all the biggest schools to win.
Brock told the audience how she didn’t see size as a problem. “I was lower to the ground so it was harder to steal the ball away from me.” Now that is finding the positive in a difficult situation!
Her jersey number was 22. During a game someone in the stands shouted out, “Hey 22! Did you travel here in the glove compartment.” Brock thought it was funny. My friend, that is a great attitude. Debbie Brock shows that with a great attitude you can accomplish anything.
The other inductee who blew my mind was the late Pete Brown, the first African American to win on the PGA Tour. Brown’s father, a Baptist minister, was a sharecropper. Pete’s wife Margaret accepted the honor on her late husband’s behalf.
Pete Brown picked cotton as a child until he got a better job as a caddy at the old Jackson municipal course, Livingston Park, making 55 cents a round.
Blacks were not allowed to play that course or any in the city, but at night Brown and the other caddies would sneak out and play a few holes near the woods until they were chased off.
Pete Brown taught himself how to play with just two clubs: a right hand five iron and a left handed three wood. And if that’s not enough obstacles to overcome, he was stricken with polio at age 19. He spent a year in the hospital and his weight plummeted from 176 to 100 pounds.
Brown competed in the 1950s on what was called the “Chitlin Circuit.” He captured four Negro National Opens and three North & South Championships before earning his PGA Tour card in 1963. The next year, Brown rallied to win the Waco Turner Open in Burneyville, Oklahoma.
There is a great article about Pete Brown titled “Remembering Pete Brown - The Man Who Deflected Hate and Won Many Hearts” by sports writer Bob Denney. Do yourself a favor and Google it.
I am amazed that I am just now learning about Pete Brown. This man deserves greater recognition in our state.
So there you have it. On a whim, I attend the Sports Hall of Fame ceremony only to be yet again amazed. Mississippi is like that.