Gov. William Winter, at 93, still walks with a spring in his step. His handshake is firm and his mind is as sharp and clear as a cloudless, blue-skied spring morning in his beloved Mississippi.
His knowledge of this state’s political and social history is vast, of course, but Winter’s friends know that he probably knows as much about the state’s sports history as any living human.
“William is like an encyclopedia,” says Archie Manning. “Every time I’m around him, I am amazed. He loves sports. He has been involved, in some way, his entire life. I really cherish the time I get to spend with him, such a great man and great leader.”
On Saturday night, July 30, Winter will receive the Rube Award for his lifetime contributions to Mississippi sports at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum’s annual induction banquet. The award will be given for the fifth time in honor of the late Michael Rubenstein, the long-time Jackson sportscaster and executive director of the MSHOF.
For a period of nearly two decades in the 1960s and 1970s, Winter chaired the selection process for the state’s sports hall of fame and also usually emceed the induction banquet. As an undergraduate at Ole Miss, Winter served as the sports editor of the school’s student newspaper.
Little known fact: Our state’s 58th governor grew up wanting to be a sports writer.
Winter was raised outside Grenada, reading Walter Stewart’s sports columns and the Major League box scores in The Commercial Appeal of Memphis.
“I really wanted to be Walter Stewart,” Winter said. “He was my model.”
True story: Two years ago when Ole Miss and Mississippi State were winning big and both ranked in the top three in the nation, a national publication asked if I would write a comprehensive history of the two schools’ rivalry in advance of the Egg Bowl. The first thing I did was call Gov. Winter. The truth is he could have written the piece himself, from memory, with no need for research or Google.
I asked Gov. Winter about the 1941 Egg Bowl, still the only one ever played with the SEC Championship hanging in the balance. If State won, State won the SEC Championship. If Ole Miss won, Ole Miss won the SEC Championship.
Winter, who covered the game as a student journalist, remembered the game, the weather, the score and all the meaningful plays, including State’s winning touchdown and an apparent Ole Miss touchdown that was called back when officials ruled the Rebel runner had stepped out of bounds. It had been 72 years.
I told Gov. Winter his memory amazed me. Said he, “Well, you have to remember it was the most important thing in my life at the time.”
Times were so different then. Winter did not own a car, so he often hitchhiked to the games he covered for The Mississippian.
“I hitchhiked all over the South to cover games. It was mostly Ole Miss games but I remember hitchhiking to Tuscaloosa to watch State play Alabama,” Winter said.
He remembers catching a ride on a cottonseed truck to Memphis in 1942 for an Ole Miss-Georgia game, featuring all-stars Charlie Conerly and Frank Sinkwich.
“There was a group of us that got on that truck on Highway 6,” Winter recalled. “When we got to Memphis, we couldn’t get all the cotton lint off our clothes.”
Winter, of course, remembers the score. Georgia, 38-13.
In 1942, Winter covered Boo Ferriss’s last pitching performance at Mississippi State, a victory over Ole Miss in Oxford. Seventy-four years later, Winter rode with this writer to the C Spire Ferriss Trophy ceremonies in Cleveland and recalled that afternoon so long ago.
“I was in awe of Boo Ferriss back then; I was sure he would be a Major League star,” Winter said. “I was an Ole Miss man but a Boo Ferriss fan. I think I probably called him Mr. Ferriss when I interviewed him.”
Can you imagine? Mr. Ferriss was 20. The future Gov. Winter, 19. Oh, but that we had a tape recording of that interview …
The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s annual Induction Weekend is next weekend, highlighted by the Induction Banquet on Saturday night, July 30. The six new inductees include: College Football Hall of Famers Sean Brewer and Wesley Walls, football coach Jackie Sherill, Alcorn and NBA standout Larry Smith, Southern Miss women’s basketball coach Kay James, and Southern Miss football legend Willie Heidelburg (posthumously). Tickets are available at msfame.com or by calling 601 982-8264.
Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org.