This column first ran at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame site.
Fifty years ago next month, I covered my first football game for the Hattiesburg American. Brooklyn, now Forrest County AHS, played Lucedale, now George County. Some days I can’t remember my phone number, but I can remember that score: Lucedale 12, Brooklyn 0.
And I vividly remember the circumstances. At 13, I had no driver’s license, no car. So my daddy drove me down to Lucedale and walked the sidelines with me, helping me keep the stats. He listened while I timidly interviewed the coaches afterward. He drove me back to Hattiesburg and we talked about the game.
He left me in the kitchen with that old Underwood manual typewriter on the kitchen table, as I rolled a clean sheet of bleached white typing paper into the cylinder. When Daddy returned 30 to 45 minutes later, that paper was still as white as could be other than the dateline: “LUCEDALE —.”
“That’s not much of a start,” said he. “What in the hell have you been doing?”
And I told him I couldn’t get started. I knew what happened in the game. I had the statistics. I had the quotes. I just didn’t know how to start.
Said my daddy, who had been a sports writer and a really good one, “Well, if I were you, I would just write it the way I would tell it and then just go back over it and fix it up.”
So that’s what I did. And that’s what I have mostly have been doing for 50 years: Writing it the way I would tell it, getting the most important news up at the top and then transitioning along until the story is, hopefully, complete.
I went to work full-time at the American at age 17 and worked my way through college. Except for one year in Monroe, La., I have spent all my nearly 64 years in Mississippi. For 47 of those years, I was a full-time sports writer, a sports editor and a sports columnist. I loved it. I never felt like I was going to work.
In April of 2012, a few months after the death of my dear friend Michael Rubenstein, I took the job of executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. My time there has been splendid. The neatest part: For four years and four months, I have helped preserve the heroics of Mississippi’s sports legends – many of whom I have covered all my life – for this and future generations.
Seems hard to believe, but the incomparable Walter Payton has been gone from us now for nearly 17 years. That means seniors in high school now were babies when Walter passed. They never saw him run like nobody has run before or since. They don’t know of his beginnings. They don’t know of the unfathomable work ethic that made a poor kid from the red dirt of Columbia into one of football’s all-time heroes.
But those high school seniors and future generations can come to the museum in busloads and learn all that and so much more. They can learn, they can marvel, and they can be inspired.
I am proud of what we achieved. By “we,” I mean a much-involved board of directors and one of the hardest working staffs imaginable. Margaret Ferriss White, now retired, is Boo’s daugher. Lulu Maness is Chunkin’ Charlie’s goddaughter. Andrea Patterson was raised on Mississippi sports. Cully Turner played and refereed before becoming our building supervisor. They believe in the mission and love the place and it shows.
We have achieved much. If you haven’t visited lately, you should and see all the additions and improvements. Similar museums have closed or reduced hours across this country. Ours is better than ever. Bill Blackwell, my successor as executive director, was on the original board of directors. The museum is in good hands.
As announced yesterday, I am leaving the MSHOF to go to work at Mississippi Today, where I will write again on a nearly daily basis, mostly writing stories the way I would tell them. I want to end my career the way I began it, as a full-time sports writer. I am a sports writer to my marrow.
I believe strongly in Mississippi Today’s nonpartisan, not-for-profit mission and urge you to go to Mississippitoday.org and read about it, bookmark it. There are good people behind it, people who want to make Mississippi a better place.
Sports journalism was not really part of the original mission of Mississippi Today, but the folks there realize that sports are an important, indelible part of Mississippi culture. Just look at what is happening in the Olympics, the contributions Mississippians are making. I can’t wait to tell and comment on those kinds of stories on an almost daily basis.
But let me make this clear: The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum will have no more avid, devoted advocate than this writer. My paycheck will no longer come from the Hall of Fame, but my heart will never leave it.
Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org