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Marcus Dupree remains the most gifted football player I’ve ever seen. Jay Powell won Game 7 of a World Series, the crowning moment of a splendid career. Baseball coach Bob Braddy won 12 conference championships and 824 games. Leslie Frazier won Super Bowls as a player and a coach. He might have been the best player on the best defense in NFL history.
And then there’s the late Eugenia Conner who helped her high school basketball team win four straight state championships before earning All-Southeastern Conference four times at Ole Miss. In high school and college combined, she helped her teams win 261 games while losing 29. Simply remarkable.
That was my company when the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2016 was announced Thursday, and that’s why I felt like a banjo hitter in the middle of the powerful 1927 New York Yankees lineup. I know how great all those athletes and coaches were. I covered them all. I even played against one.
Funny story: This was 1983 and Conner was a superstar for Hall of Famer Van Chancellor’s Lady Rebels. Chancellor decided to have an exhibition game and invited a group of media to play his women. I was 31 years old and still thought of myself as somewhat the athlete. So, I dribbled into the lane and went up for a layup that never happened. Eugenia, who may or may not have been laughing when she did it, batted the ball into the stands and knocked me into the next week. The crowd for sure laughed. So did Van Chancellor, loudest of all. And I stayed out of Eugenia’s lane the rest of the game. Maybe I wasn’t an athlete, but I wasn’t stupid, either.
Now then, let’s move forward to 1998 and the annual Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Banquet. It was another stellar class: Ron Polk, Ray Perkins, L.T. Smith, Peggie Gillom, Sammy Winder and my father, Ace Cleveland. I’ll never forget that night for at least two reasons. One, they played Winder’s superhuman, 1980 dive into the end zone against Ole Miss three times and the crowd roared every time. And, two, I accepted for Ace, who had died two years before.
Anybody who knows me at all knows I can get emotional at the drop of a hat. I can’t watch Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip without the floodgates opening. You can double that when it comes to talking about my late mother and father. Can’t help it. And so I was mightily concerned that night, not about speaking before 500 people, but about turning into a blubbering fool in front of 500 people.
It was my good fortune to be seated next to Peggie Gillom at the head table. Gillom not only had been a superb basketball player at Ole Miss, but as an assistant coach she recruited Eugenia Conner to Ole Miss out of Harrison Central High. You should know that Peggie is as warm and graceful a lady as you will ever meet, probably why she was able to recruit Conner and so many other great players to Ole Miss.
You should also know that I had practiced my five-minute acceptance speech for Ace over and and over in the days leading up to the induction. Not once could I get through it without, well, blubbering.
While we ate, I told Peggie about my concerns. She kept saying, “You can do this. You’ll be fine. Your Daddy will be up there helping you.” It’s one thing to say stuff like that, another to be convincing. Peggie was convincing. I got up and did the speech, got through it without a tear. The audience laughed when they were supposed to, and Ace would have liked that. When I sat back down, Peggie squeezed my hand. I have never forgotten that.
And here’s the rest of the story: Peggie, up next, gave one of the most poignant, eloquent talks I’ve ever heard. Tears welled in her eyes as she dedicated her induction to Eugenia Conner, who had died in 1994. A softly speaking definition of grace, Peggie said Conner should have gone into the Hall of Fame before her. She said she was accepting on Eugenia’s behalf. If there was a dry eye in the house, it did not belong to me. I could not believe Peggie had been comforting me when she knew what she was about to get up and do herself.
I will never forget it. And I remembered it again Thursday when it was announced that, finally, after all these years, Eugenia Conner will take her rightful place in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.