Today we celebrate the Magnolia State’s rich tradition of literary excellence at the Mississippi Book Festival at the Mississippi State Capitol. Seems a good time to reflect on how our state’s literary and athletic excellence often have intertwined.

It has never ceased to amaze this writer how such a small, relatively poor state has for so long spawned the world’s greatest entertainers, authors and sports heroes. Many times, those latter two have meshed. What I mean is this: Many of our most remarkable writers wrote first of sports.

Willie Morris

Tonight, we will have the Willie Morris After Party at Duling Hall. Willie, my dear friend, has been gone from of us 18 years this month. And still I remember well how many times he told me, “Rickey, you know, I am really an old sports writer at heart.” Author of North Toward Home and The Courting of Marcus Dupree among other classics, Willie wrote with knowledge, humor and compassion about sports. He first wrote professionally as a 13-year-old reporter for the Yazoo Herald. And he loved to tell the story about how in his first baseball game story, he managed to quote from Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, while omitting the game’s final score. His short story – The Fumble – should be required reading for all Mississippi high school students.

Taking part today is author Curtis Wilkie, who covered wars, the White House and eight presidential elections for The Boston Globe, but, at age 12, he first covered the Summit Bulldogs for The Summit Sun. Interestingly, Curtis reported on games in which he was involved. Says he, “I probably was not a great sports writer back then, but I was most assuredly a better writer than athlete.”

Richard Ford

Jackson’s own Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, a proud Murrah High School grad, wrote sports for The Hoofbeat, the Murrah newspaper. Later, he wrote for the now defunct magazine Inside Sports, before penning some of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His breakthrough novel? Why, The Sports Writer, of course.

David Halberstam, though not a Mississippi native, did some of his first writing at the West Point Daily Leader, where he wrote sports as well as news. Much later he would tell me of his astonishment at the passion involved in those small-town, Mississippi football games. Halberstam, another Pulitzer winner, wrote famously not only of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement but also of Michael Jordan, Bill Walton, Ted Williams and Bill Belichick among other sports luminaries.

John Grisham has sold more books than Mississippi has produced world-class athletes, which is saying something. John often intersperses sports books with his best-selling legal thrillers. (If you haven’t read Calico Joe or Bleachers, treat yourself.) Grisham will tell you he became first a lawyer and then an author only because he wasn’t capable of reaching his real goal, which was to be a Major League baseball player. Boo Ferriss famously cut Grisham from his loaded Delta State baseball team when John could not hit a curve ball and told him, “John, I think you better get with the books.” Grisham did.

Just goes to show, Boo always knows best.

Gov. William Winter Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Mention of the late, great Boo Ferriss brings to mind the fact when when Ferriss walked off the mound after his last game at Mississippi State and before his meteoric Boston Red Sox career, the sports writer who interviewed him was none other than William Winter, future governor and an author in his own right. Said the man widely hailed as the most progressive governor in Mississippi history, “All I ever really wanted to be growing up was a sports writer.”

Curtis Wilkie Credit: Fred Anklam Jr., Mississippi Today

We could go on and on, but you get the idea. In Mississippi, superb writers often honed their craft writing about sports. Wilkie, one of the most renowned reporters in 20th century U.S. journalism, was asked if this is a coincidence. He does not believe that it is.

“In sports what you’re covering is essentially conflict and conflict is the essential ingredient in any good book whether it’s fiction or non-fiction,” Wilkie said. “Sports is existential in that it’s happening at the moment. The outcome is not known. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen. As a writer, that’s especially appealing and, I think, good training.”

Sounds about right to me.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.