by Jason Pugh
Twelve people does not a village make, but plenty of villages made the 12 inductees in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2023.
Family members. Teammates. Friends. An unrequited crush.
They all proved to be driving forces behind a dozen athletes, coaches and journalists who enjoyed their moment in the state’s sporting limelight during Saturday night’s induction ceremony inside the Natchitoches Events Center.
“I don’t believe anyone is self-made,” said Alana Beard, a four-time state champion at Southwood High School who went on to a Wade Trophy-winning college career at Duke and became a two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. “Ron (Washington) spoke about it earlier. Wendell (Davis) spoke about it earlier. It’s about the people who made a difference for you along the way.”
As much as Saturday’s ceremony was a conclusion to a three-day period where the 10 competitive ballot inductees and the two Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism Award winners were honored for their accomplishments, it was a chance for them to offer “thank yous” to those who helped them reach this point.
Take Beard, whose family helped foster a love for basketball in the left-hander who helped build Southwood’s state championship machine under coach Steve McDowell.
“We’d find a park on the weekends as a family and go play one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three,” Beard said. “I quickly realized when I was beating my brothers, his friends, my uncles, that I was pretty good. They can admit that now.”
Like many in Saturday’s induction class, Beard found great success both inside and outside of Louisiana.
Beard’s talent left an impression on Duke where her three-time ACC Player of the Year career helped lead the Blue Devils to a pair of Final Fours and their most successful era of women’s basketball.
“Alana’s legacy is one of excellence,” said Gail Goestenkors, who coached Beard at Duke. “It’s one of the lifting up of Duke women’s basketball and the excellence on the court, in the classroom, in the community and the giving back. It’s a legacy of joy, of passion. It’s a love of the game, a love of people and the determination to be great.”
As usual, greatness was synonymous with another class of Louisiana’s great athletes as well as those who told their stories.
Like Beard, one of the 2023 Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism winners, Bruce Brown, took inspiration from his parents to forge a five-decade career at The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette.
“You have to go back to the gifts that are given to you,” Brown said. “My father had a great love of athletics. He was a four-sport standout in Champaign, Illinois. My mother was very big into the English language. I got my love of language from them. Once you start, you need a partner in crime. My first wife, Barbara, provided that for me. I didn’t know how to do a baseball scorebook before dating her. She rounded me into form.”
Brown didn’t need anyone to round him into form when it came to deadline pressure.
“I was amazed at how much he can do in such a short time,” said Dan McDonald, a DSA winner who worked with Brown at The Advertiser after a Hall of Famer career as a sports information director at then-Southwestern Louisiana. “There was nobody around who could turn around a gamer, a sidebar and a notebook and have it all out an hour after the final whistle or final horn.”
Brown’s lengthy career brought him a connection with another inductee, 86-year-old weightlifting champion Walter Imahara.
Imahara, a national champion at then-Southwestern Louisiana Institute, helped lead the then-Bulldogs to a team championship, setting an example for his teammates.
“It’s you against gravity – you against a bar,” said Joseph Murry, Imahara’s teammate at then-SLI. “When you watched him lift, you knew it was special. He showed the younger guys there was a professional side to our sport. He fought through everything he went through because he was a good American.”
The son of Japanese-Americans who spent more than three years in a World War II internment camp, Imahara relied on the lessons imparted by his parents to build a decorated career that included 26 national championships in the master’s weightlifting division.
Despite that early part of his childhood, Imahara and his family never held a grudge.
“I was four years old on Dec. 7, 1941,” Imahara said of the day the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, igniting the United States’ involvement in World War II. “We knew what happened. My parents took it in stride. They lost their 60-acre farm, their livelihood, their dignity, their country. They were born in America and told the government, but it didn’t matter.
“We believed in America. Four boys, we joined the military. Two became officers. Forty-five years later, we got an apology. That’s all we wanted – an apology.”
Lori Lyons, the second DSA honoree, probably deserved an apology from the journalism establishment in the 1980s.
Starting her career as an agate clerk, Lyons worked her way up the organizational ladder to become a two-time state Prep Writer of the Year, cementing her accomplishments in a path that began, somewhat kiddingly, when an unreturned crush led her to another bit of passion.
“I had a crush on the high school quarterback when I got to Terrebonne (High School),” Lyons said. “He didn’t know I was alive. His friends said talk to him about football, because that’s all he talks about. So I bought a book – the Great American Sports Book – so I could learn about football. I never did talk to the guy, but I learned about sports.”
Lyons used that knowledge and her personality to carve a niche and become “the Times-Picayune Lady” at numerous sporting events throughout the River Parishes.
“Lori was getting the access not because she was a woman but because she was one heck of a reporter,” said LSWA President Raymond Partsch III. “She did it with class and humor. If you can make people laugh, they will open up. Lori knew that. You don’t get the access she did – you don’t write the stories she wrote – if you’re not just good at your job but great at your job.”
Lyons heard the term “trailblazer” throughout the three days in Natchitoches, but she took her time on stage Saturday to shine a light on a colleague who helped guide her.
“Robin Fambrough is the trailblazer,” Lyons said of the Baton Rouge Advocate legend. “She led with a chainsaw, and I came in with a machete and cleaned it up. I followed her path, and she led me the right way. She did it first. I did it second.”
While Lyons “did it second,” Eli Manning made history as the third member of the first family of Louisiana football to reach the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
A two-time Super Bowl MVP who holds or shares 45 school records at Ole Miss, Manning joined his father, Archie (inducted in 1988), and his older brother, Peyton (inducted in 2019), in the state’s sports shrine.
Eli never missed a game at any level because of injury – a fact for which his two older brothers may be due some credit.
“Both of them take full credit for that because of the mental and physical torture they put me through,” said Eli, flashing the Manning family charm. “Coop picked on Peyton, and he felt he should pass that down to me. He’d pin me down and put his knees on my arms and start hitting my chest, telling me to name the 28 NFL teams. I basically got smart and learned all the teams by conference and by division, so then he’d start with the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac 10.
“He’d always say, ‘If you tell mom or dad what I did, I’ll make it worse next time.’ That was always my thought with the trainers. If I told them what happened, the defense would make it worse the next time. I wasn’t allowed to be hurt.”
Instead, Eli took that out on opposing defenses, leading the Giants to a pair of Super Bowl titles while forming his own identity in the shadow of his father, a Saints legend, and older brother, who rewrote the NFL passing record book.
“After the Super Bowl, Eli’s on the podium, and in a lot of ways, you think of how much pressure that took of this young man,” said Manning’s former teammate Michael Strahan. “He had a name that is synonymous with this league. After that, he was no longer Archie’s son. He was no longer Peyton’s younger brother. He was his own man. He was Eli Manning.”
Much like Eli Manning, Paul Mainieri made his mark in the family business – college baseball coaching.
There was little doubt Mainieri was going to follow in the footsteps of his father, Demie, an American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach at Miami-Dade North Community College. It wasn’t until Maineri showed up at the University of New Orleans that he found confirmation he had chosen the correct route.
“I was very fortunate to grow up the son of a legendary junior college coach,” said Mainieri, who won 641 games and the 2009 national championship as LSU’s head coach. “As a older athlete – high school, college – you hope you run across someone in your life who can mentor you in baseball and in life lessons. I needed someone to mentor me, and by the grace of God, I met a man by the name of Ron Maestri at the University of New Orleans. That was the greatest experience a prospective coach could have.”
Backed by his father, Maestri and, later in his career, Tommy Lasorda – three great Italian-Americans in Mainieri’s words – the heady ballplayer turned out to have a knack for coaching.
Building programs at Air Force and Notre Dame put him on the radar of LSU coach-turned-athletic director Skip Bertman, who brought Mainieri to Baton Rouge after a stellar run as Notre Dame’s coach that included a berth in the 2002 College World Series.
“His dad and I were good friends,” Bertman said. “I knew he would be a second-generation coach, and he was already coaching successfully. The more and more I researched and found out, I thought, ‘This is our guy.’ Paul kept the tradition of LSU going.”
While Bertman sold Mainieri on being the guy to keep that tradition going, it was Bertman’s sales pitch to a right-handed pitcher from Louisville, Kentucky, that played a role in LSU landing its first CWS title in 1991.
It also was a life-altering moment for the pitcher, who became a school-record 17-game winner before pitching 14 years in Major League Baseball.
“My life took off when I got here,” Paul Byrd said. “I got here because Skip gave me the greatest speech on why I should be here. He told me he needed me. There was no one else on the recruiting trip. He said, ‘My program’s going to fall apart if you don’t come here.’ It wasn’t true, but the guy was good.”
Byrd turned out to be pretty good as well.
Never one to light up a radar gun, Byrd won 31 games at LSU and struck out 319 hitters before becoming an All-Star and a standout playoff performer in the big leagues.
“He was without a doubt one of the smarter young men I’ve ever coached,” Bertman said. “On the mound, he’d always come up with a way to get it done. He’s the winningest pitcher in LSU history with 17 wins in one season. He’s a superstar.”
While at LSU, Byrd found a profession, his wife and a calling.
“Skip had a team chaplain, Wayne Waddell, who drove six hours to be with us tonight,” Byrd said. “He taught me that I was more than a baseball player. This couldn’t be my life. It was just something I did. I threw a ball past a guy with a stick. I fought against that, but I learned in the grand scheme of things, he was right. There’s more to life.”
Approximately 10 miles from the LSU campus – and a couple of decades after Byrd’s epiphany – Parkview Baptist baseball coach M.L. Woodruff was collecting state baseball titles the way Byrd picked up wins at LSU.
Woodruff led Parkview to 11 state titles in a 23-year span, compiling a remarkable 22-0 record in state semifinal and championship games. Still, there had to be more, right?
“I was called into the ministry at 54 years of age,” Woodruff said. “I was on the floor of my office crying out to God, ‘What else is there to do besides winning all these championships?’ I felt his spirit to be called into a sports ministry.”
Woodruff won 603 games at a 79 percent clip in 30 years of high school baseball coaching, but he left an impact on countless young men long before venturing into his second career as a sports minister.
“Game days were the days we had fun,” said Alex Byo, who played for Woodruff at Parkview. “The preparation was always the most strenuous time for us. We showed up for the games and it was easy. Coach is much more than the 11 state championships and his winning percentage. He’s a man of integrity and character. He taught us the game of life through baseball.”
While Byo and his teammates looked to impress their coach, Matt Forte left a similar impact on an opposing coach during his days at Slidell High School.
Forte terrorized Fontainebleau High School when Slidell faced them three times in one season.
“Matt had about 800 yards total offense in those three games,” said Larry Favre, then Fontainebleau’s coach. “I always told Matt when it was time to be recruited, ‘Just put those Fontainebleau tapes in, and you’ll get your scholarship.’”
Soon after, college defenses felt the same way Favre did.
Forte’s senior season at Tulane featured 2,127 rushing yards and led to a second-round selection by Chicago in the NFL Draft. Forte racked up more than 14,000 all-purpose yards and was a two-time Pro Bowler for the Bears.
In addition to injuries, Forte’s Tulane career was deeply impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Instead of sulking, Forte turned that adversity into fuel for his fire.
“You look at it for what it was,” he said. “It was a tough time for a lot of people who were affected. There were a lot of challenges in front of us. It allowed me to grow in character and not complain when things don’t go your way. Most of the time things aren’t going to go your way. You have to buckle down and be up for the challenge.
“It taught me at 19 years old to take advantage of the situation that’s in front of you. It may be adverse, but you can make a positive out of it.”
The son of a former Tulane defensive lineman, Forte had another challenge when he arrived in Chicago – the weather. Forte handled it thanks in part to the example set by his mother.
“My parents made it to every game of my rookie year,” Forte said. “There was one in December against the Green Bay Packers where it was zero at kickoff, and it got down to negative-10 during the game. My mom is super tough – that’s where I get my toughness from. She stayed outside the whole time while my dad went back and forth in and out of the family room.”
Though Walter and Wendell Davis share a last name and an alma mater (LSU), they are not related. Their stories, however, share similarities.
A native of Leonville (population 869), Walter Davis took his small hometown on a global journey.
A two-time Olympian in the horizontal jumps, Davis was a six-time All-American at LSU before embarking on a jet-setting pro career that took home around the world. As evident by the Cajun accent he carries to this day, Davis did not change no matter where he competed.
“It comes from my parents,” he said. “They always taught me to act like you’ve been somewhere before. I don’t get too high. I don’t get too low. I stay even keeled.”
That attitude and personality matches with the one he showed at Beau Chene High School where Kenneth Winfrey had to fight to get Davis away from basketball and into track and field where his raw jumping ability was evident.
“Walter came to Beau Chene as a basketball player and we had to work on his technique, but he could jump,” Winfrey said. “I think it’s wonderful for a country boy to go to the Olympics. He’s twice an indoor world champion. He’s an outdoor champion. He’s met the President, and he’s still humble.
“He’s never changed. He’s still gonna smile. He’s still signing autographs and shaking hands, but he won’t tell you anything about himself.”
Much like his non-relative, Wendell Davis let his numbers do the talking – and they speak loudly especially through the prism of time.
Long before spread offenses and the Air Raid made college football a pass-happy game, Davis was establishing pass-catching numbers that would fall right in line with today’s stars.
“He’s really the forefather of receivers in this conference,” said Davis’ LSU quarterback Tommy Hodson, himself a Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer. “He was the first guy to put up those numbers. His routes were so good. He created separation and was easy to throw to because he was always open. I’m happy the kids and people in the state get to relive his career. It’s well deserved.”
Davis was named the 1987 SEC Player of the Year and worked daily with Hodson to create the chemistry that led to that award, but it was in Shreveport where his athletic talents were groomed even before he was turning heads at Fair Park High School.
“I’m a neighborhood kid,” Davis said. “We played football, baseball. We shared equipment. We found equipment. We shared that. Team was very important to us. That’s how I learned to play sports.”
While Davis found his skills among his neighborhood friends, it took Ron Washington leaving his downtown New Orleans neighborhood to find enough players to help him hone the talent that has led to a 53-year (and counting) professional baseball career.
“We would show up to play a game and only five or six guys would be there,” he said. “I left from downtown and went Uptown. I went to Gilbert Park. They said I was a traitor. I didn’t care. I was tired of showing up and forfeiting. I knew if I went Uptown, we would play every day. They helped me get exposure and here I am.”
Called an example for New Orleans youth, Washington credited his infield coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chico Fernandez, for helping him hone not only his fielding skills but his teaching skill-set.
That attention to detail and success working with infielders led Washington to become the manager of the Texas Rangers following the 2006 season. Four years later, the Rangers won the first of two straight American League pennants.
“He’s as positive a guy that you’ve ever seen,” Maestri said. “I would have loved to have had the opportunity to play for a guy like that. He has as much enthusiasm working with a 7- or 8-year-old as he does working with (Atlanta Braves prospect) Vaughn Grissom. They look forward to it. They know it will make a difference in what they’ll do in the big leagues.”
The ever-positive Washington finally broke through and won that elusive World Series title as Atlanta’s third base coach in 2021. For much of the weekend, Washington’s exquisite World Series ring was as ubiquitous as his ever-present smile – and for good reason.
“This represents 52 years of grinding,” Washington said. “Fifty-two years of not ever giving up. Fifty-two years of dedication, commitment, attitude, passion and more than anything else, belief.”
Oh, and people that never left his side.
“I realized I made a difference in a lot of people’s lives and there have been a lot of people along the way who made a difference in Ron Washington’s life,” he said. “I’m blessed and just happy to be alive.”
LEAD PHOTO: (Front row L to R) Lori Lyons, Paul Mainieri, Walter Imahara, Bruce Brown, M.L. Woodruff. (Back row L to R) Alana Beard, Matt Forte, Wendell Davis, Eli Manning, Walter Davis, Ron Washington and Paul Byrd – the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2023. Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services