Thursday, June 30, 2011

Walking with the legends made my feet hurt

We normally think of professional athletes as being unflappable.

They always appear to be so calm, cool, and collected as they do what they do on the playing field or on TV. We can't feel their sweaty palms or their racing hearts. And the TV cameras never show them throwing up, so we don't imagine that they might actually be uncomfortable out there. Or nervous. Or downright scared to death.

And maybe they aren't when they're in their comfort zone, where they know what they're doing because they've been doing it all of their lives.

But put them on a stage, under a whole bunch of hot TV lights, in front of 600 strangers, their mom, their dad, their wife and children and their high school coach, then give them three minutes to deliver a speech and they turn to jelly. Just like the rest of us.

Mortal.

I got to witness this transformation up close Saturday night at the annual Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. In fact,  I got a front row seat. And it was one of the highlights of my life.

I've been attending this event for more than 25 years, sitting in the audience with my friends and peers, the sports writers of the state of Louisiana. Together we huddle in the dark, drink southern sweet tea, eat our dessert first and get the frissons when the former and current inductees make their way across the stage in the "Walk of Legends."

Then we sit through endless speech after endless speech. We laugh at the good jokes, groan at the bad ones and offer our completely unsolicited critiques of the gratitudes given by the men and women we have elected for enshrinement. One colleague even keeps track of how much time they take.

But this year (and next) I am the president of the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. The Chief Chick. And among the perks are, I'll get to buy a fancy new dress, a new pair of shoes. and sit up on a stage handing out little crystal carvings of the state of Louisiana to some of the greatest athletes who have ever played in the state.

This year it was former New Orleans Saints players Buford Jordan, Vaughan Johnson and Morten Andersen, former major league baseball player Todd Walker; prolific softball pitcher Kyla Hall Holas (now a college coach); former NBA player Slick Watts , Louisiana high school coaching legend Don Shows, and the grandson of the late T.P. "Skipper" Heard, the LSU athletic director who decided the Tigers should play football on Saturdays under the lights.

But it also meant that I was separated from my friends and my family for the evening. While they ate their filet mignon and strawberry cheesecake and made repeated trips to the bar for free beer and $2 soft drinks (WTH?), I was perched on the edge of a rented wing back chair under 10,000 watts of hot TV lights in a long-sleeved dress and too tight shoes, worrying about whether or not I was flashing too much cleavage.


Me, at my spot on the stage


I had gotten to eat only half of my dessert before I was called to the stage to deliver my own little speech  in which I thanked a long list of state politicians for their help and support in getting our actual Hall of Fame halls built. The two-story, 27,500 square foot building on historic Front Street in downtown Natchitoches, Louisiana, is scheduled for completion next fall (after my reign is over, natch).

I returned to my seat at the the table with my oh-so-supportive husband and stepdaughter and forced-to-be-there 10-year-old daughter, to wolf down the rest of my dinner. After a quick trip to the potty, I returned to the stage where it was my privilege to greet the inductees and award winners one by one.

 And I've got to tell you, for all their fame, all their fortune and all their years in the spotlight, all those big, tough athletes became mere mortals at that moment.

Maybe it was the vision of me in my striking blue dress and too-tight shoes. Or the 10,000 watt lights, or the 600 spectators, or the cheesecake.  But all these big, tough, macho athletes turned to mush in my presence. They sweat. They fidgeted. They forgot all about the X they were told to stand on to take a photo with me and their little crystal boot states. Then nearly every one of them almost dropped the darned thing. After just the first one I started to hold on to it an extra second just to be sure. But most of them handed it right back to me.

"Hold it for me," they pleaded as they made their way to the podium to give their 3-minute speech.

Yeah, their speech. The one they’ve written, rewritten and maybe practiced in the bathroom mirror a dozen times. Or not. Most of them went overtime.

Oh, not Kyla, who came up to the stage calm and cool with her speech all written out on her iPad.

But then Todd forgot his notes on the table next to me. Buford dropped the stopwatch he brought with him to make sure he didn’t go over his allotted three minutes. And Vaughan forgot to thank his wife. (He returned to the stage later to give her a really big shout out).

And only one -- my dear friend Larry Hymel, who was receiving the Distinguished Service Award for his years as a Sports Information Director at a local college -- gave me one. A shout out, that is. His school's mascot is, appropriately enough, the Lions. And he remarked that he was pleased as punch to get a boot for the Lions from the Lyons. (Get it?)

But for the rest of the audience, the highlight of the night was the introduction of former Saints kicker Morten Andersen by former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert. The boy from Cut Off, Louisiana, handed off to the boy from Copenhagen, Denmark, and brought down the house doing it.

In his 15-minute “introduction” Hebert ranted about the NFL lockout, the greed of the owners, the virtues of Vaughan Johnson and every other subject, before finally getting around to talking about his friend, Morten Andersen --  including a creative description of what happened to Morten's lower digestive system when he lined up for those kicks.

At his front row table with his wife and sons -- one of which was celebrating his seventh birthday --  Morten merely laughed along with all of us at Hebert's jokes and  one-liners, waiting patiently for his buddy to finally get around to him. And he finally did.

Bigger than life, Morten Andersen, the final inductee of the evening, made his way to the stage. Morten Anderson, whom nearly every woman in New Orleans crushed on back in the 1980s (yes, including me and I even told him so). Morten Andersen, who gave us all heart palpitations when he kicked those game-winning field goals, then broke our hearts when he went to play for the Dirty Birds of Atlanta.

"Thank you, Bobby, for your concise Cliff's Notes of Vaughan Johnson's career, thank you for your comments on the lockout situation, the viewership of the NFL game and anything else but me. Thank you very much," Morten said. "When I asked him to do this, I knew it was going to be bad."

He went on to ask the audience of 600 people if they wouldn't mind singing "Happy Birthday" to his little boy before delivering his own heart-felt speech about achieving the American dream.

"Only in America," The Great Dane said, more than once.

Only in America can a boy from Denmark become an American football hero after a 25-year career.

And only in America can a girl from Houma, Louisiana, move to New Orleans, become a sports writer for a major metropolitan daily, join a 50-year-old organization of crusty old sports writers (nearly every one of them male), be accepted by them, ascend to their presidency, be moved from the sports beat to the crime beat a month later and then, one year later, sit on a stage (for three hours) and hand out little crystal boots to a bunch of sports legends. And take pictures.


Vaughan Johnson and The Prez,
Buford Jordan and The Prez
The Prez with Bobby Hebert

The Great Dane, Morten Anderson, with The Prez
And when it was over, their hands were dry, their pulses were back to normal, the minions bowed at their feet and the crystal boot states were handed off to their wives (or husband) for safekeeping.

And I couldn't wait to take off my shoes.

**Here's a little video highlight reel. Yes, I'm in it... 



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