Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 2:52 PM
NATCHITOCHES — In addition to being the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, this has always been perhaps the state’s most underrated spot, with a lot more to do than a town this size should even attempt to pull off.
There’s way too many eating options for this few people, way more nightlife than you’d expect while meandering around the quaint town in the daytime.
Now there’s even more.
The annual induction of a year’s Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction class has always been embraced as one of the big weekends in this town. It’s always rolled out the red carpet for the latest batch of the state’s sports legends.
This year is no different, but even with Shaquille O’Neal in town — Shaquitoches, he called it —the class is overshadowed by a shiny new building.
The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame finally has a home to call its own, and it has been the star of the show this weekend.
A lot of people can’t believe it’s finally there.
But just beyond the eateries and antique stores on the chock-a-brick Front Street, it rather stands out.
It’s a modernistic copper building amid those downtown Natchitoches relics of a simpler age along the tranquil Cane River.
If I have a complaint with it, it’s that it should blend in more with the surrounding historic architecture.
But it would be hard not to stick out.
It’s also huge — 27,500 square feet — befitting the state’s long obsession with sports.
So you walk through a futuristic entrance and promptly drift back in time to a long-ago day, for instance, when boxing was a college varsity sport, with LSU boxing trunks and robes to prove it.
For that matter, I would defy any golfer and most football players to lift the huge trophy — a 4-foot silver replica of the state capitol —that once recognized the winner of the Louisiana Amateur golf tournament.
Not surprisingly, though, football is front and center through most of the museum, just as it has dominated the state’s sports scene, with a wide array of helmets and jerseys once worn by familiar names like Tank Younger, Tommy Mason and Billy Cannon.
McNeese basketball legend Ralph Ward’s old letterman’s jacket is on display. Joe Dumars’ is around, too.
Many of the old baseball jerseys, seemingly a quarter-inch of wool, worn by the likes of Bill Dickey and Mel Ott, are worth the modest price of admission alone.
But, to me, the interesting stuff is the minutiae, such as a yellowed and parched 1934 standard NFL contract, hand-typed with spaces for the details to be handwritten in now fading ink, such as the salary of “$150 per game” and a short list of conditions.
And every famous coach in the state must have saved their coaching whistles just for this moment.
There’s the high-tech, too, a database of all the Hall of Fame members and a timeline tracing all the state’s memorable moments.
And video almost everywhere, projecting on the walls as you walk through.
If Tom Dempsey isn’t kicking his 63-yard field goal for the Saints, Warren Morris is belting his unlikely national championship home run for LSU or Willis Reed is still limping gamely through Game 7 for the Knicks or David Toms is winning the PGA.
And, of course, Ole Miss still can’t tackle Cannon during his famous punt return.
Eddie Robinson, apparently, was once a very young coach at Grambling, and there are pictures to prove it.
Pete Maravich’s floppy socks are here, of course, but also a yellowed scrapbook that was a labor of love for Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne when he was a youngster following The Pistol.
It’s an evolving show with plenty to see.
This is just the start. With a permanent spot finally in place to display the state’s sports history, more artifacts will come in.
There’s an area that will change seasonally.
Just off the entrance is a shrine to the current year’s inductees.
It’s time well spent.
It didn’t just happen.
For years and years it looked like it would never happen.
There were rumors of a home, false-starts and near-misses. But there would be changes in the state administration, with changes in priorities for the state museum system.
Or Katrina and Rita would happen.
This, that and the other.
Bottom line: the 27,500-square foot museum has been on and more often off the drawing board for roughly 50 years.
Which would mean Doug Ireland has been on the case since he was a toddler.
Well, not quite. It only seems like it.
Ireland, whose day job is sports information director at Northwestern State, took over as executive director of the Hall in 1992 from Jerry Pierce.
At the time the idea of getting a permanent home for the displays, which had long outgrown the few cubicles set aside over at Northwestern State’s Prather Coliseum, was starting to get legs.
But it turns out these things move at a snail’s pace.
The Hall of Fame was first proposed at a meeting of sports writers in Lake Charles in 1950. It was 1959 before a class was inducted and, not long after, dreams of a permanent home under the leadership of Pierce, who’s now vice president of external affairs at Northwestern.
Some ideas were ludicrous. Others were pipe dreams.
Ireland kept plugging away, drumming up support, learning who to cajole depending on what state administration was in power, bobbing and weaving through red tape like some of the determined boxers on display in the finished product.
Even after $27 million in funding was secured and the shovels hit the ground, there were the usual construction delays.
A lot of people have worked very hard to get the state’s finest athletes the home they deserve.
But if this new building is a shrine to the sports’ stars, it’s also a testament to Ireland’s dogged determination.
And it’s finally there.
Ireland was quoted as saying his favorite part of the new museum is the front door.
“Because it’s now open,” he said.
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Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org