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State’s athletic history will finally have a home

NATCHITOCHES – Harold Porter expressed the feelings of most people that were on hand Thursday, and all he did was give an invocation.

Porter, the former All-American sprinter at then-USL and a 1997 inductee into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, opened Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremonies for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Museum with a prayer that hit home for most of the attendees and guests.

"We want to give thanks for the first miracle, that of Jesus Christ," Porter said. "The second miracle has to be this building."

The soon-to-be-building had its first landmark moment Thursday when Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu joined other dignitaries, current Hall of Famers and members of the sponsoring Louisiana Sports Writers Association in turning the symbolic first shovels of dirt on the site of the proposed $18.3 million facility.

Funding for construction of the estimated 27,500-square-foot Hall of Fame Museum was approved by the state bond commission last fall after passing through the Legislature. That approval figures to end the search for a permanent home for the Hall, which has been honoring the state’s premier athletes and sports figures for half a century.

"There’s nothing that has been successful in Louisiana that hasn’t had involvement with several generations," Landrieu said. "We know that none of this would have happened without the hard work of a lot of people over many, many years."

The Louisiana Sports Writers Association began Hall of Fame selections in 1958, but the closest the Hall has had to a permanent home was a large trophy case located in Northwestern State’s Prather Coliseum. Now, planning by the architecture firm of Trahan and Associates of Baton Rouge is underway and bids for construction are anticipated by the end of the year.

Several LSWA members were on hand for the groundbreaking, but most of the attention went to 11 current Hall of Fame members who attended activities at the one-acre site in the Natchitoches Historic District.

"We need to have a hurrah for those who started the Hall of Fame," said 1978 inductee Charlie Hennigan, who played collegiately at NSU’s Demon Stadium only about two miles from the museum site. "They stuck with it for us. This is very personal for me, and I assure you I speak for every person in this Hall of Fame that I am going to be proud of what we have."

A total of 253 athletes and sports figures have been honored with induction over the past 50 years, and eight more – basketball great Karl Malone, football Pro Bowlers Leonard Marshall and Aeneas Williams, baseball standout Darryl Hamilton, former state high school commissioner Tommy Henry, former USA Olympic weightlifting coach Gayle Hatch, prep girls basketball coach Jelly Piggott, and women’s golf pioneer Barbara Fay White Boddie – will be enshrined in ceremonies this June.

"I honestly never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d see this," Porter said. "For this state, after what we’ve been through with the storms and the floods, I didn’t know if something like this still happened here. But these people pushed it through and the people of Natchitoches are well deserving. They stuck with it and they stuck with us."

Porter was referring to key state government figures that helped pave the way to Legislative approval in last year’s session. In addition to Landrieu, who oversees the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, Rep. Taylor Townsend of Natchitoches, Natchitoches mayor Wayne McCullen and NSU president Randall Webb spoke at Thursday’s groundbreaking.

"If there’s anyone who deserves this, it’s these athletes," said Townsend, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a key figure in the project’s approval. "One area that Louisiana shines is in athletics. These men and women are dedicated and tireless in their efforts, and they then come back and contribute in their communities."

"All 144 members of the Legislature strive to get things done for their areas," Landrieu said, "but certain projects have great symbolism for what the state can be. This Hall of Fame is one of those. One of our missions in Louisiana is to seek excellence in all we do, so why in the world wouldn’t we build the best athletic hall of fame?"

This summer’s Hall class and the 2009 selections will be the first to see tangible evidence of the facility. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in early 2009 aiming at completion for the 2010 induction.

"We can’t wait until the day that we swing open the doors," said LSWA president Kent Lowe, "and say to all of those Hall of Famers over the past 50 years, welcome to your Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame."

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A view of the front entrance to the facility.

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A view of the proposed sports theatre.

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The ‘River of History’ recounts the great tradition of Louisiana sports.