Brain freeze, brain freed, or brain fried? Chasing clarity in the cold

As we all prepare for the first fierce Nordic blast of splinter (we don’t really have winter, it’s a blend of spring and summer and what most of America knows as “late fall”), my thermostat is set at 64.

Cool temperatures are said to be good for using the ole noggin.

Or, for consuming eggnog from Maggio’s drive-thru as my hometown prepares to officially flip on the Christmas lights Saturday night.

Which is happening at this moment? You decide if you read further.

TOPIC:  Louisiana Tech’s football team is winless, 0-6, on the road this year, a sense of much frustration for first-year coach Sonny Cumbie and the Bulldogs’ faithful. 

REAX: Tech goes to Charlotte for Saturday’s game. The 49ers have an interim head coach and are 0-5 at home. Somebody’s walking off happy, for a change. The Bulldogs ought to be barking at the end of this one. 

TOPIC:  Northwestern State is again playing for at least a share of the Southland Conference championship Saturday, this time at home, but against Top 10-ranked Incarnate Word, an overwhelming favorite.

REAX:  The Demons have beaten two other ranked UIW teams in the past three seasons, when NSU wasn’t as competitive as it is this season in conference play. This would be the biggest shocker since their 2014 win at Tech if the Demons outscore these Cardinals. It will not be a defensive slugfest.

TOPIC:  Grambling is open this week, with coach Hue Jackson tuning up the Tigers for next weekend’s epic Bayou Classic in New Orleans against Southern. 

REAX:  The halftime show will undoubtedly be the best Grambling performance of the day in the Caesars Superdome, well worth the price of admission. The Jaguars are solid favorites to avenge last year’s upset loss to the G-Men.

TOPIC:  LSU moved up to No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings announced Tuesday night. 

REAX:  If you didn’t realize SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has a stranglehold on the CFP rankings, you should now. LSU’s having a shockingly good season, but the Tigers have overachieved. They escaped a mediocre Arkansas team last week only because true freshman Harold Perkins Jr. showed why he will be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate next season. 

TOPIC: Like far too many college coaches, Tech’s Cumbie does not allow freshmen players to be interviewed, denying us the chance to hear from Calvary product Landry Lyddy, who will start again at quarterback against Charlotte. 

REAX:  They can vote. They can defend our nation in the military. They are considered adults. College freshmen, most 18 if not older, ought to be able to field questions from the media.  Lyddy handled interviews at Calvary like he shredded opposing defenses. No need to muzzle him, or any other freshman. What’s the harm in it? 

TOPIC:  Northwestern State delivered one of the bigger early-season surprises in college basketball Monday night with its 64-63 upset win at No. 15-ranked TCU. 

REAX:  It’s an historic feat, the Demons’ second-ever Top 25 win. But TCU was ranked only on preseason hype and last year’s success, which is why polls at this stage of any season are a farce. The Frogs were missing their top two players, one regarded as the likely Big 12 Player of the Year. A week earlier, TCU was a 33-point favorite at home against UAPB, and trailed by 20 before escaping, 67-66. The Demons will face tougher tests. Winning a guarantee game is impressive, but this was not a Top-25 caliber win, although it says so on paper.

TOPIC:  Kim Mulkey is a brilliant coach and tactician – especially when it comes to building a non-conference schedule.

REAX:  While she fits new pieces together with her second Tigers’ team, and awaits the arrival next season of Parkway’s extraordinary student-athlete Mikaylah Williams, Mulkey’s non-conference schedule is softer than your pillow.  Her team will face tougher tests during fall semester final exams.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Rainy days and Mondays are not totally terrible

Monday’s weather was less than ideal except for cross country geeks and basketball fans.

The conditions were challenging, to say the least, for the state’s best high school cross country runners at the annual LHSAA Championships hosted by Northwestern State in Natchitoches. It was cold – worse than chilly – all day, from the first race at 9 a.m. to the 10th and last one that wrapped up in the 4 o’clock hour.

Rain started dripping shortly after 1 o’clock and the faucet popped wide open in time for the final race. For runners, for supporters, for race officials – misery. But for purists of the sport, ecstasy.

Cross country is not a gentle sport. It is postponed for weather less than football games are. The races are held in steamy and stormy weather. Blistering and blustery. The worse the conditions get, the more the degree of difficulty climbs, THAT’S when it’s truly cross country.

It’s more pleasant to enjoy sunny skies, moderate temps, and calm winds, but for a championship race in cross country, Monday’s conditions were optimal. Miserable, but optimal.

Speaking of optimal, let’s flip sports and congratulate (in chronological order) Grambling and Northwestern for basketball triumphs that earned national attention.

The Tigers put down Colorado (not Colorado School of the Mines, but instead, the Pac 12 Buffaloes) in Grambling, under the radar, Friday night.

Credit the Pac 12 (with plenty of sponsorship money, and social awareness, as influences) for sending its teams on the road to visit SWAC venues. The SWAC-Pac 12 Legacy Series was not the west coast win-fest oddsmakers expected.

Grambling led wire-to-wire in its 83-74 victory. OK, Colorado was overrated, you say? Two days later, the Buffs went to Nashville and gave their own remarkable performance, handling No. 11 Tennessee 78-66.

Donte’ Jackson’s G-Men were not alone in delivering noteworthy SWAC attacks. Texas Southern toppled Arizona State 67-66 in OT. Outside the Pac-12, Alcorn handled Wichita State 66-57. Seems like more than just hardcore Grambling fans might want to visit for some quality action at the Fredrick C. Hobdy Assembly Center this season.

For NSU, the big news Monday was thought to be the second big NIL deal for freshman (true) phenom Hansel Emmanuel.

He is truly phenomenal although he hasn’t scored a point in two appearances during the Demons’ first four games. Emmanuel is, by far, the most prominent NSU recruit ever, defying all odds by getting a Division I college scholarship although he lost his left arm after an accident when he was six, at home in the Dominican Republic.

He became a social media sensation last summer on the AAU circuit for his spectacular dunks, 3-pointers and athleticism. This summer, he signed an NIL deal with Gatorade, which debuted a commercial featuring him during the NBA Finals. Then he signed a scholarship deal with Northwestern and new coach Corey Gipson.

Monday, Emmanuel announced his second major NIL deal, with T-Mobile. According to On3.com’s NIL valuation chart, with 4.2 million social media followers, Emmanuel is No. 9 at an estimated $1.5 million — which might have edged up a bit via the strong connection with T-Mobile.

Arch Manning (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) is No. 3 and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young No. 4, both with $3.4 million valuations. Behind Emmanuel are names like Shadeur Sanders, Coach Prime’s son and quarterback at Jackson State, ranked 12th at $1.3 mill; Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker, 19th at $1.1; Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, 24th with a $971,000 valuation; and down home in Baton Rouge, LSU’s Keyshon Boutte is 25th at $969,000.

Yes, a freshman reserve basketball player at Northwestern State is well ahead of LSU’s next first-round NFL Draft pick. Such is the wild world of NIL. Emmanuel’s endorsements do not – as of yet – include any Louisiana law firms.

But that was NOT the biggest news for the Demons Monday. They made SportsCenter and lots of headlines by overcoming a double-digit second-half deficit and toppling (probably over-ranked, considering an earlier one-point escape of UAPB) No. 15 TCU 64-63 on the Horned Frogs’ homecourt.

Gipson’s Demons had been less than impressive in a 24-point loss a week ago at No. 25 Texas Tech, and at home in a comeback win over Division II Ouachita Baptist and a 69-67 stumble to a rebuilding Illinois State team Saturday night.

New week, new look, new entry in the NSU history books. The Demons’ only other Top 25 win was also a 64-63 victory, on a much bigger stage, in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament over No. 15-ranked Iowa, the Big Ten Conference Tournament champions.

Emmanuel was probably making SportsCenter anyway, despite his unproductive two-minute stint in the first half. He’s amazing simply by being there. But on Monday night, so were the rest of the Demons.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Nobody saw it coming, but there’s a different vibe at NSU this November

The Northwestern State Demons are playing for the Southland Conference championship Saturday.

Not a misprint.

But almost exactly two months ago, it was about as absurd a statement as anyone could imagine – even Demons’ coach Brad Laird.

It was incomprehensible in the immediate aftermath of a mortifying 47-21 loss to Grambling at Independence Stadium in the Sept. 10 “Shreveport Classic” – when the floundering Tigers, beaten 58-3 in their opener a week earlier, scored on six straight first-half series, mostly on big plays, against an inept Demon defense. It was 41-7 at the half.

Meanwhile, NSU’s offense was inefficient at best, after being blanked in its opener at powerful Montana, 47-0, and smothered by a Grambling defense that gave up an average of 43 points in its next four games.

Walking toward an on-field media session, Laird was furious. Spitting fire. “Boy, he’s angry,” said one TV reporter as the Demon coach stomped toward the dressing room.

He had every reason to be. In his interview, he said players quit. Even assistant coaches quit, he said. Let’s just say that behind closed doors, the scene following the interview was intense and ugly.

But, cathartic.  Any signs of encouragement were hardly apparent the next Saturday, after a 64-10 mangling dished out by Southern Miss – and not a good USM team, either. But there were subtle signals, mostly the reaction on the sideline when Laird sent in the starting quarterback from the final four games of 2021, Zachary Clement.

“That’s MY quarterback,” veteran players said. No disrespect to Kansas transfer QB Miles Fallin, but it just hadn’t worked, at all, in his three starts. Players liked and respected him, but there was no denying the spark Clement brought.

It has flashed again and again and again and again since – in each of the Demons’ four conference games.

NSU averted a 17-0 second-quarter hole in their Sept. 24 home and league opener with a goalline stand against Lamar, then built a three-score lead and held off the visitors.

A week later, the Demons were down by 12 as Nicholls kicked off with 3:17 to go. Clement led two scoring drives, sandwiched around a successful onside kick, and NSU was 2-0 in the Southland.

Finally there was no drama in a visit to Houston Christian in a dominating 37-10 triumph. 3-0.

But those were W’s against the weakest teams in the conference. Last Saturday’s trip to Texas A&M-Commerce was a real hurdle – against a program that has been among the best in Division II in the past decade, four seasons removed from a national championship, and a team that made its Southland debut by shocking Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, a week after SLU had handed high-scoring UIW a last-second loss.

All the Demons did was cash in at Commerce. It was an overwhelming, all-three-phases-clicking 41-14 victory. On the road. Against a 5-3 team. At 4-0, Northwestern is all alone in first place and is one win away from a conference championship.

Laird’s mantra, every week this fall, and every week in his five seasons as head coach at his alma mater, has been simple: win the week. What happened last week is done. Do not look ahead past the upcoming game this Saturday. Go 1-0.

It’s not a novel approach. But getting a team to truly buy into that is not often accomplished. None of his previous clubs have. But this bunch turned the page in the days after the Grambling meltdown, managed to keep believing in each other, relying upon each other, and weathered other low points in two other non-conference outings. 

These Demons have earned the right to be champions with one win in the next two games – at SLU Saturday afternoon, and at home against UIW on Nov. 19.

Those are the two most talented teams in the Southland, no doubt. Explosive, talented, with winning cultures in place. They will be heavy favorites against the Demons. SLU, at least, has not slaughtered its Southland foes – but the Lions did slay UIW on a last-play 56-yard TD pass. That unlikely play has opened the door for the Demons to play truly meaningful games in November.

Can they win one? If so, they’re at least co-champions. They already have their best Southland finish in 12 years, and with a win, the first Southland title since 2004. If they win both – and even in their recent struggles, they’ve beaten UIW two of the last three meetings – these Demons go to the FCS playoffs.

Anything is possible. But one thing is already very apparent.

There’s no doubt that the best coaching job in the Southland this fall has been done in Natchitoches.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


While drubbing NCHS, Byrd nearly converts a rare, free opportunity

LOOK CLOSELY:  Byrd’s stellar kicker, Abram Murray, approaches a ball teed up at the 34-yard line, something seen less than Bigfoot. (Photo by KEVIN SHANNAHAN, Journal Sports)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES — In an only-briefly-in-doubt 31-point Byrd win Friday night that finished in less than two hours — 1:47, to be exact, without a running clock — the most memorable play didn’t change the scoreboard.

Through the course of a season, and especially in explosive District 1-5A, some 76-yard scoring runs and passes happen. But kicks? Uh, nope. Even more rare, a free kick? Say, what?

Nobody at NSU’s Turpin Stadium had seen anything like it before. Not Warren Massia, the 50-year veteran Natchitoches Central stat man. Not Byrd’s longtime radio voice, Charlie Cavell. Not the much-admired Yellow Jackets’ stat guru, Chad Ardoin.

Not Byrd coach Stacy Ballew, or his junior kicker, one of the highest-rated Class of 2024 prep specialists in the country, Abram Murray.

But as NCHS, blanked and already four scores down in a 34-3 loss, lined up in its own territory for another punt with 10 seconds left before halftime, Ballew and Murray had sparkles in their eyes.

There’s this obscure rule, you see: after a fair catch, a team has the right to take a free kick from the line of scrimmage on the next play. If the kick goes through the uprights, the kicking team scores 3 points. It is also known as a “free kick field goal.”

There was a stiff south breeze of 15-20 mph into the punter’s face, setting up a scenario lost on almost everyone, except for a couple of folks on the Yellow Jackets’ sideline.

“My heart was really beating, and everybody was kinda quiet,” said Murray, “because nobody really knew what was going on. You never see that.”

After Jackson Dufrene – remember him – smoothly collected a fair catch at his own 34 with two seconds left, the improbable was suddenly possible.

“People in the stands were wondering what was going on, I’m sure,” said Ballew. “The kicker’s got all the time he wants, he gets to tee it up, and there’s no pressure, no rush by the defense.”

Once Dufrene did his part to trigger the unique opportunity, Murray calmly trotted out with his tee, while Ballew quickly redirected his kicking teams.

“Abram and I have talked about it before. I hadn’t talked to the whole team about it, which is why somebody (on the sideline) was screaming ‘Field goal’ (team), and I said, ‘No, it’s kickoff.’ I told the other 10, ‘You just go out and you just let him kick it.’”

Just two minutes before, Dufrene had snagged his second TD reception, a 23-yarder to go with an earlier 41-yard strike from Lake Lambert. Murray’s extra point was ruled no good, his first PAT miss this season.

(“I’m pretty sure it went in, but it’s all good. We won,” Murray said). With a little adrenalin pumping, he hammered the kickoff through the uprights, a wind-aided 70-yard faux field goal that very few high school kickers have ever managed.

That didn’t hurt Ballew’s decision to give Murray a shot at SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays. He nearly cashed in his lottery ticket.

“It was a yard short, if that. We’ve practiced it a little bit. We knew no matter what, we were going to try it with just a couple seconds left,” Murray said. “It was fun.”

As for the game: Byrd ruled. NCHS flashed early, taking the opening kickoff and moving to the Yellow Jackets’ 30, where a fourth-and-5 run was stacked up.

“The fourth-down stops are big. More and more schools are going for fourth downs, so when you get one, it’s big,” said Ballew, whose defense then stymied the Chiefs, allowing only eight first downs and 150 yards, losing the shutout on a 42-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.

Said standout senior linebacker Brooks Brossette: “Our key was to come in and set the tone early. We got that done and that’s what propelled us to victory.”

So did the Jackets’ offense. It scored on all four possessions in the first half, including a 6-play, 97-yard drive for the third TD, Devon Strickland’s 4-yard run for a 21-0 advantage. Byrd rushed for 255 yards and Lambert completed all three of his passes for 81 yards and the two scoring strikes to Dufrene.

Natchitoches Central (3-7, 2-5) headed home for the winter. Byrd (7-3, 4-3) clinched a first-round playoff bye.

“Proud of our team,” said Ballew. “Defense played well tonight. We’ve struggled at times, but the last 3-4 weeks, we’ve gotten better. Natchitoches has scored some points and they didn’t tonight.”

Byrd did. Although on the most unique play of this season for any local team, the Jackets didn’t. But it sure was cool.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com 

Byrd 34, Natchitoches Central 3 

Score by quarters

Byrd | 7 | 20 | 7 | 0 | – 34

NCHS | 0 | 0 | 0 | 3 | – 3

Scoring summary

B – Malachi Johnson 8 run (Abram Murray kick)

B – Jackson Dufrene 41 pass from Lake Lambert (Murray kick)

B – Devon Strickland 4 run (Murray kick)

B – Dufrene 23 pass from Lambert (kick failed)

B – Tyler Nichols 9 run (Murray kick)

N – Restrepo 42 field goal

Individual leaders 

Rushing 

Byrd – Nichols 4-70, Strickland 13-68, Johnson 5-43, Simmons 7-41. 

NCHS – Jeremiah Miles 17-79, N. Homes 2-10, Zion Thompson 2-6, Titus Williams 1-minus-6.

Passing 

Byrd – Lambert 3-3-0-81.

NCHS – Brian Young 11-4-10-69.

Receiving

Byrd – Dufrene 3-81. 

NCHS – Camrin Davis 7-27, Smith 2-40, Miles 1-3, Helaire 1-minus-1.


Slightly spooked by fireworks, some Prime thoughts to share

Halloween is over, in all its joy and glory, which for my neighbors, included fireworks.

To each his own, but please, not next door.  Not as the 10 o’clock news is coming right up. Not on a school night.

That’s among the head scratchers I’m dealing with heading into All Saints Day.

  1. DirecTV – I am relieved that one of the two “representatives” of DirecTV who called this summer turned out to be legit, and moreso, that I sniffed out the scammer. So I liked the $60 cut to my exorbitant monthly bill. However, despite slightly wonky wireless in the Dugout, I’m on the verge of leaving DirecTV for Fubu or YouTube or whatever will be cheaper,  and WILL NOT wipe away a major network in a game of chicken with the local/regional provider. It’s easy and, BTW free for me to watch Fox programming – little things of interest like college football, the NFL and  the World Series this time of year – on this very same computer. Which makes me wonder, why pay Direct a cool hunny-plus every month?
  2. The Saints – Did the Black & Gold’s previously accomplished defense just take off for the first seven weeks? Happy to see Sunday’s shutout. Now, to see if it was a fluke next Monday night against Lamar Jackson’s Ravens.
  3. The Cowboys – Not that I care much, but lost amid the 49-point explosion Sunday was the Bears, not an offensive machine, putting up 29 on the 2022 version of the Doomsday Defense. Da Bears?
  4. Coach Prime to Auburn – I give Deion Sanders great credit for turning around a bad Jackson State football program. He also tells his team a lot about life that is tremendous. But before he’s a viable candidate for a Power 5 football program that has won a national championship not too long ago, he needs to show he can win somewhere between the FCS and the SEC. No other FCS coach with his resume could make that leap. If Coach Prime can elevate Charlotte or another Group of 5 program to success, he’s validated. And Elon Musk won’t bill him $20 a month.
  5. High school football games moved to Thursday to avoid rain – Really? John James Marshall pegged it in his Friday column. Football schedules are announced far in advance for a reason. Game days are BIG. It should take something extreme to reshuffle them. Not a 50-60 percent chance of showers (nobody called for severe storms or torrents of rain). Not a “slight” risk of severe weather mentioned at the start of Week 9.
  6. College basketball season starting in early November – It used to be Thanksgiving week launched college hoops, and that made sense. More is not necessarily better. If you’re trying to grow the game, wait to play when sports fans aren’t still watching the World Series and aren’t focused on college football.
  7. Why did ESPN spend the money to hire Joe Buck and Troy Aikman for Monday Night Football, when they had the Manning Cast on ESPN2?

Back to my initial point.

This is NOT Independence Day. Fireworks fit here and now just as well as turduckens are the right pick for dinner on July 4. 

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Seasons on the brink: LSU, Tech, Grambling and NSU fates at stake

Do you watch La Brea, the NBC Tuesday night drama portraying people in LA falling into a massive sinkhole that carries them to the same location in 10,000 BC?

It’s a reality show for Brian Kelly, Sonny Cumbie, Hue Jackson and the ole grizzled veteran of five years in his job, Brad Laird. 

Those guys started September doing their thing. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was good. They were all probably overly optimistic, based on what most concerned those coaches about their football teams.

Now, a month and a half later, they are in an entirely different set of circumstances, trying to make the best of it. There are no tar pits. There are no fearsome prehistoric predators. There are (hopefully) no nefarious characters lurking, unless you count the guys wearing stripes.

What’s the outlook for the rest of this fall season? Will La Brea be renewed? Probably. I hope so. Huge fan of Natalie Zea, ever since her turn in the FX series Justified, and loved her in The Unicorn on CBS opposite her old Justified cast colleague Walton Coggins, who is brilliant every at-bat.

But this ain’t Entertainment Tonight, and I am definitely not Kevin Frazier (who once was a sports anchor in Alexandria). Staying in my lane, here’s some quick takes on football remaining for LSU, Louisiana Tech, Grambling and Northwestern.

BRIAN KELLY and LSU:  Seriously, did you think a program with about 40 scholarship players at the end of last season could be turned on a dime? Like in La Brea, there was a sinkhole in Tiger Stadium. Kelly is mapping a way back to this century. This is not Star Trek. Scotty can’t beam up Burrow, Chase, the Honey Badger, et al. Also, is it coincidence that one of La Brea’s Season 1 focal figures was “Marybeth Hill, a police officer from Baton Rouge,” who happened to be in LA (that one, not this one) at the wrong place and time. She tumbled to 10,000 BC, but she isn’t coming home.

Kelly is a very accomplished coach – maybe not the coaching savant some hoped. Few exist. Scott Woodward was thought to have hired one at Texas A&M, but at this stage of Jimbo Fisher’s career in AggieLand, his career mark is one under Kevin Sumlin’s W-L there at the same point. Woodward tapped Kelly. Time will tell if that’s a better hire. Meanwhile, this is a rebuild even bigger than what Nick Saban faced at LSU, at least as far as talented frontline performers and depth are concerned. All the bells and whistles to get the best players to BR are at Kelly’s disposal, but not even a transfer portal will be enough to avert a mediocre-at-best finish. 

SONNY CUMBIE and TECH:  The Bulldogs weren’t gonna beat Missouri, let alone Clemson. Nobody saw South Alabama finally getting it right – until this season, a classic underachieving program. But last Saturday’s Conference USA debut, coming off a refreshing open date, was an encouraging 41-31 win over a solid UTEP team.

UTSA may be the best of show in CUSA again, but that’s not clear cut. The league looks like a tar pit, with bubbles everywhere, and an eruption possible anywhere. Don’t see Louisiana Tech as a contender, but don’t see the Bulldogs as puppies trailing everybody else, either. 

HUE JACKSON and RAMBLING STATE: Hue took the G away. So I did, too. Although the 1-5 Tigers were one play from sweet victory last week in a 2OT loss at Alabama A&M, it seems unlikely Jackson will reward his players for being competitive throughout. The Tigers will not have the fabled G on the side of their helmets for their home opener Saturday – yes, that’s right, on Oct. 15, Grambling is home for the first time all fall.

Grambling has played one half of quality football, on Sept. 10 in a blowout of Northwestern State in the “Shreveport Classic.” The SWAC has some bad teams and a few good ones. Jackson won’t have a winning record in his first season but shouldn’t dwell in the SWAC cellar, either. At least Jackson can soothe his pain with his own brand of tequila. He is partner and chief strategy officer of Grand Leyanda. Yeah, me either. Time for new strategy with the tequila and the Tigers. 

BRAD LAIRD and NSU:  There can’t be a team that starts games any worse than the retooled Demons, a squad with more than 30 newcomers, most through the portal, and a nearly-new coaching staff, aside from Laird and veteran defensive assistant/assistant head coach DeVon Lockett. The last three weeks, nobody’s been any better at coming back.

If the Demons can prevail Saturday night at Houston Christian, they’ll sail into November unbeaten in the Southland (3-0), but with the league’s three best teams left to play. But to do that with momentum, they’ll also have to handle a 5-1 Southeast Missouri team next weekend at homecoming.

Confidence, and homefield, are valuable commodities. The Demons’ fortunes hinge on coming home from Houston with more than deals from the CVS drug store that is a few feet off the visitors’ sideline at Husky Stadium.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Benton, Walters maintain recent form, blasting NCHS

TIGERS ROARING:  Sophomore running back Jayden McNeil and other Benton backups got significant time Friday night in the Tigers’ blowout win at Natchitoches Central. (Photo by KEVIN SHANNAHAN, Journal Sports)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES – All Greg Manning did was run for four touchdowns, and in the fireworks display that is the Benton Tigers offense, the junior’s 24 points seemed like an afterthought.

The state’s No. 2 scoring attack went 80 yards on the first snap, the first six of 27 points in the first period, supplemented by 28 more before halftime Friday night. The Tigers, coming off a 63-point eruption against previously unbeaten Byrd last Friday, nuked District 1-5A foe Natchitoches Central 62-15 on the Chiefs’ homecoming at NSU’s Turpin Stadium.

Manning maneuvered for scores of 1, 2, 1 and 16, the last one the coup de gras delivered with 7:12 showing on a third-quarter clock that immediately shifted to running time. He got tough yards inside the tackles and occasionally on the edge, as he did on that final TD, reading a nice downfield block to finish his night with 71 yards on 19 calls.

That downfield block was the last contribution by Benton’s receiver corps – which had three stars with 100-yard nights, snagging on-target deliveries from senior quarterback Gray Walters.

After posting eight touchdown strikes and 512 yards against the Yellow Jackets a week ago, Walters threw for five more TDs and 382 yards, going 20 for 25 against an overwhelmed NCHS squad.

“It felt good coming out tonight, again, like it did last week,” he said.

“We did good again. We were in the red zone once, and we didn’t score, and I thought we should have got in, but overall we played pretty good.”

Pretty good? That’s putting it mildly. The Tigers’ offensive line kept Walters virtually untouched as Pearce Russell hauled in nine passes for 145 yards and three TDs in what is becoming a fairly normal night for him. Then Brady Blaylock recorded 116 yards on five grabs with a score, and Andy Lim also snagged five for 114 yards and a TD.

The tone was set on the first snap. Blaylock took a shuttle pass around left end and exploded downfield, and 12 seconds into play, Benton’s band struck up the Tigers’ fight song.

“We looked at film, and we knew there should be a bunch of space. Brady Blaylock has wheels,” said Walters. “The dude can run. We knew to give it to him in space, and the dude can go make a play.”

Credit the Chiefs for bouncing back, at the end of a week when they mourned teammate Robert Walker, killed in an ATV accident Sunday. Tailback Jeremiah Miles broke loose on the next play, racing 72 yards and after the conversion kick, handing NCHS a brief 7-6 edge.

But Russell got the first of his TDs (24, 16 and 35 yards) six snaps later. The Tigers faltered in the red zone on their next possession, but then scored six straight times, notably when Walters found Russell for 35 yards on fourth-and-six 2:42 before halftime.

“Throwing up to Pearce, fourth down? One-on-one? You don’t do that. You never go one-on-one against Pearce Russell,” said Walters.

After alternating in practice two Mondays ago with his backup, Walters has 13 TD passes in the last two games and Benton (3-3, 2-1, No. 3 in the Shreveport-Bossier Journal Top 10) has scored 125 points.

“Confidence is to the roof right now. I feel good. I feel like the offense can’t be stopped,” he said. “I think we can win out.”

Coach Reynolds Moore was pleased the Tigers didn’t have a letdown and hopes the way they approached NCHS (2-4, 1-2) bodes well for their closing stretch against Southwood, Haughton, Captain Shreve and Parkway in 1-5A competition.

“I challenged them all week to follow up last week’s performance with a better performance. I explained to them that didn’t mean scoring 70 or 80, or getting a shutout, it just meant genuinely executing better,” said Moore. “We finally didn’t give up a touchdown while on offense, and we didn’t give up a touchdown on special teams, and those were goals coming in. I was pleased with that and that we got a lot of young guys in there late in the game.” 

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com

Benton 62, Natchitoches Central 15

Score by quarters 

Benton | 27 | 28 | 7 | 0 | 62

NCHS | 7 | 8 | 0 | 0 | – 15

Scoring summary

B – Brady Blaylock 80 pass from Gray Walters (kick blocked)

NC – Jeremiah Miles 72 run (Ricardo Gavin kick)

B – Pearce Russell 24 pass from Walters (Peyton May kick)

B – Greg Manning 1 run (May kick)

B – Manning 2 run (May kick)

B – Manning 1 run (May kick)

B – Russell 16 pass from Walters (May kick)

B – Russell 35 pass from Walters (May kick)

NC – Miles 63 run (Miles run)

B – Andy Lim 43 pass from Walters (May kick)

B – Manning 16 run (May kick)

Individual leaders 

Rushing 

Benton  – Manning 19-71 4 TDs, Walters 2-9. 

NCHS – Miles 19-185 2 TDs, Zion Thompson 2-6.

Passing

Benton – Walters 20-25-0 382 yards 5 TDs. 

NCHS –  Brian Young 1-9-0, minus-3.

Receiving 

Benton – Russell 9-145 3 TDs, Blaylock 5-116 1 TD, Lim 5-114 1TD, Jeffrey King 1-7. 

NCHS – Titus Williams 1-minus-3.


Judge in history: Two lists are not better than one

Aaron Judge has done it, wearing the same size cap he did when he signed his first pro contract, which is not something Barry Bonds can say.

That’s why Roger Maris Jr. has been on Twitter effusively praising the Yankees’ record-shattering slugger, who crashed his American League record 62nd home run Tuesday night at Globe Life Park in Arlington, providing by far the most relevant moment of the Texas Rangers’ season.

The son, whose father slugged 61 in ’61 and had his hair falling out from the stress of chasing Babe Ruth’s big league record, is not shy about sharing his perspective that PED-fueled marks shouldn’t be in the same class as his dad’s feat.

“You are all class and someone who should be revered,” Maris Jr. Tweeted Tuesday night, congratulating Judge. “For the MAJORITY of the fans, we can now celebrate a new CLEAN HOME RUN KING!!”

But he’s not disdainful of Bonds (73 in 2001), Mark McGwire (70 in 1998; 65 in 1999), or Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998; 64 in 2001; 63 in 1999). Just yesterday:

“Not saying Barry, Mark and Sammy were not exciting to watch. Not saying Barry didn’t hit 73 home runs … he did and we all watched. What I’m saying is what Aaron is doing tops them all. Maybe not for everyone but for everyone who loves CLEAN baseball.”

Maris Jr. delivered an additional attaboy:

“Barry Bonds is the best baseball player ever. What Bonds did in 2001 was the most dominant hitting performance ever. I know Bonds is the single-season home run champ (73) based on the CURRENT  record books. Home run records have been SEPARATED before … I like Judge better!!”

The MLB commissioner in 1961, Ford Frick, assailed by fans who felt Ruth’s 60 in 154 games in 1927 was on another level from Maris slugging 61 in 162 contests, didn’t invent the asterisk, but he abused it. In July, with Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle both on pace to overtake Ruth’s mark, Frick decided there would be two standards – Ruth’s mark for 154 games, and records in any categories for the brand-new, expanded 162-game slate.

Maris cracked his 61st in the 162nd game, Oct. 1, 1961. Thirty years later, an MLB committee reviewing historical accuracy discarded Frick’s decision and declared Maris had replaced Ruth as the game’s single-season HR king.

So now, in an ironic twist, Maris Jr. wants to create two lists. Wasn’t a good idea in 1961, isn’t a good idea now.

What the son doesn’t consider is it’s very likely that some, if not plenty of the pitchers trying to retire Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were themselves using performance enhancing drugs. Hello, Roger Clemens.

You don’t find Bonds, McGwire and Sosa as members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and you never will. Those guys, Clemons, and Pete Rose can visit Cooperstown, and they are acknowledged in the museum, but not in the Hall of Fame.

I am good with that. But give respect where it’s due. I recall the insight shared by Brian Lawrence, an All-Southland Conference pitcher at Northwestern State in 1997-98 who became the ace of the San Diego Padres staff not long afterward.

“If you ever see me throw a strike to Bonds, I’ve made a mistake,” said B-Law during a winter visit to Natchitoches when his No. 29 Demon jersey was retired. “He has total command of the zone. That’s his.  What I have to do is to fish around the dish, try to get him to chase something, make a mistake so he makes an out. What I can’t do is give him anything he might like.”

Now there’s another Demon pitcher in the MLB, Oakland A’s rookie Adam Oller. In his finest outing, on Aug. 27 in Oakland, Oller allowed only one hit in eight innings, and none to Judge. Oller walked him in the top of the first, but quickly picked him off to end the inning, and faced the minimum 24 hitters.

When Oller makes his way back to Natchitoches to visit, I bet he’ll say the same thing about Judge that Lawrence said about Bonds.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


More about disasters, diabolical decisions, LSU, Saints, Cowboys, and right field

My recent effort to provide some perspective for supporters of football teams off to subpar starts was well received, generally.

Lots of people commented on Facebook, e-mailed, texted, or told me 1) they enjoyed it; 2) they appreciated it (these were mostly family and friends of coaches or players, even parents or grandparents of kids in the band/pep squad/training or equipment staff/cheerleaders); 3) they were coaches, who definitely appreciated it.

Those who had no reaction were mostly Saints fans. They are, as one, considering an offensively challenged 1-2 start as exactly what they expected in the post-Brees/Payton apocalypse.

Since, I’ve done research. Fact: 50 percent of the teams that play each week, lose.

Take this weekend, for example. Humble pie was served to the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Texas Longhorns, Oklahoma Sooners and Arkansas Razorbacks. Pig, fooey. Anybody who called two of those outcomes in advance is qualified to make a guest appearance on Quantum Leap.

Now, let’s deal with the present, and unhappy LSU fans.

Not unhappy about three straight wins, the latest a submission over New Mexico. LSU’s defense gave up two first downs. TWO.

Tiger Nation is severely steaming about El-ess-yew drawing an 11 a.m. kickoff for the next home game, against No. 8 Tennessee in two weeks.

Brunch is fine tailgate fare in all but a few venues around college football.  In the stone ages, my Journal colleague Teddy Allen and I covered an 11 a.m. LSU-Tennessee game at Neyland Stadium in 1988. First and only time I ate quiche in a press box. First time I ate quiche, period. Not the last.

The 1988 Tigers had no issues with that morning start. The LSU fans there did not either, not before, during or especially after the 34-9 romp, the first SEC win in a surprising conference championship season.

Surprising, not only because LSU won the SEC. Because Teddy, Scooter, Heity, Guilbeau and I met the Ohio Pork Queen in the press box at Ohio Stadium after watching Jack Nicklaus, I believe, dot the I, and before the not-the-best-Buckeyes team rode the pure energy of 90,000 relentless fans and scored 16 points in the last two minutes for a 36-33 stunner over the No. 8 visitors.

Because the night before the game (also a morning kick, BTW), Teddy, Guilbeau and I were in a cab that caught fire as we rolled toward this fancy new restaurant, The Olive Garden, in Columbus. I kid you not. FLAMES. Stomped out by Glenn’s big feet, as I recall. And so it went . . .

We weren’t even into October. Neither is this season.

But unranked LSU, in what is undeniably a rebuilding year, has to kick off at 11 in Tiger Stadium? Why? Can we get a congressional hearing?

Well, there’s that Saban vs. Jimbo meeting that night, in prime time. And sorry, but No. 1 Georgia against Auburn brings the huge Atlanta TV market, and the not-tiny Jacksonville TV audience, to qualify as an obvious pick by CBS for its 2:30 window.

Yes, Georgia will dominate – but based on what we’ve seen so far, any reason to believe Tennessee won’t? BTW, when it comes to TV markets, Nashville and Baton Rouge/New Orleans < ATL, by a lot.

All that TV money that allows the network to set kick times has built flashy facilities in Baton Rouge, while funding contract buyouts and high-dollar deals to lure gold-standard coaches Brian Kelly, Jay Johnson and Queen Kim Mulkey to Tiger territory.

Here’s the yang to that yin, LSU friends. A buzz-kill 11 a.m. kick must be endured. As J.J. Marshall called it, a “dew sweeper.”

Sometimes you just grin and bear it. I did, 15 years old, as a freshman shortstop at Jonesboro-Hodge High School, not nearly good enough to dislodge a senior, Kerry Spangler. Wasn’t gonna happen. However, there was space in right field, and I could connect stick to spheroid. So, coach Andy Malone sent me to play a spot I had never played before.

My safety net: Alden Reeves’ younger brother, Ted. I never played next to Willie Mays, but that spring, it felt like I did. Tedder made more plays in right than I did. By a lot.

Ted might not have been the spectacular athlete Alden was, but he was good enough to go on to lead the Northwestern State Demons in hitting. And before then, in 1975, he was good enough to become the only player in LHSAA history to make All-District center field and All-District right field in the same season. (Warning, possible exaggeration – I said he was “good enough”).

It’s not stretching it to say for many more reasons, all true, Ted is very deserving of joining his big brother, the legendary Captain Shreve coach, in the Jackson Parish Sports Hall of Fame this Saturday. I’m proud to have played a small role. I got the heck out of his way.

Not what I had in mind when practice started, but it worked out just fine. Just like your team’s season may. Just remember what Cowboys fans were thinking after Dak got hurt. Since then . . .

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Hapless? Hopeless? Looking out from the dumpster fire

To all those whose teams’ seasons are over already:

It’s not that terrible. Your team isn’t undefeated after three games. It’s OK. Most teams aren’t.

Maybe your boys have a losing record. It’s OK. They’re not doomed to finish under .500. Heck, some 1-2 high school teams are pretty good (I’m looking at you, Calvary Cavaliers and Huntington Raiders, among others).

Perhaps your squad hasn’t won. Might not have been close to winning (Fork ‘Em, Demons).

It’s what we do as fans, so it’s OK to look ahead and go game-by-game and see the dark side. We’re mostly pessimists, once your club has stumbled more than once before Halloween decorations begin popping up all over.

Expect the worst, be pleasantly surprised if you’re wrong. It’s the emotionally safe approach.

C’mon! To summon motivational speaker John Blutarsky, was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

True, some teams are floundering. Some teams might seem hapless.

Your struggling bunch needs 1) a different quarterback; 2) a change at offensive coordinator; 3) to fire the head coach, 4) all of the above, plus ….

We all want better. Alabama fans want better.

Driving in Baton Rouge many springs ago, when after a rocky February weekend in Houston, I heard sports talk caller Boudreaux saying he reckoned ole Slip Bertram was too old, had lost touch and had stayed just a little too long. All the LSU Tigers did that season was WIN THE COLLEGE WORLD SERIES.

Fifth one for the washed up Bertman.

There’s hope. Maybe your team bounces back, learns from these tough times, and pulls it together. Can happen.

Twenty-five years ago, I saw it up close. My NSU Demons were 1-4 after getting dough-popped, 50-7, by the dastardly McNeese Cowboys in Lake Charles. How’d that season end? Cradling a Southland Conference co-championship, rewarded by an FCS playoff berth, bringing back the core of a team that not only won another Southland crown in 1998, but steamrolled to the national semifinals, finishing a quarter away from the national championship game. Best NSU team I ever saw.

I’m not here suggesting your team, or mine, can flip the script like that this fall, or even the next one.

But maybe it can.

I am here telling you that the players and coaches on every team not off to a dream start have not given up. They are doing all they can to win this weekend. They are pushing every day to be better than they were the day before.

My junior year at Jonesboro-Hodge High School, we were 1-9. A few of my teammates piled into the Ireland family Country Squire station wagon and made the half-hour ride down to Winnfield to watch our despised rivals play a Shreveport Catholic school for the state championship on a cool December night in the woods.

Number 7 (a guy I got to know later, John James Marshall) fluttered the prettiest 62-yard screen pass you’ll ever see, the Jesuit (nee Loyola) Flyers somehow blanked the high-powered, homestanding Tigers 7-0, and we drove home amazed.

And determined. We were unbeaten the next fall, and played for the state championship our own selves.

Can’t promise that sort of turnaround is in the cards for your team. But I can promise you, those guys didn’t put in all the work earlier in the spring and summer to surrender after three weeks, or six, or even in the moments between the third and fourth quarter of their last game this season.

Those band kids, those cheerleaders and pom-pom line members, those trainers and managers, they’re giving it all they’ve got, too, every time they enter the stadium. They deserve just as much support.

No, your team’s season is not over already. It’s only just begun. You never know where the victories will be – maybe not often enough on the scoreboard, but more often than not, they’re in there, somewhere.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Locals Beard, Davis in 2023 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame class

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

Two of Shreveport’s brightest sports stars, Alana Beard and Wendell Davis, are headed into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame next summer, along with two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning, in a 10-member Class of 2023.

Beard, a sensational girls basketball player at Southwood High, went on to greatness at Duke and became a four-time WNBA All-Star.

Davis, a Fair Park standout, made his name at LSU catching passes from Tommy Hodson as they rewrote the Tigers’ record book in the mid-1980s, then was a first-round NFL Draft pick. His career was derailed when he injured both knees at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, just as he was emerging among the NFL’s best receivers.

College World Series champion LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri is another big name in a star-studded 10-member group of 2023 inductees announced Wednesday by the Hall of Fame.

The Class of 2023 also includes New Orleans native Ron Washington, who managed the Texas Rangers to a pair of World Series appearances and last year helped the Atlanta Braves win the world championship; two-time LSU track and field USA Olympian and world champion Walter Davis; and Slidell native, Tulane great and Chicago Bears two-time Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte.

Also elected for induction next summer are All-American LSU pitcher Paul Byrd, a 14-year Major League Baseball veteran who made the 1999 All-Star Game; multiple national champion and world class weightlifter Walter Imahara, a UL-Lafayette legend; and retired Baton Rouge-Parkview Baptist baseball coach M.L. Woodruff, whose teams claimed 11 state championships.

The LSHOF’s Class of 2023 will be enshrined Saturday, July 29, at the Hall of Fame’s home in Natchitoches to culminate the 64th Induction Celebration July 27-29. The LaSportsHall.com website has extensive information and participation opportunities available now.

Manning starred in 16 seasons with the New York Giants (2004-19) after a stellar four-year career at Ole Miss. A New Orleans native, the Newman High School grad starred at Ole Miss and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft. He was MVP in Giants’ victories in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

Manning will join his father, Archie (a 1988 inductee) and older brother Peyton (inducted In 2019) as the first set of father and two sons in the Hall. Two other father-son pairs are enshrined: football stars Dub Jones (1982) and son Bert Jones (1986) of Ruston, and USA Olympic hurdlers Glenn “Slats” Hardin (1962) and son Billy Hardin (1998), both LSU greats.

A phenomenal shooting guard at the high school, collegiate and professional levels, Beard was the state’s 2000 Miss Basketball at Southwood. She won the 2004 John R. Wooden Award as the nation’s best college player for Duke and became a four-time WNBA All-Star (2005-07, 2009). She led Southwood to four consecutive state titles from 1997-2000 with a 144-6 record (ending her career with 53 wins in a row), and the prep All-American scored 2,646 points before going to Duke.

There, Beard scored 2,687 points — 41 more than she did in high school — and was the first NCAA player to amass 2,600 points, 500 assists and 400 steals in a career while leading the Blue Devils to two Final Four appearances. The three-time ACC Player of the Year (2002, 2003, 2004) averaged 19.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 3.0 steals for her career.

The second pick of the 2004 WNBA Draft by the Washington Mystics, Beard played 14 seasons with the Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks and averaged 11.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 419 career games. Beard was the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018 and was a first-team All-Defensive team pick five times (second team four more times). She helped the Sparks win the 2016 WNBA championship.

One of the most prolific wide receivers in LSU history, Davis was a two-time All-American in 1986 and ’87 when he teamed up with Hodson.  Playing for the Tigers from 1984-87, Davis set most of the school’s receiving marks. Among them:  receptions in a game (14), single-season marks for catches (80), receiving yards (1,244), receiving TDs (11) and yards per game (113.1) in 1986; and the school record for career receiving yards (2,708). Davis still holds the school mark for career receptions (183).

A first-round draft pick (27th overall) of the Chicago Bears in 1987, his NFL career was cut short by a devastating injury when he tore the patellar tendon in both his knees on the notoriously-bad artificial turf at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium just five games into the 1993 season.  In the two seasons prior to the injury in 1991 and ’92, Davis grabbed 115 passes for 1,679 yards and eight scores. For his 5½-year NFL career, he had 207 catches, 3,000 yards (14.5 yards per catch) and 14 TDs. 

Five of the inductees – Byrd, Walter Davis and Wendell Davis, Mainieri and Woodruff (who were baseball teammates as freshmen) – competed at LSU.

Contact Doug at DougIreland@LaSportsHall.com


Shreveport Classic not a good look for … Shreveport

Hate to say it, but the Shreveport Classic was a disappointment.

That conclusion has nothing to do with how my favorite team, the Northwestern State Demons, fell flat on their collective facemasks last Saturday night.

Grambling’s Tigers withstood an early NSU flurry, scored on six straight series to end the half and dominated the football game, riding back home 47-21 winners.

A team that needed to win, did. Good for new coach Hue Jackson and the Gram Fam.

But even the grinning Grambling fans, at least those I heard from and was told about later, were not entirely pleased. And as distraught as the Demon faithful were about the outcome, they were also dissatisfied customers about the game experience.

I’m not here to slam Shreveport’s public agencies involved in hosting the game.

I’m hoping to sound a helpful warning.

Grambling and NSU people left Independence Stadium less than enthusiastic about coming back for any other college game. Me, too.

Oh, I’ll be there for the Independence Bowl for as long as the stadium is able to host it. BTW, that infrastructure is aging. Reminds me of one of the Deep South’s football shrines for many years, the home of the Iron Bowl, Legion Field in Birmingham.

NSU played there against UAB in 2013, so I visited then. What hosted Bryant vs. Paterno, USC and Sam “Bam” Cunningham hammering Alabama and spurring integration of the Crimson Tide roster, and housed so many Auburn-Alabama classics, was in miserable shape.

A couple years later, UAB pulled the plug on its football program and the decrepit stadium was a key in that decision. The Blazers and Birmingham have since built their own stadium and relaunched football, to great success (ask Louisiana Tech, which has seen UAB jump to the American Athletic Conference).

Independence Stadium isn’t that broken, yet, but it’s trending in that direction without some attention (and investment). Remember LSU women’s basketball coach and Lady Techster legend Kim Mulkey’s appearance Aug. 30 in front of hundreds of community leaders at the Independence Bowl Kickoff Dinner?

She pointedly told the crowd, don’t take the bowl for granted. It’s the biggest billboard for Shreveport-Bossier, putting us on the national stage not only on gameday with ABC or ESPN, not only during bowl season, but going home with visitors who hopefully leave with a good impression of not only the great job the bowl does in hosting, but also with those out-of-towners sharing their experiences here.

What finally has led to eliminating the eyesore that has been Fair Grounds Field? It was a derisive social media post from an I-Bowl visitor, a BYU blogger last winter, ripping the city and using the bat-infested baseball stadium as his lynchpin. His posts went viral and finally, city officials committed money to doing something to the ole ball yard – wiping it off the face of the earth, out of eyesight of I-20 traffic. Sad, but overdue.

Addressing anything with the structure of the stadium is a multimillion-dollar project that will take some time. Is it on the radar? Hope so. That question should be asked during this mayor’s race.

But the simple things matter. Things like traffic control, facility oversight and event management. These are issues that didn’t need to boil up as they did Saturday. Frankly, it looked like indifference.

I rolled up behind the Skybox and the flashy I-Bowl message board on I-20 at 5:38. I was happy to see traffic backed up to that point. Good crowd, I hoped. I congratulated myself for not taking the Hearne Ave. exit and getting snagged in that long, winding line of vehicles on the road adjoining the interstate, crawling toward parking.

I didn’t consider what that line meant until I discovered there were no police or anyone else directing traffic at the bottom of the Jewella ramp.  I finally parked my car in the media lot at 6:15. That was faster than those who had to sit in line to pay for parking at what were, apparently, only a couple of points of access, one on each side as I saw it, and later heard about it. I did see what appeared to be three law enforcement types standing underneath an awning of an abandoned gas station on Jewella.

Little things like the press box AC apparently set to 58 or so, which leads to condensation forming that gradually prevents anyone upstairs from seeing through the glass to what’s going on down on the field. By the halftime show, the VIPs and stat people and announcers and handful of media folks watched as if we had horrible cataracts. This is standard operating procedure up there, I was told.

Not so little things like at the base of the Skybox elevator, where people paid a premium to enjoy the game, then had to wait up to an hour because the wristband supply ran out shortly after 5 o’clock, an hour before kickoff. Didn’t matter these good folks had tickets showing they had access. They just had to wait, until middle of the first quarter.

That’s just a snapshot. I didn’t make calls to gather more trouble reports, and I didn’t make calls seeking explanations from whomever was in charge.

But if Shreveport is serious about drawing crowds to Independence Stadium for more than a one-time experience, I hope those in charge are committed to change – for the better.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Demons, Tigers hoping to find the ignition for Shreveport Classic showdown

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

The first time Grambling and Northwestern State squared off in a football game in Shreveport, 48 years ago this weekend, points were hard to come by.

If you use last week’s 2022 season openers as an indication, that seems very likely when they meet again this evening at Independence Stadium. The Tigers and Demons kick off at 6:04 in their sixth-ever collision, their first since 2018.

The groundbreaking 1974 contest was a defensive struggle, won 14-13 by Grambling on a blocked field goal in the final minute.

Last week was just a struggle for the Demons (47-0 losers at FCS No. 2-ranked Montana) and the Tigers (beaten 58-3 at FBS Arkansas State).

But neither coach will be surprised when his team breaks loose and finds the end zone, or if they do it over and over. Grambling’s Hue Jackson and Northwestern State’s Brad Laird are confident their clubs will be much more productive than a week ago.

“Breaking through, and knowing how much confidence that’s going to give you, that’s something we’re both eager to experience,” said Laird.

“There’s a lot of correctable mistakes, but I saw a lot of similarities. We both had penalty problems on the road that need to be greatly reduced and there was lot more common ground,” said Laird. “They have some new faces they’re trying to blend together and find how it fits best. You saw flashes of how good they can be. Again, you can say similar things about us.”

Said Jackson: “We didn’t put our best foot forward. Doesn’t matter why. None of that is the issue. The issue is are we ready to play this week like we think we can.”

As for a scouting report on the Tigers, Laird saw potential:

“They never got in a rhythm offensively. But the quarterback (Quaterius Hawkins) showed his ability to make plays, and I know why Coach Jackson chose him as the starter. He’s a threat running and throwing. They have talented running backs, but offensively they were inconsistent.

“Defensively, (SWAC Defensive Player of the Week) Lewis Jackson had a tremendous game. It was not surprising. We recruited him, because we really were impressed with his ability and his character, and honestly it was fun to see him play that way. Now we have to deal with it and that’s not so exciting,” said Laird.

And for an opposing glimpse at the Demons:

“They played against a really good team,” said Jackson. “They played hard, they’re well coached. They do a lot of different things on defense, multiple fronts, and offensively they have good runners and a quarterback (Kansas transfer Miles Fallin) who can make plays.”

The shared perspective extends to the big picture, that two neighboring institutions from different conferences and different cultures are renewing a series that has plenty of appeal in the 318 area code.

“The opportunity to play an in-state, FCS non-conference game against a tradition-rich program like  Grambling is exciting, and to be able to play the game in Shreveport is tremendous,” said Laird. “We look forward to it – and I am sure they feel the same way.”

Halftime will showcase Grambling’s World Famed Tiger Marching Band and the Spirit of Northwestern. Whether four quarters of football can provide anything close to that level of excitement will be interesting to see.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Grambling vs. NSU, Shreveport, 1974: a matchup never seen before

TRAILBLAZERS:  Legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson (left) and Northwestern’s George Doherty were proud to stage an historic 1974 matchup between their teams in Shreveport. (Photo courtesy GLENN LEWIS, Grambling State)

By NICK DERISO and DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

(Grambling and Northwestern State’s football teams meet Saturday night in the Shreveport Classic at Independence Stadium, the sixth matchup in the series but the first in Shreveport since an historic night 48 years ago, remembered here and adapted from a 2009 story in The Deriso Report by former Monroe writer Nick Deriso.)

Fans sporting black and gold filled one side of State Fair Stadium, as purple and white clothes populated the other.

But there was something else that stood out as Grambling and Northwestern State’s football teams met in Shreveport on Sept. 14, 1974.

“What was unique was not just the color of the shirts. You had all white people on one side, and all black people on the other,” said Jack Brittain Jr., a true freshman NSU special teams player in the game. “That was not something I was used to seeing. None of us were. It was a different point of view, and we all realized it was something special.”

“We knew it was big, especially playing a school of a different race from Louisiana,” said Sammy White, then a junior wingback for Grambling College. “We knew the level of competition would be a step up for our program, and we wanted to give it everything we had to pull it out.”

The Tigers did, 14-13, in dramatic fashion as a crowd estimated as large as 30,000 watched.

It was unique – the first-ever football game in the Deep South pairing teams from what have since become known as HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and PWI (Predominantly White Institutions). It took place as desegregation in the state continued, less than a decade after the first black students enrolled at Northwestern. Melvin Howard, in 1969, became the Demons’ first black football player; he will be enshrined in the school’s N-Club Hall of Fame next month.

So the game was, undeniably, special. And everyone in the stadium knew it.

“It was actually a barrier-breaker, as far as those things go,” said Brittain. “As a freshman, it was my first college game, so my knees were literally shaking before we went out for the kickoff. Then, we were facing Grambling, who had such a great reputation for sending players to the professional leagues, and they were coached by Eddie Robinson. We figured it was going to be an epic battle.”

It was intense for every second of the 60 minutes. Both teams punted seven times. Grambling managed just four first downs, but outgained NSU by 74 yards. The Demons fumbled seven times, losing three – but intercepted four of the Tigers’ passes.

White and Bossier City native Gary “Big Hands” Johnson were future NFL stars playing key roles for Grambling, which had several other players who reached the pros. Doug Williams, the future Super Bowl MVP, was a freshman third-team quarterback to Joe Comeaux, but moved into a starting role three games later.

“Coach Rob” had billed “Big Hands” as the “best defensive lineman in college football,” and if anyone thought that was hype, those attending the game, and playing in it, left as believers.

“I was the upback protector on punts,” said Brittain, “and we punted a lot. I just remember ‘Big Hands’ exploding past our center, right behind the snap as it was coming back. He would come in low, about a foot off the ground. All I could do was dive at his shoelaces. He would just shove me to the ground and trample right over me.”

A 4-yard Comeaux scramble opened the scoring, not long after the second play of the game when he found White for a 43-yard pass to the NSU 7. But the Demons responded quickly, recovering a White fumble at the Grambling 13. The Tigers were rugged – posting a series of stuffs on off-tackle runs by NSU star Mario “The Rage” Cage, who could not get past “Big Hands” and his teammate Robert Barber. Demon quarterback Butch Ballard’s 8-yard toss to Gene Knecht finally put NSU on the board, but the extra point failed.

Cage did break loose on a long TD run – reported variously as 61, 57 or 52 yards – and with Danny Foret’s successful conversion kick, the Demons went up 13-7 at halftime.

“That game,” said White, “was tight, tight, tight.”

He made it a tie, hauling in a pass from backup QB Terry Brown on an 82-yard strike. Grambling defensive back Rodney Zeno kicked his second extra point for a 14-13 edge.

“They were blitzing us a lot, so we had a one-on-one matchup,” said White. “Terry threw a nice long ball.”

But the Demons had the Tigers dead to rights at game’s end. NSU’s last interception, by linebacker Dan Boddie, was returned to the Grambling 34 with 4:03 left. Ballard drove the Demons to the 3 inside the final minute. NSU coach George Doherty ordered a Foret field goal try with 39 seconds left – on third down, while his players wanted one more try for a TD before kicking.

Star defensive back James Hunter, and perhaps “Big Hands,” deflected the kick just enough to spoil it.

“One of the greatest thrills of my life came at the end of the game,” Ballard said years later, “when Coach Robinson found me on the field, shook my hand and congratulated me for playing a good game.”

Those memories have been rekindled in anticipation of Saturday’s contest.

“The perspective of that game is way beyond the football field, so many years later,” said Brittain. “In our lives, for players on both teams and I think for the fans, too, it had a big impact. What a great time to try something like that, to break through some of those unknowns. It took some courage by both coaches.”

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Different than envisioned, Byrd’s Roblow found his roles with NSU

LAUNCHING A BOMB: Shreveport-Byrd product Scotty Roblow has become a weapon as a punter for Northwestern State. (Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES – There are 10 lines of accolades topping Scotty Roblow’s bio in the Northwestern State football media guide, making him as decorated a Demon as there is on the 2022 squad.

Not bad for a punter.

The Shreveport native and former Byrd High star, who came to college better known for his long field goals than for his punting, has found his groove.

It took a big knock to his head, though – a vicious, though he believes accidental, hit on a kickoff in the fourth game of his freshman year at Houston Baptist.

“Oh, Lord,” he said. All it did was completely change his destiny.

He was expected to be a four-year kicker who also punted. But after being flattened by a blindside hit, he was concussed and out for two weeks. During that respite, he and NSU coach Brad Laird conferred and took advantage of the relatively-new, unique-to-football NCAA rule allowing players to redshirt after taking part in a maximum of four games in the season.

“I honestly think if I hadn’t gotten that concussion, I would have kept kicking and would have played out that season, then wouldn’t have been able to redshirt. I’m pretty sure it was an accident on the other guy’s part, but he pretty much chromed me,” said Roblow.

Instead, during the offseason, his inclination to focus on punting became his direction. And once the pandemic stall passed, Roblow made the move look smart, earning Freshman All-America honors in the spring 2021 six-game season. After two years, he is averaging 40.7 yards on 95 punts.

That’s two years of football eligibility. He’s graduating next spring with a business administration degree, and plans to punt for two more seasons while getting a master’s degree in either business or sports administration, and hopefully earning a chance to punt for pay.

“NFL, CFL, XFL, whatever, I’d like to earn an opportunity,” he said.

His immediate interest is helping Northwestern to earn its first win when the Demons (0-1) collide with Grambling State’s Tigers (0-1) Saturday at 6 in the “Shreveport Classic” at Independence Stadium – a venue with great vibes for Roblow.

Four falls ago on this weekend, Roblow drilled a 44-yard field goal that lifted Byrd to a 17-14 upset of nationally-ranked Bishop Dunne in the 2018 Battle on the Border at the home of the I-Bowl.

“Getting back there will bring back some good memories, and it will be nice to see everybody,” said Roblow, “but it’s all about coming back with the win.”

He is in a fantasy football league with several of his boys from Byrd, and he keeps an eye on the Yellow Jackets. Lots has changed, though – notably, Roblow, who at 6-foot-5 was an imposing goalkeeper for the Byrd soccer team, doesn’t recall being around a soccer ball since his high school days.

But that soccer experience has helped ramp up his value to the Demons. It’s made him a more proficient punter, and his skill fielding snaps has doubled his workload. His side gig? Roblow is in his second season holding for senior kicker Eddie Godina on extra points and field goals.

“As a soccer goalie, I was used to taking the ball off the ground and out of my hands. There wasn’t much of a difference. Punting comes more naturally than kicking to me,” he said. When Godina needed a holder last fall, Roblow became a logical candidate since he already handled snaps, and …

“I think I have pretty good hands, and they’re pretty large. I can catch the ball, and Eddie trusts me. There’s no question that whatever type snap I get, I’m going to catch it and put it down and he’s going to kick it.”

Roblow hopes he’s handling more snaps for Godina than in punting situations against Grambling.

Whatever he’s doing, he knows one thing: his mother Susan will be cheering passionately.

“My mom is crazy. She does what she does and I’m just glad she gets to all the games,” he said. “Even at LSU (when he kicked as a true freshman in 2019), she was definitely the loudest person in Tiger Stadium. She screams the entire game.

“She’s always on my side 100 percent. She tells me whenever I do good, but she lets me know I could do better at whatever it is,” he said.

He’s hoping for screams of joy at the end of Saturday’s return home.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com

 


Jackson looking for Grambling to find itself Saturday at I-Bowl

LOOKING FOR ACTION:  Hue Jackson is hoping his Grambling Tigers’ offense can get untracked Saturday night at Independence Stadium against Northwestern State in the Shreveport Classic. (Photo courtesy Grambling State Athletics)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

GRAMBLING – Hue Jackson is a patient man, and he sees the big picture.

So there was calm during the 58-3 storm that Arkansas State brought to his debut as the Grambling State football coach last Saturday, and he was resolute Tuesday as he reflected on that outing, its impact, and the Tigers’ immediate future – a Saturday 6 p.m. contest at Independence Stadium against the equally 0-1 Northwestern State Demons in the “Shreveport Classic.”

After using three quarterbacks while netting just nine first downs and 102 total yards at A-State, Jackson said the Tigers were moving forward with starter Quaterius Hawkins, a junior from Bastrop and Jones (Miss.) Junior College, and expecting him to play four quarters Saturday.

“Quaterius Hawkins will be our starting quarterback and our team understands that … and we will play him throughout,” said Jackson. “Obviously we have packages we may use (without him) but he is our starting quarterback.”

Through the unproductive opener, teachable moments emerged, he said.

“We learned a lot about our team, and I think they learned a lot about our coaching staff. We learned how to travel (something the G-Men will do for the first six weeks of the season) and how to maneuver through some tough times, and how we will handle tough times,” he said. “It wasn’t anywhere close to the type game we wanted to play. We’re expected to learn from those mistakes and put those lessons to work this weekend.”

Jackson was not pulling up posies, or looking to put a bow on the pig. The opener was an all-systems fail from a football execution perspective. But it was just the first step this season, against a higher division (FBS) opponent on the road, and for the first-year coach, there’s a long haul to consider.

“I don’t remember anything that were strengths. There are things we need to really shore up and get better at, some things we thought we were really strong at, and that didn’t show in this game. And that’s OK. We didn’t play well anywhere. We didn’t put our best foot forward.

“We have to play as a team. Offense has to play for defense, and defense has to play for offense. Special teams has to play for both units. Everybody has to contribute for us to win,” said Jackson.

The Tigers managed just a field goal, with three major defensive penalties against the Red Wolves providing most of the movement to that opportunity. Jackson, whose experience includes four NFL offensive coordinator jobs, along with being the OC at USC and head coach for three NFL seasons with Oakland (2011) and Cleveland (2016-18), is eager to see his team not overmatched and able to move the ball.

“They always say as long as you have one more point than the other team, you win, but we do need to see some offensive fireworks Saturday,” he said.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Opening weekend is cool, but next Saturday? Fantastic

One of the greatest days in state college football history is next Saturday.

It’s pretty great here in Shreveport-Bossier, because Grambling and Northwestern State are matched up at the Independence Bowl.

It’s absolutely fantastic in Baton Rouge. Say all you will about the appeal of LSU’s home schedule – ostensibly highlighted by SEC contests with Mississippi State, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Rammer Jammer Alabamer – but I’ll take next Saturday’s home opener over any of those.

Will the game be competitive? Highly doubtful.

Will game day be epic? Absolutely.

This century, LSU has wisely, and thankfully, adopted the routine of playing host to in-state football opponents, not just Tulane but all the others. Well, almost all the others.

Just not the HBCU’s. Just not the school 10 miles up the Mississippi River. And just not the school in the red-clay hills that is undoubtedly the most prominent minority-rooted institution in the country, with the gold standard in HBCU football tradition.

But that invisible barrier begins tumbling down Monday, and by kickoff at 6:37 next Saturday, Tiger Stadium and surrounding tailgating parties will have reached a level never experienced when an FCS team has come to play.

LSU and Southern is the matchup long overdue.

A year later to the day (of the week), Sept. 9, 2023, it’s Grambling at LSU.

Southern has won 19 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and 11 Black college national crowns. Grambling owns 26 SWAC titles and has been the best HBCU team in the land 15 times.

“This is an incredible opportunity to join our fan bases of these historic Louisiana institutions and championship programs,” said LSU athletics director Scott Woodward June 1, 2020, announcing the contract signings.

“These dates will be days to celebrate not only football, but the state of Louisiana and all (italics are mine) of our people. It’s time,” he said, “and we are proud to be part of it.”

Northwestern State and Grambling broke the state college football “color barrier” Sept. 14, 1974 at what was then known as State Fair Stadium in Shreveport, before an estimated 30,000 fans. It wasn’t just the first collision of PWI (predominantly white institutions) and HBCU’s in Louisiana; it was the first such pairing in the Deep South, no small thing at a time when school desegregation was not completed.

There wasn’t much tailgating then. There will be an astonishing tailgating scene all over the LSU campus next Saturday.

During the 30 years I worked in athletics at NSU, we began squaring off against Southern in 1994. With all due respect to Grambling fans, and McNeese supporters, or the Bison Nation of North Dakota State and the Griz fans in Montana, there’s no fan base in the FCS that comes close to the sheer sprawl and the high caliber of tailgating that Jaguar Nation brings game after game, at home, and anywhere on the road.

Crosstown travel for the core of that fan base? OMG.

Come hungry. Jag fans are as gracious as any. Come happy. The music range is tremendous. The menu, limitless. Come ready to make friends, and see neighbors. This is liable to be a 48-hour cultural blend, probably longer, at least from Friday morning to Sunday lunch.

And I haven’t even mentioned the bands. That pairing, the Golden Band from Tigerland and the Human Jukebox of Southern, is so good that they ought to let the football teams play at halftime and the bands play for four quarters.

Not to diminish the Grambling-Northwestern rematch, which has its own scaled-down appeal locally. The crowd won’t approach the 30,000 from 1974. If half that many make it out to Independence Stadium Saturday, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Marketing for “The Shreveport Classic” started a few days ago, because it was only a couple days before that when Grambling finally agreed on a kickoff time.

But there will be a wonderful tailgating scene around the I-Bowl, a lot of common ground, two football teams trying to make a statement after opening as overmatched visitors, and yes, two fabulous bands, the Spirit of Northwestern and the World Famed Tiger Band.

If you’re not among the 150,000 or more – seriously, I’d bet on that — who will be tailgating at Tiger Stadium, I hope you consider coming out to Shreveport-Bossier’s big ballpark and taking in the scene for Grambling-NSU.

On so many levels, it’s a really big, joyful deal. And unlike in Baton Rouge, the football matchup should be very competitive, too.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com


Kansas transfer Fallin wins Demons’ QB job

CALIFORNIA DEMON:  After starring in Santa Clarita, Calif., in high school, Miles Fannin was little-used in five years at Kansas but has won the starting quarterback job at Northwestern State. 

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

It didn’t take long for Kansas transfer Miles Fallin to earn the starting quarterback’s job at Northwestern State, but he’s had to wait six years for it.

Fallin will start for the Demons next Saturday when they visit FCS power Montana. NSU coach Brad Laird announced his decision Thursday at the 26th Annual Independence Bowl-NSU Kickoff Luncheon at Superior’s Steakhouse.

“I’ve told him not to be looking over his shoulder. We’re not going to say, ‘You’ve got this many series, then we’ll run in another quarterback.’ He’s won the job. He’s our quarterback,” said Laird.

Fallin, a 23-year-old California native, threw for 6,887 yards and 61 touchdowns at Santa Clarita’s Canyon High School and was a second-team all-state pick. He earned an MBA but played in only three games in his five years at Kansas.

After landing in Natchitoches in July, he won the competition with Zach Clement, a sophomore who was the starter in four games among the nine he played for the Demons last fall.

Fallin, a 6-5, 220-pounder, went 16-37 for 320 yards and four touchdowns in the Demons’ two preseason scrimmages in NSU’s new “Air Raid” offense installed after Laird brought in a new coordinator in January.

“We’ve seen his consistency leading the team. He’s taken care of the football,” said Laird, “not just in the scrimmages, but throughout August.”

Recruited by former LSU head coach Les Miles for the Jayhawks, Fallin only made three brief appearances at KU and did not see the field last season under coach Lance Leopold.

Clement completed 56 percent of 154 passes for 1,023 yards and six touchdowns for the Demons in 2021, while suffering four interceptions and battling injuries.

Senior Kaleb Fletcher, who opened last season as the starter and filled that role in seven games, completed 64 percent of his 223 passes for 1,313 yards and eight TD’s, and was picked off six times.

Also vying for the job was Jacksonville State transfer Chance Newman, a junior.

“Those guys work with each other, they help each other, and it’s been fun to watch. I think each one has grown from that. Good competition helps you get better,” said Laird.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com

Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State


With kickoff looming, Caddo Parish teams share confident outlooks

NOT TEAMMATES, BUT FRIENDS: Southwood’s Corinthian Walters (at right) talks with (from right to left) Captain Shreve’s Scotty Simo and Kenyon Terrell, and Kamar Lewis of Huntington, in the Skybox at Independence Stadium Wednesday.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

The eight head coaches at Wednesday’s Caddo Parish Schools football media day were justifiably proud of the student-athletes they brought (two per team) and quite obviously, “excited.”

That word came up probably 4-5 dozen times as the coaches spoke at the event at the Independence Stadium Skybox. After all, jamborees are about to unfold, and the regular season games begin next Thursday and Friday, opportunities to validate all the offseason and summer work by each team.

There was plenty of pride in the room. Pride in the work that’s been done, in the bonds formed, and for all of the players and coaches attending, pride in being associated with each other, no matter what color jersey was being worn.

No shortage of mutual admiration. No sign of impending confrontation in the Friday nights to come.

Being there brought out the smiles.

“Looking to my left, there’s 3-star (recruits), 4-stars, a lot of talent around here, and being in the same room gives me inspiration,” said Captain Shreve’s Scotty Simo.

“I am blessed to be in this atmosphere and this type of community,” said Mar’Jayvious Moss of Northwood.

Most of the players knew each other, or had at least crossed paths, and exchanged social media messages.

“I’ve seen everybody here at some point, at 7-on-7 or in other situations, and they are all very impressive as people and players,” said Southwood standout Corinthian Walters. “It’s fun to be here with them and it’s an honor.”

Some have been pals since childhood.

Quarterbacks Lake Lambert of Byrd and Mason Welch of Northwood go way, way back, growing up playing with, and against, each other.  Those kinds of relationships were commonplace among the group and added to the joy of the experience – not to mention the anticipation of meeting again on a football field.

“These Shreve guys, I went to elementary and middle school with them,” said Lambert, “so that makes the rivalry much better and makes us play much harder.”

Some, if not most, of the players will be highly recruited sooner or later. But that took a back seat Wednesday as they uniformly expressed their optimism about the upcoming season, about their teams, and their appreciation for their coaches.

Case in point: Woodlawn defensive lineman Shadrick Jones. He was thankful for the mentorship of his head coach, Thed Harris, and that Harris recognized him as one of the Knights’ leaders.

“I’m honestly grateful, because I was on a bad path, and when he came in, Coach helped me change everything — how I was approaching classwork, everything. It’s honestly a blessing,” said Jones.

As for football, everybody was confident. Those representing heavyweights Byrd, Captain Shreve, Huntington, and Northwood were taking aim at deep playoff runs.

Raiders quarterback Kamron Evans can foresee it all coming together this season, and in the future for coach Stephen Dennis’ rising program.

“Very excited to see all the work we have put in is paying off,” said Evans. “I’m looking forward to building something that is going to be better after I leave.”

Confidence was also plentiful among the perceived underdogs, whose programs haven’t been as successful lately — Booker T. Washington, Green Oaks, Southwood, and Woodlawn.

“We have a lot of expectations and have been working really hard,” said BTW’s Darayvion Eason. “We are really looking forward to having a good year.”

Southwood defensive back Noah Grant was equally undaunted. “I believe nobody can beat us. Others may disagree, but what Coach (Jesse Esters III) has done, we know we are much better than others realize.”

Said Woodlawn’s Jones: “Everybody came willing to work, all summer, and we’ve been grinding. It’s going to be an eye-opener for everybody else, 100 percent.”

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com

Photo by DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports


Miles later, Brennan makes his last audible the right call

Nobody’s mad, or admitting to it, regarding Myles Brennan’s semi-surprising decision to end his football career, leaving the LSU quarterback room without its security blanket.

All the nice things were said Monday. There was plenty of feel good. It’s textbook PR, to get out in front of a negative story with (apparent) transparency and (seemingly sincere) respect and mutual admiration. Perhaps the hierarchy at Louisiana Downs takes note of that approach.

But no horsin’ around here. Myles Brennan is unhappy. He feels betrayed by new LSU coach Brian Kelly. As a descendent of one of New Orleans’ great restaurant families, he surely understands business decisions. Doesn’t have to like Kelly’s depth chart, but it is what it is.

So he, and Kelly, took the high road out of Baton Rouge, elevation 56 feet above sea level.

Brennan was the Tigers’ only SEC-tested quarterback, and his credentials were at the very least, solid.  In three games as the 2020 starter, he threw 11 touchdown passes and only three interceptions, going 79 of 131 and becoming the first Tiger to throw for 300-plus in his first three starts.

His leadership ability and toughness were unquestioned after he played through a muscle-mangled outing at Missouri, when he completed 29 passes for 430 yards and four TDs.

That turned out to be the last game of his life. In basketball, there’s a credo among shooters, when practicing, that you always leave on a make. Wasn’t planned that way, but Brennan has left on a make.

Degree in hand, fiancée on arm, future away from football very bright, Brennan is no dummy. As for football, he can live as a fondly-regarded, much-admired Tiger who can enjoy reunions of the 2019 National Championship team forever, and whatever business field awaits, he will have LSU goodwill always at his back.

He probably realizes due to his pair of injuries (remember, he broke his left arm slipping on the deck during a July fishing trip, costing him the 2021 season) that his skills may have diminished.

Kelly and staff concluded that was the case.

Brennan was stepping into the transfer portal while LSU was in limbo at the end of the Ed Orgeron era, but when Kelly came in from Notre Dame, he persuaded Brennan to backtrack to Baton Rouge, for what seemed to be a senior season do-over that had all the potential for a big finish.

Then Kelly created more competition, or chaos – take your pick. He landed Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels, who entered the portal with 6,025 yards and 32 TDs in three seasons starting in Tempe as a dual-threat QB.

It was “one of the more difficult decisions that I made in the offseason,” said Kelly, “but it was about … upgrading the competition on this roster across the board.”

That couldn’t have been well received by Brennan. At least Kelly didn’t string him along. The LSU QB pecking order was outlined in last Thursday’s scrimmage and none of it favored Brennan. It was apparent Daniels was in front and redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier was in the race. Kelly said if he had been healthy enough, Nussmeier would have gotten snaps with the first team. Brennan was clearly on the outside.

He didn’t mind the competition, he said in spring and during the summer. He wasn’t bad at all, but he wasn’t mobile, and if you recall LSU’s offensive line the past couple of years, that’s a volatile combination.

His quality of life got better Monday. He departs with dignity, instead of carrying a clipboard this fall. And he gets to keep that NIL money – from five businesses, including Raisin’ Canes and Smoothie King.

Leaving was a bittersweet call but, undeniably, the right one for a guy who gave it every chance to work at LSU.

Contact Doug at SBJDoug@gmail.com


Russell’s Louisiana-rooted legacy has more context than you may know

Where does Bill Russell fit in American sports history?

Undoubtedly in the stratosphere. His teams won two NCAA basketball championships, an Olympic gold medal, and 11 NBA championships in the 13 seasons he played professionally. Despite never being the Boston Celtics’ top scorer, his defense, his rebounding, his intensity and his intelligence made him the cornerstone of pro sports’ greatest dynasty, one that produced eight straight NBA crowns and earned him five NBA Most Valuable Player awards.

Where does Bill Russell fit in Louisiana sports history?

He was born in West Monroe, on Feb. 12, 1934, during hard times for nearly all Americans and certainly for those of color living in the Deep South.  He spent the first nine years of his life there, where extended family members remain, where his mother, Katie, was buried after she passed at age 32, of a kidney infection, three years after she and his father, Charlie, decided to move their family west to Oakland, hoping for better opportunities. 

But membership in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame is not among the cascade of accolades awarded Russell, who died in his sleep at the very wise old age of 88 Sunday a week ago.

Why not?

Because of a rule developed in the mid-1970s, when the Louisiana Sports Writers Association considered him for its Hall a few years after he retired in the wake of leading the Celtics to another NBA crown, the second time as player-coach, the first Black head coach in pro sports history. Through the years, that LSWA standard has been referred to as “the Bill Russell Rule” – to be eligible for selection, an athlete or coach has to have either played three seasons of high school sports and graduated with a Louisiana Department of Education degree, or have played two years at a state college, or competed for at least five productive years in the state as a pro.

That excluded Russell. And since, it’s been applied to star athletes including basketball greats Marques Johnson (born in Natchitoches), Antawn Jameson (Shreveport), baseball’s Reggie Smith (Shreveport) and gold medal USA Olympic gymnast Carly Patterson (Baton Rouge). That’s just a quick list of sports luminaries born, and in some cases, raised past their elementary school years here before their families relocated them.

Russell may not have contemplated being excluded by his home state’s Hall. After all, he declined to attend his Celtics’ jersey retirement ceremony or even his enshrinement in the nearby Basketball Hall of Fame. In his later years, at an NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, LSHOF selection committee member Ted Lewis briefly spoke with him and asked if Russell had interest, better late than never, in being spotlighted here.

“No, not really,” was the reply, consistent with his lifelong values.            

“It is better to understand than be understood,” he would tell his daughter. And, “you should live a life with as few negatives as possible – without acquiescing.”

One of Russell’s trademarks was declining to sign autographs. Not even for his Celtics teammates.  That was almost uniformly taken as his being churlish and aloof but, instead, it was his belief that a handshake and perhaps a momentary greeting, or even a conversation, was infinitely more personal.

Bob Remy, an esteemed New Orleans sports historian who worked on stat crews for the New Orleans Jazz, Pelicans and Saints, decided as a young adult to ask for Russell’s signature when he visited as head coach of the Seattle Supersonics.

“He said he did not sign autographs. As I turned away, I felt him tap me on the shoulder, and I turned toward him. He looked at me and said, ‘Thank you for asking.’”

Boston-born Bill Magrath has a rarity. It’s a weathered, torn sheet of thin card-stock paper, the back of a roster card from a 1964 Celtics’ game in the fabled Boston Garden in the midst of the dynasty, the Celts on the way to their fifth-straight NBA championship in that mind-blowing string of eight in a row.

It’s got more than a signature — there’s a sweet backstory.

“From one Bill to another, Best wishes, Bill Russell,” it reads.

A keepsake from a kind man, once a lanky Bay Area kid with only one college scholarship offer but an incomparable competitor who rapidly ascended to become one of the world’s most successful athletes. As Boston’s biggest star left the Garden, discreetly from a side door on a stormy winter night, he encountered a very small-for-his-age boy, tugging on his raincoat and shouting, “Mr. Russell, Mr. Russell!” The very tall man, already well known for not signing autographs, swept up the kid in his arms. Then, after a brief chat, he scribbled a note nobody could have imagined would be such a treasure 60-some years later.

Bill Magrath was 9 years old.  Even then, he understood Russell’s reluctance. “Black people were not treated well in Boston in those days,” said Magrath, who holds a master’s degree in sports administration from Northwestern State and is the retired media relations manager for the Sports Business Daily.

Russell was not mean when his experience could have embittered him. But he always rose up against  racism and injustice. He stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Jackie Robinson asked for Russell, who didn’t know him personally, to be one of his pallbearers, because he was Robinson’s favorite athlete – for the way he competed, on the court, and in life.

Russell didn’t remain in Boston after shelving his sneakers. He returned to the west coast and eventually settled in Seattle. He lived a happy life, on his terms. He listened to NPR and watched Jeopardy or Star Trek. He enjoyed Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson. He played golf. He read. He encouraged those he loved and, often unexpectedly, others. One night, Daily Show comic Jon Stewart fielded a call from Russell, completely out of left field. Stewart tweeted, “He thought I looked sad. Best pep talk of my life.”

Russell didn’t need, or want, to be in any Hall of Fame. But our teachers, our coaches, our leaders, our mentors need to share his story, much more than just his basketball feats, for generations to come.

Because Bill Russell fits in American history.

Contact Doug at SBJDoug@gmail.com

  • With attribution to reporting by the late Frank Deford, and Rick Reilly.


With only one arm, new NSU recruit has stirred up plenty of attention

New Northwestern State basketball coach Corey Gipson has created a unique buzz around his first recruiting class.

There’s a blend of transfers from four-year schools and junior colleges, eight in all. One, Missouri transfer Jordan Wilmore, is 7-foot-3.

There are two prep school signees, a year removed from high school.

And there’s the most famous recruit in NSU athletic history.

The one-armed kid.

Seriously.

Hansel Enmanuel is not a name that resonates, but his story is incredibly compelling, and it’s not exaggeration to say that people around the WORLD have taken notice.

His left arm was amputated just below the shoulder when a cinder block wall fell on him at age 6 in his native Dominican Republic. It did not deter his joy of playing sports, although it ultimately redirected his focus from baseball to hoops. That may have happened anyway; his dad was a pro basketball player on the island.

He was an ESPY Award finalist for “Best Play.” He is the subject of a Gatorade commercial. He has four million followers on Twitter and Instagram, not counting the reach of that Gatorade advertisement that debuted on ABC during the NBA Finals and continues in rotation across networks and on the company’s social media a month later.

Monday, ESPN’s Jalen & Jacoby show hosts told the audience they were bringing their show to NSU at some point this season to track the story.

Toss in the fact that 247Sports.com ranks him as a three-star recruit. Enmanuel posted averages of 25.9 points, 11 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 3.4 blocks as a senior at Life Christian Academy in Kissimmee, Fla.

But is he the product of high-caliber editing, a phenom who has a mind-blowing highlight reel, but due to obvious limitations, has shortcomings that cast doubt on his potential to play at the NCAA Division I level?

Perhaps.

His stats say otherwise. And clearly, the Demons believe otherwise. So did the coaching staff at Bethune-Cookman, a SWAC program based in Daytona Beach., a 78-mile drive from Kissimmee. So did coaches at Tennessee State, and if you can accept it, coaches at Memphis, a national program said to be among his final four choices.

But those stats were compiled against lower-level Florida high school competition, along with a few intersectional games for the Lions of Life Christian.

He has amazed and impressed observers for two summers while on the summer ball circuit. He was invited to play in the pro-am Drew League in Los Angeles last weekend, which is where he announced his college decision, although it turns out he had signed his letter of intent with the Demons a month earlier.

Smart move to make the announcement on a big stage. It immediately splattered across the internet and social media on outlets like Sports Illustrated and Apple News, gaining millions of impressions.

Whether engineered by Enmanuel’s camp or Gipson, breaking the news then and there got the desired result.

This guard, whose size has been reported from 6-4 to 6-6, is a media sensation.

Will he be solid enough to play at Northwestern, in the Southland Conference? There apparently were not offers from nearby programs like Central Florida, South Florida, Florida Gulf Coast, Florida A&M, North Florida, Stetson — all within easy driving distance of Kissimmee — let alone Florida, Miami or Florida State.

Who was right? It will be interesting to see as his days with the Demons unfold.

The mere fact that he’s gotten this far, and earned such widespread attention and respect, is mind-blowing. Enmanuel undeniably is worthy of all the praise he gets.

For Gipson and the Demons, there’s minimal risk, and already, great rewards. People will be keeping an eye on Northwestern State basketball this winter, and maybe if things go well, more Gatorade commercials will follow, along with wins.

Contact Doug at SBJDoug@gmail.com


Southland passes on preserving tradition, stops NSU-McNeese series

Monday morning, I listened to Greg Sankey, the most powerful man in college sports as the Southeastern Conference commissioner, cite the necessity to be “thoughtful but nimble” in the constantly evolving landscape of conference affiliations.

New Southland Conference commissioner Chris Grant has certainly been thoughtful but nimble as he’s navigated the turbulent league landscape since coming on board as the No. 2 guy last summer, then emerging as commissioner in waiting last fall. He gets a lot of credit for Southland cornerstone McNeese choosing to stay put (for now, since the Cowboys unabashedly admit they are looking for upward mobility).

He also is lauded for helping bring Lamar back from the Western Athletic Conference to the Southland after a miserable year flying teams all around three time zones, and for helping Incarnate Word realize the folly of trying the same thing. UIW walked to the DMZ, looked at the other side, and decided not to defect, after Grant helped encourage the Southland’s San Antonio member to stay put.

The Southland was a conference in crisis a year ago, with longtime members (Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston) departing, dragging Lamar and Abilene Christian along; with Central Arkansas also bolting, and McNeese wavering on joining the wacky WAC. Now, largely credited to Grant’s playing a pivotal role, the league has 10 committed members (eight football schools) and an even split between Texas and Louisiana campuses. As it stages the Southland Football Media Day event Wednesday in the defacto conference headquarters, Lake Charles, the Southland has pulled off quite the comeback.

In an 11th-hour switch in June, Lamar chose to rejoin the Southland for this season, not 2023-24 as indicated this spring. That produced a scramble to rearrange the league’s schedules in all sports. Football, in scope and profile, presented the biggest logistical hurdles.

And the biggest, oldest, most tradition-laden rivalry in the Southland didn’t survive.

When the Southland proudly trotted out its revamped football slate six days ago, the Northwestern State-McNeese game was wiped away. The Demons and Cowboys have met every season since 1951, but are no longer to scheduled to play this fall.

It was to be the final home game for the Demons and the closing contest of the regular season for both teams. If played on that date, or any other, it’s a series with 70 years of annual history, the one game that every year, players, coaches, and fans on both sides circle as soon as that season’s schedules are set.

Kicking off SEC Media Days in Atlanta Monday, Sankey addressed scheduling – the SEC’s issue is not a quick fix, but what to do when Texas and Oklahoma join, presumably in 2025. He cited the SEC’s policy of three “permanent” rivalries (LSU has Ole Miss, Alabama and Florida).

The Southland doesn’t have permanent rivalries – well, not any longer. In a statement issued to The Journal, Grant tried to explain why not.

“As a conference with deep pride in its history of competitive excellence, the Southland Conference has profound respect for the legendary rivalry between McNeese State and Northwestern State. We also understand the fan frustration that organizers had to hit the pause button for a year due to multiple intersecting obligations. As schools worked to build non-conference schedules for this fall, they did a fantastic job accommodating the welcome presence of Lamar University and the University of Incarnate Word, a scheduling alliance with the Ohio Valley Conference and several prioritized dates on campus for multiple schools. We apologize to the student-athletes and fans for the necessary pause on this annual tradition and look forward to the rivalry’s spirited resumption in 2023.”

Sorting through: “profound respect for the legendary rivalry?” Horse hooey.

“Had to hit the pause button for a year due to multiple intersecting obligations.” Don’t think you “had to,” Mr. Grant. You just didn’t care enough to have your crew work a little bit harder to preserve a 70-season series between in-state rivals. Truman was president when the Demons and Cowboys first teed it up. You’re right about one thing – it is a “legendary rivalry.”

“Several prioritized dates on campus for multiple schools.” Uh, we can easily read that as Homecoming. Every school has it. Everybody loves it. But shouldn’t the oldest active, continuous series in the Southland also be “prioritized?”

“Necessary pause on this annual tradition.” Totally unnecessary, that is. I get that there’s a rush to produce a schedule. The season is nearing, but there are six weeks before the Sept. 3 season opener, and nine weeks before Southland games start on Sept. 24. The Southland didn’t pause on the annual tradition. It trashed the annual part.

Remember the words of Greg Sankey – commissioner of the Southland, by the way, from 1996-2002: “thoughtful but nimble.”

During the crush of the pandemic, we saw countless examples of “nimble” when it came to scheduling, to practices, to travel, to . . . everything.

What we have here is a refusal to admit a correctable error. The conference office will tell us that the schedule announced last week was “approved” by each school. I know it caught the NSU football staff by surprise, after they heard a couple days earlier from McNeese colleagues that the game would probably move off the final date to accommodate McNeese-Lamar there. Fine. But to toss it aside? Terrible.

Even worse? There’s ample time to fix this. If only Grant and crew could show us a little “nimble.”

It took under three weeks to produce this altered slate. This could be fixed faster, if anyone truly cared at the Southland office. It only matters to the players, coaches and fans. That’s all.

Contact Doug at SBJDoug@gmail.com


Southland shuffle scuttles 70-season NSU-McNeese football rivalry

CARDINAL SIN:  The Southland Conference has halted a 70-season string of rivalry matchups between Northwestern State and McNeese, in a schedule shuffle prompted by Lamar’s return to the league this fall.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES – The return of Lamar to the Southland Conference was good news for Northwestern State – until Wednesday.

That’s when the conference office issued a revised 2022 conference football schedule without a matchup between NSU and its biggest rival, McNeese.

For the first time since the 1951 season (except for 2020 when the pandemic pushed the season to spring 2021), the Demons and Cowboys will not meet in football.

They were previously slated to collide in Natchitoches to end the regular season on Nov. 19, but now McNeese will meet Lamar and the Demons will face Incarnate Word in Turpin Stadium.

Earlier this year, Lamar withdrew from its brief and ill-fated membership in the Western Athletic Conference and announced it would rejoin the Southland effective with the 2023-24 athletic year. Earlier this week, Lamar and the Southland announced the Cardinals were back in the SLC effective immediately.

That decision had actually been reached some time in June, when the conference office and scheduling consultants began restructuring the Southland football slate to accommodate Lamar’s return.

NSU will play Lamar in Turpin Stadium to kick off the Southland season on Sept. 24. Earlier this week, coaches from Northwestern heard from their counterparts at McNeese that the Demons-Cowboys contest originally slated for Nov. 19 would move up to that date.

But an apparent late shuffle in the Southland office scuttled that.

Fans, coaches, and staff at Northwestern and McNeese were stunned to learn their teams would not meet, pausing the annual rivalry – the longest in the conference by far. The Southland’s failure to prioritize that matchup was already being criticized after the league’s announcement.

The revised slate didn’t impact the Demons’ non-conference slate. NSU opens at Montana and on Sept. 10 comes to Independence Stadium in Shreveport to match up against Grambling.

The Demons have only four games at home in Turpin Stadium. Twice, they will play two consecutive road games and four of their last six contests are away from Natchitoches.

The revised 2022 Northwestern State football schedule:  Sept. 3 at Montana, Sept. 10 vs. Grambling (Independence Stadium, Shreveport); Sept. 17 at Southern Mississippi; Sept. 24 home vs. Lamar*; Oct. 1 home vs. Nicholls*;  Oct. 8 at Eastern Illinois; Oct. 15 at Houston Baptist*; Oct. 22 home vs. Southeast Missouri (homecoming); Oct. 29 open date; Nov. 5 at Texas A&M-Commerce*; Nov. 12 at Southeastern Louisiana*; Nov. 19 home vs. Incarnate Word*

Note = *asterisk indicates Southland Conference games.

Contact Doug at DougIreland@LaSportsHall.com

Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State