LITTLE ROCK — What was unspoken spoke loudly Friday night at the induction banquet for the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
When he played basketball for Arkansas School for the Deaf, Bennie Fuller once scored 102 points in a basketball game in 1971. He averaged 50.9 points a game (before the 3-point line) during his senior year. He’s the all-time leading scorer in Arkansas high school basketball history.
With Emogene Nutt, mother of Houston and widow of his coach (Houston Nutt Sr.) at the deaf school, translating, Fuller signed his acceptance speech, a first for the event in its 56th year.
What happened moments later went beyond words — and gestures.
Fuller lost his home and all of his possessions in last year’s tornado in Moore, Okla.
Emogene Nutt surprised him with a scrapbook chronicling his high school career, “so your kids and grandkids can really know you averaged 50 points game.”
Then Ray Tucker, the outgoing executive director of ASHOF, on behalf of the Arkansas Activities Association, presented Fuller with a duplicate of his Most Valuable Player plaque from the 1971 high school all-star game plus a commemorative basketball.
The tangible represented the intangible.
That was a theme for the evening.
Pro golfer Ken Duke awakened at 4 a.m. Friday, teed off at 7:30 a.m. for a round in the Honda Classic in Florida, then caught a private jet in order to attend the ceremony at the Statehouse Convention Center. He arrived about 15 minutes before the program began, then slipped out early to return to Florida for the final two rounds.
Holding up his plaque, Duke said, “I don’t care about golf scores right now. Golf is secondary to something like this.”
All of the 11 inductees filled tables with family and friends to share the moments.
Don Campbell, one of the most successful high school coaches in Arkansas history with stops at Corning, Sheridan and Wynne, probably drew the largest (or at least the most vocal) group of supporters.
They had plenty to celebrate beyond the tangible.
Diagnosed in 2008 with colon cancer, Campbell, who lives in retirement in Vilonia, has had six major surgeries plus chemotherapy since then. For two years, he has been cancer free.
“Every day is a blessing,” he said. Pointing to a large group of former players, he said, “Once you play for me, you’re mine.”
Stephanie Strack Mathis, the first former St. Joseph athlete ever inducted into the state sports hall, was described in a video by her college coach, Joe Foley, as the best player he has ever coached, “one of the toughest kids I have ever coached.”
That’s saying a lot from a person considered one of the best basketball coaches to ever labor in the state.
Mathis thanked a bunch of people in her acceptance speech but didn’t forget her roots at St. Joseph, a Class B school and far off the radar in Arkansas sports at the time.
She fondly recalled the fundamental instruction given to her in the salad years of her career by her high school coach, the late Kathryn Mourot, and the work Joe Mallett, boys coach at the time, put in to get her the chance to play college basketball. She was eventually a three-time All-American at Arkansas Tech.
“Those high school coaches instilled the integrity and work ethic in me that goes beyond sports,” she said.
Conway’s Ken Stephens, who has coached a who’s who of coaches including former coaches Barry Switzer, Larry Lacewell and current head coaches Monte Coleman, Bill Keopple and Charlie Strong, was No. 10 of 11 to speak.
When you’re No. 10 out of 11, the audience holds to a stricter observance of the three-minute mandate (or suggestion) for acceptance speeches.
“It’s getting late, isn’t it?” he said. “How do you condense a 43-year coaching career to three minutes? ... But it was not about wins and losses, but the people you go through life with.”
David Bazzel, promoter and idea man extraordinaire (including the creation of the Little Rock Touchdown Club and Broyles Awars), said that as a 17-year-old in Pensacola, Fla., he prayed about his college choice. “I prayed that I wanted to go to a place where I can be heavily involved in the community when I leave football. I feel tonight is an affirmation of that answer to prayer.”
He said his Razorback uniform was more than a tangible jersey.
“When I walked onto the field, I thought of the 6-year-old kid in the stands who wanted to be a Razorback someday; I thought of the farmer who had worked in the fields all week and the game was the relief,” he said. “I wore that uniform like a badge.”
The other inductees were former basketball star Jim “Bad News” Barnes, basketball coaches Gary Blair and Alvy Early, football star Dennis “Dirt” Winston and the late Rollin Razorbacks coach Harry Vines. They or those representing them expressed similar thoughts and sentiments, one musically.
Maybe Campbell best punctuated the evening in reading a congratulatory email from a former player who lives in Pennsylvania.
“The real crux of the matter is the difference you make in the lives of young athletes,” he said.
He held up his plaque in one hand.
“This is a great honor.”
Then, he held up the printed copy of the words of praise from a former player in a faraway state.
“This here is a great honor also.”
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)