Sports

Georgia Sports Hall of Fame adds its newest class

On Friday, it was declared “Ron Simmons Day” in Warner Robins.

On Saturday, the day and night belonged to Simmons and six others from football, basketball, golf, gymnastics, baseball and broadcasting who became the latest members of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

Speeches ranged from the raucous of Larry Rakestraw, who was happy his ex-wife wasn’t on hand, to the sincere thanks of some families in Warner Robins who kept Simmons on the straight and narrow as a youth. It was a trip down the street for Macon golfer Ed Everett and a return to the alma mater’s home city of Mercer’s Sam Mitchell.

Suzanne Yoculan said her gymnastics success at Georgia was because of people like those in the audience, and Georgia Tech fans went back in time with some clips of the late Al Ciraldo Sr.

And then there was son introducing father, as did master of ceremonies Ernie Johnson Jr. for Ernie Johnson Sr.

Johnson Jr. offered a unique twist, introducing each new member with an original poem. His dad’s introduction ended with: “I could go on for days, it’s true, but then again, why bother? Let me just say how thrilled I am, to introduce my father.”

Joked his father, “I didn’t know you were a poet, Ern.”

Johnson Sr. proceeded to delight the crowd for nearly nine minutes, turning the City Auditorium into his own Atlanta Braves broadcast booth — perhaps during a rain delay — with stories that inspired nothing but laughter, his voice sounding like it hadn’t lost a step since the heydays of his broadcasting career.

He talked of his wife of 63 years, who he said claimed it’s actually 30 because he was on the road so much, and of pitcher Warren Spahn, who had an observation Johnson wasn’t happy to relate.

“Growing old sucks,” Johnson said Spahn once groused at a banquet. “He was right. I got a cane up here, and I got my hankerchief.

“I asked my dentist about my condition and she said, ‘Well, you’ve got an overactive saliva gland.’ And I said, ‘Is that the same as drooling?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ ”

And he promptly wiped his chin to roars from the crowd.

About 700 friends, family and fans filled the Auditorium for the ceremony, which followed a luncheon with the inductees and family, a FanFest at the Hall and a procession on the red carpet up the stairs to the ceremony.

Friday’s activities included the jacket ceremony, where inductees were presented their official Hall blazer. Everett led the team that won the Hall’s golf tournament Friday morning, earning him a weekend of grief. Weather all day was perfect with sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s.

Johnson Jr. got his first look at the Hall of Fame before the night’s festivities.

“It’s absolutely spectacular,” he said. “The place is unbelievable.”

Outgoing executive director Jackie Decell was given the Chairman’s Award by the Hall Authority and Chairman. She is retiring at the end of April, and this was her final induction ceremony.

“Thank you for this marvelous turnout,” she said. “Thank you for letting this be the best sendoff I could have.”

Illustrator Jack Davis was given the first Erk Russell Spirit Award. Davis, who helped start “Mad” magazine, has had his work on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

Former Mercer and NBA standout Mitchell told the crowd how he met his wife the first day of class at Mercer back in the early 1980s.

“I don’t know if she thought I was going to be somebody, or if she felt just sorry for me,” said Mitchell, who also praised former Mercer head coach Bill Bibb, who was on hand. “But I’d like to thank her because she stood by me.”

Golfer and Mercer grad Everett called the night “the pinnacle of my career” and said he wanted to bring an autograph book to get signed by all the people he saw during the weekend, including his co-inductees.

Former Georgia multi-sport athlete Rakestraw turned the podium into a standup comedy stage.

“I was tickled more now than I would have been then,” said Rakestraw, who thought his induction might have come sooner. “My children are older now, and I got most of my alimony paid. We can have a lot of fun.”

He included the exploits of all the inductees’ children and relatives and even his own youth football coaching career in humorously calling this the most celebrated class in Hall history.

“Wow,” Johnson Jr. said upon retaking the podium. “I never knew so much about your wife or Tucker youth football.”

Yoculan backed up Rakestraw’s inference that the new members have had plenty of fun the past few days, but ran through a long list of thank-yous.

“And the gymnasts themselves, who taught me much more than I ever taught them,” she said, including the “importance to fight, to fight for what you believe in.”

Johnson Jr. closed a smooth ceremony with a nice thought and idea.

“This has been just a wonderful night,” he said. “I wouldn’t blame you if you lingered a little bit just to talk about what you’ve seen and heard, and maybe hang out and shake a hand or tell these folks face to face how proud we are of them and how happy we are for them on this night.”

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