Ron Simmons went into the weekend with a reputation as a ferociously competitive football player and then as a professional wrestler and all that those careers would infer.
But for those who came in contact with him during two days of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame induction festivities, he was just a big softie.
From continuing to thank former schoolmate and Warner Robins mayor Chuck Shaheen for giving him a key to the city and proclamation on Friday night to eager interaction with fans and a heartfelt acceptance speech, Simmons won’t soon forget this particular middle of February.
“Over these past few years, I’ve had the good fortune of traveling the country and accepting some very prestigious honors,” the former Warner Robins and Florida State standout said. “But I think (Saturday) surpasses them all, because I get to thank the people who are truly responsible for Ron Simmons standing here.”
He thanked those at table 23 while mincing no words in his speech, the shortest of the seven who were feted in front of more than 700 in the Macon City Auditorium.
The “Parade of Stars” allowed attendees to get a glimpse of 31 hall of fame members, from Anne Paradise Hansford to Kent Hill to Roger Kaiser to Lucius Sanford.
After the presentation of colors, a rousing national anthem sung by Molly Stevens and an invocation from Dr. Logan Smith of Brown Memorial Baptist Church came dinner and the ceremony.
Georgia multi-sport star Larry Rakestraw had the rowdiest boosters, and Suzanne Yoculan-Leebern had plenty of energy after spending the pre-dinner period making her way to all corners of the Auditorium to visit with friends and family and others eager to talk to the former UGA gymnastics coach.
Simmons and Sam Mitchell, the former basketball standout at Mercer and the NBA, both looked like they could still put on a uniform and do some damage. Golfer Ed Everett was clearly humbled, and Al Ciraldo Jr. wasn’t the only one who would have enjoyed his late father’s take on the weekend.
Former baseball broadcaster Ernie Johnson Sr., however, kept all entertained with an often dry wit that covered his marriage, his playing career, teammates, players and getting old.
He spoke often of former Atlanta Braves pitcher Warren Spahn.
“Had the greatest move to first base you’d ever want to see,” Johnson said. “One day, he picked the runner off first, and the batter swung.”
He immediately covered his tale-telling bases.
“Most of my stories are true,” he said, before telling more.
He recalled a spring training pitching session and working with an 18-year-old teammate who had never caught before.
“I got through throwing my fastball; gravity and lack of speed is what made it go down,” Johnson said. “And now I’m going to my curveball and I (signal curve), and he gets up out of his crouch and looks out at me, then he kneels back down and says, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, throw anything you want, I’ll figure it out.’ ”
Weather was perfect for the two days of events, kicked off by Friday’s golf tournament and Friday night’s jacket presentation.
Simmons acknowledged his wrestling background when telling the jacket ceremony audience of his dealing with Hall executive director Jackie Decell.
She warned him over and over not to be late for one single event over the weekend.
“The stuff I did was fake, (but she said), ‘Mine will be real,’ ” he said of her admonition.
How they saw it
Highlights from Saturday’s Georgia Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony:
“His teammates called him ‘CNN,’ because he talked around the clock. For Georgia Hall of Fame induction, Sam Mitchell was a lock.”
— Master of ceremonies Ernie Johnson Jr.’s poetic introduction of former Mercer and NBA basketball standout Sam Mitchell
“I would like to thank all of the club members and golf professionals and friends in allowing me to beat them all of my life. The ones who have beaten me and continue to beat me, shame on you.”
— Golfer, Mercer graduate and Macon native Ed Everett
“My father was proud and fortunate to be the radio voice of Georgia Tech for over 43 years. He would be the first to say the list of thank-yous would take 43 more years.”
— AL Ciraldo Jr., son of former Georgia Tech announcing legend Al Ciraldo Sr.
“When you are a young athlete, coach or broadcaster, you do not aspire to be inducted into the halls of fame. You want to become the best you can at your craft due to your love o the game. You strive to reach your full potential and you want to shape and influence others in a positive way. You want to ultimately step away with zero regrets. We, the members of the Class of 2010, all accomplished that mission.”
— Former UGA gymnastics head coach Suzanne Yoculan-Leebern.