/For Eugenia, a long time coming

For Eugenia, a long time coming

Eugenia Conner, who died in 2012, was a basketball coach for Eugenia Conner’s high school team. She helped them win four consecutive state championships and earned All-Southeastern Conference recognition at Ole Miss. She helped her teams win 261 games in high school and college, while losing only 29. It’s amazing. It was me and my team that announced the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2016, Thursday. That’s why I felt like a banjo player in the middle of the 1927 New York Yankees lineup. I am familiar with the achievements of all these coaches and athletes. They were all covered by me. I even played against one. Funny story: Conner was a star for Van Chancellor’s Lady Rebels in 1983. Chancellor invited media members to play his women in an exhibition game. I was 31 years of age and still considered myself an athlete. I went to the lane, dribbled in the lane, and tried for a layup. Eugenia, who may have been laughing at me, batted the ball into a crowd and knocked my into the next week. The crowd laughed. Van Chancellor was the loudest. The rest of the game, I kept out of Eugenia’s lane. Although I was not an athlete, I wasn’t stupid. Let’s now move on to 1998 and the annual Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame banquet. Another stellar class was Ron Polk, Ray Perkins and L.T. Smith, Peggie Gillom and Sammy Winder, as well as my father Ace Cleveland. That night will be a memory I will never forget for at least two reasons. They played Winder’s 1980, superhuman dive into the end zone against Ole Miss 3 times, and the crowd roared each time. Two, Ace had already died two years prior to me accepting my nomination. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am very emotional. The floodgates open when I watch Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip. Talking about my mother and father can bring out the best in me. It’s hard not to. So I was very concerned that night. Not about speaking in front of 500 people but about becoming a fool in front 500 people. Peggie Gillom was seated at the head table. It was a good fortune. Gillom was not only a great basketball player at Ole Miss but she also recruited Eugenia Cner from Harrison Central High as an assistant coach. Peggie is a warm and gracious lady, which is probably why she was able recruit Conner and many other outstanding players to Ole Miss. In the days before the induction, I had practiced my 5-minute acceptance speech for Ace numerous times. I couldn’t get it through without blubbering. Peggie and I ate together, and I shared my worries with her. Peggie kept repeating, “You can do it. It will all be fine. Your Daddy will be there supporting you.” It’s one thing for someone to say things like that. But it’s another to prove them right. Peggie was persuasive. I stood up, gave the speech, and it went without a hitch. Ace would have loved it if the audience laughed as much as Ace did. When I sat back down, Peggie squeezed my hand. That was the best thing I’ve ever experienced. Here’s the rest: Peggie gave one of my favorite, most moving, and eloquent talks. As she dedicated her induction ceremony to Eugenia Conner (who had died in 1994), tears welled up in her eyes. Peggie, a softly speaking definition of grace said Conner should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame prior to her. She claimed she was accepting Eugenia’s request. I did not own any dry eyes in the house if there were. Peggie comforted me, which was unbelievable considering what she was about do. It will be a memory I never forget. It was there that Eugenia Conner, who has been in Mississippi for over 40 years, will finally be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Check out his columns in the past and his Sports Daily blog.