When he tells young people he boxed in high school, it’s as if Don Landry has hit them with a blindside haymaker.
“Boxing?” they say. “That was really a sport?”
The next time they ask about it, Landry may well hand them a book.
Landry, a basketball man at heart, has written “Boxing: Louisiana’s Forgotten Sport.” He hopes to complete the self-publishing process sometime this summer.
The book looks back at boxing’s foothold as a varsity sport in Louisiana high schools from 1931-58, as well as the success of LSU and other state colleges during that era.
His target are unbeknownst youngsters as much as the old-timers who once threw punches.
“Boxing was a big sport,” Landry, a 1956 graduate of Cathedral High School in Lafayette, says. “Next to football, boxing was probably the most popular sport in Louisiana. My whole goal is to preserve the history.”
The book’s author, 72, is an unlikely one.
Most sports fans in Louisiana remember Landry for his time as the Nicholls State basketball coach, a job he held from 1966-79. Recognized as the founder of the Louisiana Association of Basketball Coaches, Landry also enjoyed a long run in athletic administration.
He served as the Nicholls athletic director from 1979-87, the commissioner of the Southland Conference from 1987-90 and the commissioner of the Sunshine State Conference in Florida from 1994-2004. He was the Texas Rangers’ Director of Special Projects from 1993-94, helping plan Nolan Ryan’s retirement activities and the opening of the Ballpark in Arlington.
As a boxer, he says he took more punches than he landed.
After two years on the Cathedral varsity, Landry, a five-sport letterman, hung up his gloves to focus on basketball in the winter months.
“I quit only because boxing was the same time as basketball,” Landry says. “Thank God I quit. My whole life would have been changed.”
The self-proclaimed “lousy boxer” fell for the sport again in June 2008, when he attended a Louisiana boxers reunion in Crowley.
Landry marveled as hundreds of old boxers recalled their heyday — nailing every little detail, from the weight classes in which they fought to the names of the opponents they defeated.
Driving back home to Baton Rouge that night, he wondered if all those stories would go forgotten.
He soon found himself sifting through old programs and scrapbooks and digging through microfilm. He eventually completed a year-by-year archive listing championship boxers, coaches and teams from Louisiana’s high school state tournaments.
“It never started out to be a book,” Landry says.
The more Landry learned, the larger his project became.
The son of a former Plaquemine High School boxer who heard about Landry’s research called one day. He said he had scrapbooks his father had kept that were falling apart in the attic. Former Istrouma boxer Frank Scemica, one of Louisiana’s 12 four-time state champions, was eager to lend scrapbooks his brother compiled, as well as some old Istrouma yearbooks.
The office in Landry’s home grew cluttered with black-and-white photographs of young men in shiny trunks striking puncher’s poses.
“Don Landry’s become an authority on boxing,” former LaGrange boxer Carl Williams, another four-time state champion, says. “He knows more about the history of high school and college boxing than any person you will ever meet.”
High school boxing in Louisiana started when LSU coach Francis Brink, in hopes of creating a feeder system for college programs, toured the state selling his sport. He organized the first state tournament in 1931 at the old Gym Armory.
Requiring little equipment, the sport cost schools little money to take on.
Youngsters like Donald Gascon, who helped Plaquemine win four of its state-record nine state team titles, enjoyed the reliance on weight classes.
“My family was all small people,” Gascon says. “We weren’t tall enough to be basketball players or big enough to be football players, but this gave you a chance to compete fairly with an opponent.”
Gascon recalls crowds of up to 3,000 showing up on winter Friday night to watch Plaquemine’s boxing dynasty. Williams remembers the final day of the state tournament, held at Blackham Coliseum in Lafayette during later years, routinely drawing 10,000 fans.
“I can’t tell you unless you were there how big it was,” Landry says. “It dominated the winter sports.”
Brink’s vision of a feeder system helped make boxing one of LSU’s signature sports.
The Tigers won a national championship in 1949, as well as eight conference titles. The school discontinued boxing in 1955, but greats like Calvin Clary, Edsel “Tad” Trash and Crowe Peel remain household names to a generation of LSU fans.
Former Lt. Gov. Bobby Freeman, who in 1951 won a state championship at Plaquemine, was a two-time national runner-up at LSU. Later, when he ran for political office, Freeman chose “Let a fighter fight for you” as his campaign slogan.
“It’s one of the few sports you’ll find where you have to be on offense and defense at the same time,” Freeman says, “and it’s a sport where you couldn’t count on a teammate to cover your mistakes. You’re in the ring alone with another man. You win, or you lose.”
But after three decades of memories, boxing in Louisiana high schools was down for the count.
Some schools never restarted their programs after World War II, which created a three-year hiatus in the run of state tournaments. Most of the schools that continued boxing into the 1950s were in the southwestern region of the state.
“I think some schools were afraid kids were getting hurt or thought it wasn’t a sport that was good for your health,” Gascon says. “I guess they were wondering about what kind of damage it might have been doing to your brain. It’s something you can’t see. You can see a nosebleed and a cut eye and a cut lip. I guess you just can’t see what’s happening in the head.”
All that remains from those days are men like Gascon, old boxers with scrapbooks and photographs, maybe a few scars and all kinds of stories to tell.
Stop by Guidry’s Restaurant in Plaquemine if you’d like to hear a few.
On the second Thursday of every month, Gascon and other old Green Devils meet at Guidry’s to share memories of their days in the ring.
“We still get together and have a good time enjoying each other and tell a few lies,” Gascon says. “We never lose any fights when we go to those meetings.”
Awakening the echoes of matches six, seven and eight decades old, Landry has fought to make sure future generations know those stories.
His first victory came when he sold Louisiana Public Broadcasting on producing a show about the state’s high school boxers. He later helped stir interest from the Louisiana State Museum, which sent representatives to interview some of the boxers at a recent reunion.
Landry says he has a commitment from the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame to add a display celebrating the state’s boxing history.
The book, all 20 chapters, completes his mission.
Landry hopes to have a copy in the library of every school that once sponsored boxing, as well as every public library in the state.
“Boxing in Louisiana may be forgotten,” Landry says, “but it shouldn’t be. It was too important to be forgotten.”