Spotlight on Former Athlete: Stokley, Simmons, Cook give local flavor to HOF class
Stokley, Simmons, Cook
give local flavor to HOF class
By Bruce Brown
Ragin' Cajun football fans aren't likely to forget the magnetized fingers, drive to achieve and cocksure approach that marked Brandon Stokley's four years wearing the vermilion and white No. 14 jersey.
From the time he first stepped on to the field as a redshirt freshman in 1995 until he headed for the NFL as a 1999 fourth round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens, the son of coach Nelson Stokley was virtually unstoppable.
He remains the career leader in receptions (241), yards (3,702) and touchdown catches (25) in school history, some 20 years after his last college game.
Already a member of UL's Athletic Hall of Fame, Stokley added another well-deserved honor in September when he was announced as a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2018.
“Wow. Wow,” said Stokley, who was informed of his selection while doing his live radio program in Denver. “I certainly appreciate it. It's a great honor. All of the great athletes in the hall. I'm humbled, and very appreciative.
“I'm speechless. It's unbelievable. I'm a little bit in shock. This is one of the best days of my life, an unbelievable day.”
And Stokley, who scored the first touchdown in the Ravens' 34-7 Super Bowl win over the New York Giants in 2001 and had a solid 15-year NFL career, has plenty of Cajun company in the class.
Tennis coach Jerry Simmons, who guided the Cajuns to an 11-year record of 214-92-2 and then led LSU to a 278-105 mark and national prominence in 15 years, is another a member of the class.
Simmons was the youngest coach ever inducted in the ITA Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame and now has a bookend honor in the Bayou State.
“That's great,” Simmons said. “This one means more to me than the College Hall of Fame.”
Also in the group is longtime high school football coach Lewis Cook, a Rayne native who spent 8 years as a Cajun football assistant but gained fame with his remarkable prep record at Rayne, Crowley and Notre Dame.
Cook, who entered the 2017 season with a 333-81 record and 73-26 postseason mark, won a state crown at Crowley (1989) and three more at Notre Dame.
“My time at UL made a big difference in aiding my career,” Cook said. “It gave me the opportunity to learn, kind of a PhD in football. I gained a wealth of knowledge, and also connected with a network of coaches across the country.
“It opened a lot of doors and I learned the business.”
The 2018 class, which will be honored next June 30 in Natchitoches, also includes Stokley's former Colts teammate and fellow Peyton Manning target Reggie Wayne, baseball pitcher Russ Springer, Jack Haines, the first Louisiana winner of the Bassmasters Classic, motorsports legend Paul Candies, and basketball standout Larry Wright.
“I was two years behind Jack Haines at Rayne High,” Cook said. “We were on the same team for two years. Now two boys from Rayne are going in the Hall of Fame.”
Honorees are chosen by vote of a committee of the Louisiana Sports Writers Assocation.
Others with UL ties already in the Hall of Fame include Cy Young Award winning Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry, two-time Olympic medalist high jumper Hollis Conway, NBA champion Andrew Toney, Bo Lamar and WNBA champion Kim Perrot in basketball, Keener Cagle, Brian Mitchell and Jake Delhomme in football, coach Yvette Girouard and pitcher Kyla Hall in softball, track and field's Johnny Morriss and Harold Porter, coaching brothers Mel and Ray Didier and basketball coaches Beryl Shipley and Dutch Reinhardt.
“What makes this special is sharing it with people close to me, like (wife) Lana and (son) Cameron, and hearing from Jake, Peyton, Dallas Clark, my sister Shawn, grandfather and (younger son) Carson,” Stokley said.
“As special as it was to win the Super Bowl, what I'll remember is sitting down at the table afterwards with my dad, my granfather and my sister. That made it even better.”
“You're one of the hardest workers I know,” Lana told him. “You never wavered from your work ethic. You kept your goals. Injury after injury, you never gave up. You just worked that much harder.”
Although injuries marked his NFL career, Stokley still had 397 receptions for 5,339 yards and 39 touchdowns in 15 seasons spent with the Ravens (twice), Colts, Broncos (twice), Seahawks and Giants, adding 46 catches for 647 yards and 7 scores in postseason action.
His best season was 2004 with the Colts, when he hauled in 68 for 1,077 and 10 touchdowns including Peyton Manning's then-record 49th of the season.
“You dad would be proud,” said Manning, a certain HOF pick for the Class of 2019. “It's an awesome honor.”
Stokley's first NFL catch was a 28-yard score against the Rams as a rookie, then the next year his 38-yard TD launched the Ravens to a Super Bowl win over the Giants.
“It's nice when your best player is also your hardest worker,” said Gerald Broussard, Stokley's receivers coach at UL who was on hand for the announcement in Denver.
“He did all the right things. I told the other receivers, 'watch what he does, and do that.' He got highest grade I ever gave for a game, at Pitt. Everything he did, he played to win.”
Stokley did not play football as a high school sophomore or junior, focusing on basketball and baseball, but a coaching change prompted his fateful return to the game – moving from quarterback to wide receiver.
He promptly led the state in receiving with 80 catches for 946 yards despite a poor season for Comeaux High.
“It just felt natural to catch the football,” Stokley said. “It always came easy for me.”
After a redshirt year at UL, he caught fire with 75 and 81 receptions in two years with Delhomme including a momentous 1996 upset of Texas A&M, hurt his knee at A&M four games into 1997 then finished with 68 catches and another 1,000 yard campaign as a senior.
When he was done, he was the first player in history to average 100 yards receiving per game for a college career, as well as 100 per game in three different seasons (101.9 in 1995, 105.5 in 1996 and 106.6 in 1998).
He had 18 100-yard games including 7-181-3 in a 72-20 loss at Tulane the same week that his mother passed away.
“I was a skinny runt of 155 pounds,” Stokley said. “Finishing the way I did, and getting up to 193 pounds, and now the Hall of Fame, I couldn't have imagined it.
“Those 5 years at USL were the best years of my life. We didn't win as many games as we wanted to, but I wouldn't replace any of the times we had or the lessons I learned for anything.”
Once he arrived in 1972, Simmons combined energy, expertise and innovation to lift the Ragin' Cajun men's tennis program to prominence. He then took some of the same qualities to LSU and molded the Tigers into a national title contender.
He tapped into his Texas roots to get John “Skipper” Hunt and Carter Lomax on board as a deadly 1-2 punch atop the lineup and a lethal No. 1 doubles duo.
They set the tone for a program that soon added Umberto Izquierdo, Harry Barton, Mark Schulz, Bill Bryan, Steve Hernandez, Paul Griffith, Gustavo Orellana, James Boustany and Gary Bowles, among others.
“There wasn't much when I got there,” Simmons said. “But we were able to sign some good players.”
Simmons was the first to introduce corporate sponsorship to college tennis with the USL Rolex Tennis Classic in the fall of 1977, which set the stage for the Cajuns becoming the dominant team in the Southland Conference.
The Cajuns won the SLC in 1977 in a heated battle with Lamar in Beaumont, dominated the tournament at Cajun Courts in 1978 and went on to rule the league for 5 of Simmons' final 6 years at the helm.
Tarek El Sakka, the star of Simmons' later teams, won the Rolex in the fall of 1982 – something no Cajun has achieved since.
“I had a coach tell me that, whatever I accomplished when I went to LSU, I would never surpass what we did at USL,” said Simmons. “We were able to do a lot.”
Simmons also had the nation's first college tennis corporate sponsored scoreboard, organized ESPN's first televised college match in 1979 and later was tournament director for the Nokia Sugar Bowl tournament (1994-98).
The youngest coach ever inducted into the ITA Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame and a member of the Louisiana Tennis Hall of Fame, Simmons appreciated the diversity of his latest honor.
“This is different from any other hall of fame,” he said. “There are an amazing number of athletes who've come out of Louisiana, and this (hall) opens the whole thing up. I'll be in there with Terry Bradshaw, Archie Manning, Pete Maravich, Shaquille O'Neal, Bo Lamar and Billy Cannon.
“It's a great honor, and means a lot to me.”
He joins a short list of tennis honorees in the hall, Chanda Rubin, Emmett Pare' and Ham Richardson.
Induction weekend will be big for Cook, who not only has a history with Haines but also coached HOF member Jake Delhomme and Stokley as offensive coordinator during his second tour of duty at UL.
“It's going to be a very special weekend,” Cook said. “Brandon and Jake made me look good as a coach. I can remember three plays off the top of my head where we called for a first down and they turned them into touchdowns.
“I watched Brandon grow up. He had great instincts for the game. He knew how to work to get open, and to protect the ball with his body. At first, he might have run a 4.6 40, but he kept working at it and got really fast.
“He only had just one year of high school football, and what he did was amazing. To watch him grow up in front of you – that's the lure that keeps you in coaching. That's our paycheck.”
Cook, of course, has excelled beyond coaching Delhomme and Stokley.
He has led three different schools to the playoffs in 30 of 32 years, with 23 district crowns and four state titles, 11 trips to the state finals, and 17 years in the semifinals.
Cook's 1989 Crowley Gents won Class 3A, and his three Notre Dame crowns came in 2000 and 2009 (3A) and 2015 (2A).
He was at UL from 1981-84 and 1992-95.
“I had three goals when I got into coaching,” he said. “I wanted to be a head coach in high school, wanted to win state and wanted the opportunity to coach in college. I thought they would have to come in that order, but had two great opportunities at USL.
“I could have stayed in college coaching, but didn't want to move all over the country. I was fine being a high school coach.”
He still enjoys the game and the players.
“The game is much faster in college, and you do more teaching from the ground up in high school,” Cook said. “You groom them, but their skill levels are still developing.
“You get to teach them and watch them turn into young men. That's the neat part. I've had way more good days than bad. The challenge is still fun. We're preparing them to win more than just a football game.
“We give them the tools to be successful.”
* * * * * Scene after Cajuns defeat of nationally ranked Texas A&M - Inset-All time receiving leader Brandon Stokley
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1977 Ragin' Cajun Tennis Team - Paul Griffith, Steve Kohler, Danny Freundlieb, Tom Gillham, Karl Haydel, Bill Bryan, Mark Schultz, Steve Hernandez, Coach Jerry Simmons
Coach Lewis Cook with his Notre Dame Pios football team. (Photo compliments of The Advertiser)
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Click here for the Athletic Network Profile of Brandon Stokley.
Click here for the Athletic Network Profile of Jerry Simmons.
Click here for the Athletic Network Profile of Lewis Cook, Jr.
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Click here for the chronological listings of the Spotlight on Former Athletes.