Sons of Winnfield

The Longs aren’t the only Winn Parish legends

by Doug Ireland

 

Winnfield is a sleepy town with a Mayberry feel and a Midas touch in political and sports history. Here, the water tower bears the portraits of Huey P. and Earl K. Long, and O.K. Allen, the three governors born in the Winn Parish seat. That lineage made Winnfield a logical home for the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame, housed in an old railroad depot a few paces from the town square, near where the Longs’ political rallies used to bring people from miles around.

Nowadays, statewide candidates’ audiences pale in comparison to the throngs who flock to Stokes-Walker Stadium on fall Friday nights to cheer on the perennially powerful Winnfield High School Tigers.

On the long list of Tiger football heroes to wear the red and white, nobody’s career compares to Anthony Thomas. In the mid-90s, the “A-Train” used a combination of bruising power, speed, and agility to set a then-state record with 106 touchdowns in his career while rushing for 7,594 yards.

A consensus high school All-American, major college powers pursued Thomas before he chose the University of Michigan’s storied program. In his freshman season in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines won the 1997 national championship, kicking off one of the most illustrious careers in Michigan history. Thomas finished his collegiate career with 15 school records, including rushing yards (4,472), rushing touchdowns (55) and total TDs (56). Two decades later, he ranks among the all-time greats to don the Wolverines’ trademark helmets.

A-Train then immediately emerged as an NFL star. A second-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2001, he was the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,183 yards and seven TDs in 14 games. He again rushed for 1,000 yards two years later, and would finish a seven-year NFL career with 3,891 yards and 23 TDs.

Brown and Thomas will share the spotlight as members of the Class of 2016 enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Before Thomas became a star at WHS, another Winnfield Tiger took a different path to stardom. A lanky All-State standout in basketball but never a major college prospect, P.J. Brown chose a college less than an hour away from home—Louisiana Tech.

In Ruston he grew to 6-feet-11-inches and displayed the skill set, if not the overwhelming production, NBA scouts look for in a professional. He finished his four years with moderate career averages—10.1 points and 8.4 rebounds. Selected by the New Jersey Nets in the second round of the 1992 NBA Draft, Brown ended up overseas, playing his first professional season in Greece. He averaged 17.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocks for Panionios B.C. in Athens, and returned to the Nets to launch an impressive, workmanlike 15-year NBA career. Brown evolved into a consummate professional. In a career that saw him play for six years with the New Orleans franchise and with four other teams, he posted career averages of 9.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

He was voted to the All-NBA Defensive Team three times, in 1997, 1999 and 2001. In 1997, he won the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Sportsmanship Award, and he was the NBA Central Division’s winner of that honor in 2004. He capped his career by winning the 2008 NBA Championship with the Boston Celtics. The league-wide respect for Brown was evident when several NBA teams, including the New Orleans Hornets, tried to convince him to come back for a final season in 2009. But at 39 years old and with the perfect swan song completed, Brown decided to retire and settle down with his family.

“To end my career being a champion and winning that last game means a lot to me,” said Brown in a career-ending interview with The Times-Picayune. “It’s been such a long journey and it’s something I’ve been striving for, for so long, to finally achieve it really means a lot. I ended it on a winning note.” Although Brown is eight years older than Thomas, they’ve become friendly in their unique status as nationally-recognized professional athletes who hail from a slow-paced, north-central Louisiana town. This summer, the stars have aligned. On the last Saturday in June, down the road 33 miles from Winnfield, in Natchitoches, Brown and Thomas will share the spotlight as they are among the 11-member Class of 2016 enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

The induction of Winnfield’s finest will be unprecedented in the Hall’s history. As the shrine’s membership reaches 400 since its founding in 1958, the addition of Brown and Thomas will mark the first time that two unrelated alumni from the same high school will be honored in the same class.

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Doug Ireland, Chairman of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame

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