When I was a little kid, my parents use to have me read the newspaper at home. They weren’t trying to keep me updated on world news or anything. It was just a way to help me practice reading, to learn new words and to get a better understanding of sentence structure beyond “See Spot jump.” I didn’t typically comprehend what I was reading, but that wasn’t really the point of the exercise.
It was through these regular perusals of the newspaper that I first read Rick Cleveland. I couldn’t begin to remember what some of those columns were about early on, but I know that it was through reading them that I first started learning about college sports in the state of Mississippi. I mean, I knew sports existed, but as I got older and developed the capacity to understand sports and their meanings and intricacies, it was Rick who taught about me about football and basketball and baseball. It was the state’s most respected authority on sports who shared the stories I missed and the reasons behind the scores I could find elsewhere in the sports section.
Like anyone who grew up, moved to or found themselves in Mississippi during a time period spanning decades, Rick Cleveland’s words were the ones you could always trust as reporters and editors came and went, both at The Clarion-Ledger and other papers across the state. Whatever was happening in sports in Mississippi, Rick was the person whose expertise you wanted on the subject.
And it was in the biggest moments that Rick shined. I still have, sitting in my old bedroom of the same house I first read his words, the front page of the paper with Rick’s column from Mississippi State’s Final Four basketball run in 1996. Egg Bowls, Cotton Bowls, years that no one even made a bowl – Rick was there. Hirings and firings, arrests and awards. Rick was more than just our ears to hear the real story among all the noise, he was the mouth that told it.
It wasn’t that Rick was good – he was and still is great – or consistently there. It’s that he came along at a perfect time when his state unknowingly needed him most. His first reporting job came as a teenager, and by the time he had developed his voice and his stature in the state, sports in Mississippi and America had developed a bigger following and more widespread interest than ever before. In the time between pro contracts changing from thousands to millions and college sports changing from niche hobby to big business, Rick was there to share the stories.
When the heyday of modern MSU athletics came in the ‘90s, I was a kid in Starkville who couldn’t get enough, but unfortunately for all sports fans at the time, those were the days before 12 different ESPN channels, long before the hundreds and thousands of websites and blogs devoted to sports, and decades ahead of smart phones that sent all of it right into our pockets.
Say what you will about newspapers now in the internet era, but in the first days of sport’s big boom, it was the printed word that satiated our hunger for information and perspective. And in Mississippi, it was Rick’s words we trusted most. Before every game was on TV, before every press conference was streamed online and before context was supposedly provided by talking heads ad nauseum on every sports channel, Rick served as our eyes, ears and collective conscience. For Mississippians of a certain time, it was through Rick’s eyes that we watched our teams, through his stories that we got to know the players and coaches whose successes and failures we were so emotionally invested in.
Rick going into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this weekend is, among other things, a no-brainer. He’s practically a living hall of fame himself, a walking history book of the modern era of sports in Mississippi. Not to mention a regular award winner, he’s been a reporter, an editor, a columnist, an author and historian. He’s the icon who wrote about icons, sharing the stories of the well-known, the lesser-known, the deserving and the great.
Listing the names of the great athletes and coaches he’s covered would take far longer than any of us have right now, but there is a full roster of them in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, and deservingly, Rick Cleveland will be the newest name to join them.