Albany Sports Hall of Fame President Jason Willcox speaks during Monday night’s 28th annual induction ceremony at the Hilton Garden Inn. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — The Albany Sports Hall of Fame welcomed its five newest members Monday at the Hilton Garden Inn during its 28th annual induction ceremony.
Speaking in front of hundreds of friends, family members and supporters, the group of legends accepted their honors with decades-old stories that brought the capacity crowd to both applause and laughter.
Nobody captured the attention of the audience more so than longtime coach, teacher and administrator Graham Lowe, who helped establish the Deerfield-Windsor athletics programs and was a headmaster for 37 years at Deerfield, Westwood School, Calvary Baptist Day School and Southwest Georgia Academy.
“I want to thank the Albany Sports Hall of Fame and the selection committee for including me this year. I am very thankful for it and consider it a real honor,” said Lowe, who was the first of the five inductees to speak at the banquet. “Coaching has allowed me to sing my song for 58 years, and I am going to keep on singing. I’m brash enough to think that somebody will listen somewhere. I know that in the shower I am probably one of the best solo singers there are. … Thank you for this honor.”
Lowe is joined in the 2014 Hall of Fame class by former Dougherty High and Troy State football standout Thomie Venisee, former Albany High and Florida State football star John Murphy, former Westover High and Louisiana Tech basketball standout Antonio Smith and Dee Matthews, a longtime sports supporter in Albany who has served on and led countless boards, committees and organizations over the past five decades.
Also honored during the banquet were seven high school athletes from Albany who received Athlete of the Year awards. The prep stars honored were Albany High’s Lindneshia Hudson , Byne Christian’s Quinten Sanders, Deerfield’s Chapman Ivey, Dougherty’s Ricardo Sloan, Monroe’s Charles Stafford, Sherwood Christian Academy’s Anna Laine Brock and Westover’s Rachel Clenney.
The Hall of Fame also handed out scholarships to Tiara Jones of Monroe and John Dreschel of Westover, continuing a tradition that started back in 1988 of awarding scholarships to deserving student-athletes.
Albany Sports Hall of Fame President Jason Willcox began the evening by welcoming the inductees and the crowd of supporters, which was followed by an inspiring rendition of “America the Beautiful” by Karla Heath-Sands with the Monroe High Junior ROTC color guard standing at attention.
After a break for dinner, the inductees stood at the podium one-by-one to address the crowd.
“Seldom am I at a loss for words, but (Monday) is one of those nights when it’s hard to put my feelings into words,” Matthews said. “I am so proud and humbled to be selected as a member of the Albany Sports Hall of Fame. I was a board member for many years and served as its president for two years, so I know how much work goes in to putting this production on.”
Matthews was followed on stage by Murphy, who was a star football player at Albany High before taking his talents to Florida State, where he became one the Seminoles’ best defensive players. He lettered three straight years and was on the first FSU team to play in the Fiesta Bowl, but he remembered his finest collegiate moment when he helped the Seminoles beat top-10 ranked Miami in 1972 — a game where Murphy finished with 10 tackles, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Following Murphy were Smith and Venisee — two athletes who led their high school teams to state championships before going on to play Division I athletics and later professionally overseas.
Smith led Westover to four straight basketball state titles, played college ball at Pensacola State and Louisiana Tech and then starred on professional teams in Sweden and Finland. After playing basketball, Smith decided to coach the sport he grew to love and rose to men’s head basketball coach at Daytona State University.
He currently coaches at Radium Springs Middle School and teaches special education and English at Monroe High School.
“I just love working with kids,” he said last week during an interview with The Herald. “I started back in 2000 when I was a sub in the school system, and I fell in love with doing it. Here I am 14 years later and am still doing it.”
Venisee’s state titles came at Dougherty High, where he got a championship ring in 1997 as a member of the basketball team and then got another in 1998 for leading the Trojan football team to a Class AAA title.
He was a three-time All-State and All-Region selection on the gridiron, including in 1998 when he was named to the offensive and defensive teams. He played wide receiver at Troy University after receiving scholarship offers in four sports — football, baseball, basketball and track & field. At Troy, he was a part of the No. 2-ranked Division I offense in the country in 2000 before heading to Europe, where he starred on the German Football League’s Hamburg Blue Devils.