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‘Catfish ‘ Smith one ofmany sports heros instate of Mississippi

McCOMB – Southerners love nicknames, especially when it come totheir football heroes. Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Walter “Sweetness”Payton, and Steve “Air” McNair, for example, are names given themby sports reporters or fans that stick and last a lifetime.Mississippi has honored another football legend., Ralph “Catfish”Smith. Catfish will be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall ofFame at the Vicksburg Convention Center in April of next year.

When asked how he felt when he received the letter from PhilQuigley, President of Jackson’s Touchdown Club, announcing thehonor, the 62 year old Brookhaven native chuckled, “I’m just happyit happened while I’m still alive to enjoy it,” he said.

It has been 32 years since Catfish caught his last touchdownpass and ended an 8-year pro career, but his fans remember theexcitement and color he brought to the game. Ralph has been alifelong friend of mine and I thought I might have an edge ingetting him to share some of the heart-stopping plays that Iremembered at Brookhaven High School, Ole Miss, and the pros.

I was wrong. Like so many greats, Catfish is more comfortabletalking about things other than himself and his accomplishments. Hewould never tell you about the 15 high school letters he earned atBrookhaven High School in three years for football, basketball, andtrack, or being named high school All-American by both Scholasticand Wigwam. Former Brookhaven quarterback Alton Greenlee told me ina telephone interview that Catfish was the fiercest competitor hehad ever seen on the field.

Teammate Lance Alworth also referred to him as a fiercecompetitor and the greatest athlete he ever knew. Others spoke andwrote of the athlete’s abilities. Darryl Royal called Catfish oneof the “great all around ends in the country”. Johnny Vaught said”Ralph Smith was the complete end.” Famed writer Furman Bisher ofthe Atlanta Constitution proclaimed that “Smith representsas fine a combination of offense and defensive ability as you willever see in football.”

Search the records and you will find out about his letters andhonors at Ole Miss. Catfish played both sides of the line. He had11hits behind the line of scrimmage for a minus -97 yards playingdefense in 1960. In 1961, he led the Rebel team in receptions,14catches, two hundred fifty four yards and 3 touchdowns.

Catfish’s pro career included playing for the PhiladelphiaEagles, the Cleveland Browns and the Atlanta Falcons. In the NFL hedistinguished himself as a versatile, valuable team player.

The modest Smith says football’s greatest reward was thefriendship of their teammates. “My Ole Miss years were veryspecial,” he recalls. Then he quickly talks again of his manyfriends. Friendship is a big thing with Ralph. His friends tellcountless Catfish Smith stories.

My personal favorite, and one I known to be true, took placewhen Catfish was a freshman football player at Ole Miss. He, alongwith another young recruit, fell victim to a lot of upper classhazing…some of it, severe. During one of the sessions, the upperclassmen decided to whip with paddles all the freshmen players.Ralph accepted his punishment, but when it came to another formerhigh school team mate, he protested. He explained that the boy hadbeen badly burned as a child, leaving a sensitive backside. “Don’twhip him,” Catfish pleaded, “I’ll take his whipping instead.”

A much older and larger player got in his face and issued achallenge. Now anyone in Lincoln County will quickly tell you thatyou don’t challenge a “Briarpatch Smith.” There was a blood-lettingand from that moment on Ralph Smith was THE MAN. Not only did histeammate avoid a whipping, but no one from Brookhaven was everwhipped again.

Ralph’s nickname was given him by the famous Mississippi sportswriter, Jimmie McDowell, who wrote that Smith bore a resemblance toCatfish Smith, an All American at Georgia. The nickname stuck andMississippi’s own Catfish Smith distinguished the name and himself.In April, his state will honor him by inducting him into theprestigious company that makes up the Mississippi Sports Hall ofFame.