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Five inducted into Grady County Sports Hall of Fame

Grady County Sports Hall of Fame Inductees pictured after Third Annual Hall of Fame Banquet. Pictured l-r: Joe Knight, Jr., Sonya Vestey (representing the late Joe Knight, Sr.) Larry Green, Melvin Ray, Lewis Gainey, Stephanie Hines-Smith.

The Grady County Sports Hall of Fame now has five new members after the third annual induction banquet this past Saturday night at the Grady Cultural Center. Inducted at the dinner banquet were Lewis Gainey, Stephanie Hines-Smith, the late Joe Knight, Melvin Ray,and Larry Green. The 1946 state champion Syrupmaker football team was also recognized at the banquet.
Over 270 family members and friends of inductees enjoyed a brief reception prior to a delicious meal. After dinner, the five new members were introduced and presented with a special plaque commemorating their induction. A similar plaque will be placed in the Grady County Sports Hall of Fame, located in the chambers of the City of Cairo Council in the Grady County Historical Society.
Richard VanLandingham, chairman of the Sports Hall of Fame board, emceed the evening. “It was an amazing night. It’s always nice to get to know our inductees and learn so much about them and their contributions to not only our community, but every where they have been,” said VanLandingham.
Board member Todd Gainous and former CHS coach Scott Starr introduced Lewis Gainey. Gainous gave details on Gainey’s high school and college accomplishments in track at Cairo High School and later at the University of Georgia. Starr credited Gainey with bringing the former CHS coach and his family to Cairo, a place they have now called home for over 20 years.
Lewis Gainey is a Cairo High School graduate of the class of 1961. Gainey was a track state champion at Cairo High School in 1959 and twice in 1961. The former Syrupmaker attended the University of Georgia from 1962-1965 and was also a member of the Atlantic Track Club in 1966. Gainey was the University of Georgia’s head track coach from 1976 to 1989, and later retired as assistant athletic director for event management in 2001.
In accepting his award, Gainey thanked his family and friends and recognized his wife Delois. As most current Hall of Fame members have done, Gainey recalled the influence of the late coach Tommy Taylor, who encouraged him and helped him become successful in track and coaching. “Coach Taylor believed in me and taught me everything I know, he worked us hard and accepted nothing but our best effort,” said Gainey. Lewis also commented on his great pride of Cairo and Grady County. “For years, my girls had no idea we were from Athens, because every time someone asked me, I always told them I was from Cairo,” said Gainey with a smile.
Next was Stephanie Hines-Smith who was introduced by board member Mauria Thornton, a former classmate, and Aubrey Corbitt, her former high school coach at Whigham High School. Thornton recalled Hines-Smith’s leadership abilities and athletic accomplishments at WHS, where she excelled in track and basketball and graduated in 1982. The former Whigham star athlete coached at Winder-Barrow High from 1987-89, serving as assistant basketball and track coach. She is now the head girls basketball and track coach at Monroe Area High School. Hines-Smith attended the University of Georgia on a track and field scholarship from 1982 to 1986 and graduated with a bachelor of science degree.
Stephanie thanked her family and friends for their support throughout the years, recalling how quickly her life was altered at the passing of her mother when she was just 13 years old. “My whole life changed and, had it not been for my siblings and their support, I don’t know what I would have done,” said Hines-Smith. According to the new inductee, her former coach Aubrey Corbitt helped her channel her energies to the basketball court and track. “Coach Corbitt really helped me believe in myself,” she said.  Stephanie graduated a state champion in both track and cross country and fondly recalled her many battles with another hall of fame member, Teresa Edwards. “I want to thank Teresa Edwards, as well, she really pushed me to be the best I could be. We had some great battles. She was always known as Cairo, and I was known as Whigham,” Hines-Smith recalled with a smile.
The next inductee was the late Joe Knight. Knight was introduced by board member Jet Cox and Andy Maxwell, a former boxing student of the late boxing champion. Cox gave a brief history of the famous fighter and his boxing career that took him all over the United States and the world. Maxwell remembered meeting Knight as a 16-year-old when the former champion saw the young Maxwell practicing with a punching bag in his back yard. Knight took Maxwell under his wing and trained him to box.
Joe Knight was born in Cairo in 1909 and died in February 1981. Knight was a Light Heavyweight boxer, beginning his career at the age of 17. The Grady County southpaw finished with 103 wins, 51 knockouts, 19 losses and 10 draws. Knight won the Light Heavyweight title, the Southern Light Heavyweight title in 1932 and the National Boxing Association World Light Heavyweight title in 1933.
Accepting on their father’s behalf were his two children, Joe, Jr. and Sonya. Known throughout the world by such names as “The Cairo Calamity,” “Gawja Joe,” “Gentleman Joe,” “The Georgia Peach,” and even the “Cairo Assassin,” his children said their father was more of a “Gentle Giant.”
“My father was one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever knew, I only saw him get mad once in his life and that was at me,” Knight Jr. recalled with a smile.  His daughter Sonya remembers her father as being a great provider and a very kind man as well. “My father was always very kind and gentle. I wasn’t born when he boxed, so I never knew that part of his life, but I do remember a loving father who supported me and always provided for me,” said his daughter.
This marked the first year the Grady County Sports Hall of Fame has recognized former state champions and began with the 1946 state champion Syrupmaker football team. Board member and a former player on the 1946 team Jack Drew accepted the special championship recognition on behalf of the team, with several other former members on hand joining Drew at the podium.
The next inductee was Melvin Ray, who was introduced by board member Larry Green. Green recounted the Syrupmaker hurler’s incredible stats and athletic abilities. Ray graduated from Cairo High School in 1973 and lettered in baseball, track and basketball. He started on the mound for the Makers all four years, averaging 16 strikeouts a game over his four-year career at CHS, and once struck out all 21 batters in a single game in 1973. Ray was drafted by the Detroit Tigers right out of high school that year, but an arm injury ended his career just one year later. Ray was a part of state championship track teams all four years in high school and won individual state championships in 1971, ‘72 and ‘73.
Melvin Ray humbly accepted his nomination to the board and thanked his family for helping him, “There were 10 us growing up at my house and that meant a lot of dishes. I want to thank my brothers and sisters who pulled my load along the way so I could play ball,” he said. Ray also paid special tribute to Jimmy Grebinger and Clifton and Ruth Rich. “Those people believed in me as a young boy growing up and helped me develop my talents in the Grady County Recreation Department and followed me throughout my career.”  
The final inductee of the night was Larry Green.  Green was introduced by Michael Best and Carlton Gainous who both listed Green’s many accomplishments on the field and off. Larry Green is a 1963 graduate of Cairo High School where he lettered as a multisport athlete. Green was a part of the first Syrupmaker football team to win a subregion title and, in 1963, the first team to ever win the Syrup Pitcher. The former Syrupmaker earned a scholarship to Florida State University that year. Larry Green later coached and taught in the Grady County School System, Troy State University, Choctawhatchee High School, Dodge County and Thomas County Central. Later, he served terms as assistant superintendent and superintendent of Thomas County Schools before his retirement in 2006.
Larry Green spoke highly of Grady County and his roots. “I worked and retired in Thomas County and made a lot of friends over there and have many fond memories, but Grady County will always be my home. Some people have asked me when did I move back . . . I never left, our home has always been right here in Grady County,” said Green. He also thanked his wife and family and paid special tribute to his mother, who has recently been sick but was on hand for the special night.
All inductees spoke highly of their roots in Grady County and the people who played important roles in their development as young athletes.
“We started this hall of fame to recognize the amazing people who have come through our community and participated in sports. These people have taken what they learned on the ball fields, the courts, back yards and numerous other places and made an impact not only in our community but, literally, around the world,” said VanLandingham.
Plans are already being made for the fourth induction of members next year.

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