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Lee County's Hall of Famers humbled

1:00 AM, Aug. 19, 2012 EDT

Lee County Athletic Conference Hall of Fame Inductee Earnest Graham, left, embraces fellow inductee and cousin Anthony Henry prior to Saturday's induction ceremony at the Harborside Event Center. / Todd Stubing/news-press.com

The common theme among the 36 athletes inducted into the 2012 Lee County Athletic Conference Hall of Fame Induction on Saturday was humility.

There was a true sense of honor, appreciation and even surprise that they were named in the county's first HOF group.

The former athletes were joined by about 225 friends, family, coaches, athletic directors and principals at the Harborside Event Center. Almost all the athletes attended and most of those who didn't make it or had died were represented by family members.

Schools were allowed to pick one athlete for every decade they've been in existence. Fort Myers, which has been going for more than 100 years, had 10 inductees.

Those inducted understood and were grateful that they were considered the elite of the hundreds of graduating classes at Cape Coral, Cypress Lake, Estero, Dunbar, Fort Myers, Lehigh, Mariner, North Fort Myers and Riverdale High.

"When I think of the number of athletes who came through the city and I think of the talent, it's really something," said Don Ellis, a Cypress Lake High standout who went on to star with some of the University of Miami's greatest teams in the late 1980s. "This is a tough group to crack, Lee County. It's a privilege and an honor. There's a lot of athletes more talented than me who are not here."

Riverdale's Donna Williams, a star shot putter and discus thrower added, "It's such an honor. To do your best on the field and put in all the hours of workouts.

"It's so grand to be recognized."

As she spoke, Williams was excited to catch up with teammate Roni Hipp, a three-sport star who went on to play volleyball at Florida. All the athletes mingled with former teammates, rivals and coaches, as well as family, such as cousins Earnest Graham and Anthony Henry.

"It means a lot," Henry said. "I grew up in the city of Fort Myers and I'm honored to represent Estero High School and my family. It's a dream come true."

Graham, who plans on putting a lot of work into his foundation in this area, was equally touched.

"To come back where I was born and raised," he said, allowing himself to reminisce. "I grew up here. I lived in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Lehigh. I'm Southwest Florida, man. To come back here, I'm grateful to be honored with guys I played with and to my mother, who raised me the right way."

Athletes came from as far away as Los Angeles (Henry), Mercer Island, Wash. (Colleen Healy) and Philadelphia (Jenny Schuller) because this meant so much to them. "I'm shocked to be in this first class," Healy said.

What had to please their mentors is that these athletes also have been successful in their careers while contributing to their communities or country by either working in education like Fort Myers' Eric Riley, coaching, volunteering, working in law enforcement like Williams, refereeing like Riverdale's Sammy Edwards or being in the military (Olympian Chad Senior of North Fort Myers).

For Walt Wesley, one of the inductees, he said it is and isn't hard to believe that he graduated from Dunbar High 50 years ago.

"When you think about the reality, yes," he said. "But when you think about the memories, no."

Chairperson David Burns, athletic director at Fort Myers High, was impressed with the response to the event, which took two years to put together.

"We had family members and people travel from all over the country to come to this event," Burns said. "It was tough to come down to the number. You think of some of the athletes who aren't here -- Johnny Long, Phillip Buchanon, Teddy Dupay -- it was difficult to pick."

Next year, Burns said seven people -- five athletes and two contributors -- will be inducted. As schools reach their 10th years, the athletes chosen will be even more selective.

"We want to continue to grow this for people who have done so much for athletics in Lee County," Burns said. "I don't think the public fully understood but we'll do a better job of promoting it through the schools."



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