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In nickname realm, Fighting Okra snappiest

Published May 23, 2004

College sports nicknames become powerful identities. Passions are massive around Florida for Seminoles, Hurricanes, Gators and Bulls.

Nationally, dozens are familiar, each with marketing magic, including Fighting Irish, Tar Heels, Wolverines, Ducks, Horned Frogs and scads of Bulldogs, Tigers and Wildcats.

Some universities double dip, like Georgia Tech with its Engineers and Yellow Jackets, also at Virginia Tech where Gobblers were replaced in a screaming landslide by Hokies.

Here's my favorite ...

Delta State, a Division II school with consistently strong athletics, has forever been Statesmen. But, in an inventive generation, the identity now sold on T-shirts, hats, mugs, key chains, banners and even a Beanie Baby is ... Fighting Okra.

Sixteen years ago, Delta State baseball players rooted in a rowdy group at basketball games on the Cleveland, Miss., campus. Creative youngsters found Statesmen a bit boring. They wanted change.

Uniforms are predominantly green, so the hardball suggestion was to become Fighting Algae. "Somebody with common sense suggested that, to rivals, our players would be more grossly labeled Pond Scum," said Delta State sports information director Paul Smith.

Baseball boys kept searching for something "green, Southern and ugly." Soon, the gang began to chant, "Fighting Okra!" Baseballers were so enthused they crashed the locker room at halftime, where stunned basketball chaps were serenaded with bellows of "Okra! Okra!"

Smith says the coach thought intruders were yelling, "Oprah! Oprah!" Being more into X's and O's than promos for a TV host, he ejected the cheerers. It didn't subside. Other patrons soon picked up the arena cry. Local newspaper writers began calling the hoops facility "Okradome."

Even as Delta State traditionalists lobbied to diminish the Fighting Okra movement, demand kept escalating for a veggie known more scientifically as Abelmoschus esculentus. Okra has become a cash cow.

Today's symbol is a sneering, grubby piece of okra that wears boxing gloves and perches proudly on paraphernalia sold at the campus bookstore. What a tasty matchup if the Fighting Okra meets Rice.

You can find Hardrockers at the South Dakota School of Mines, Vixens at Sweet Briar (Va.) and, just for baseball, the Cal State Long Beach Dirtbags. Nothing more yummy than Fighting Okra.

BASEBALL'S COLORS: E-mail reactions were diversely spirited to a listing of facts on the dramatically declining percentage of African-American players in the major leagues, as well as my commentary in search of reasons ...

Frank McGrogan (Hudson) thinks, "If blacks don't want to play baseball, so what. You hit the nail on the head. It's "about style, individual personality and exposure.'

"Maybe it's because they can't do the moonwalk after hitting a single. There are plenty of white and Hispanic players who bring desire and excitement without all the fanfare."

Jeff Brown (Philadelphia) asks, "Why should the leagues go out of their way to get more black players into MLB? I don't recall anyone making a stink about the (shortage) of whites in the NFL and NBA."

Tony Grier (Tampa), a former USF basketball captain, writes, "I am a season-ticket holder of our Devil Rays. I had similar thoughts at a recent game, about fewer black players and, more important, the small number of black fans.

"There is plenty of minority money in the Tampa Bay area. I assume the Rays have marketed the baseball experience to them. I bought mine as a civic responsibility."

Grayce Gadson (Los Angeles) said, "Your article was on target. In my neighborhood, parks with baseball fields are taken up with "sanctioned' entities such as Little League. A county park with three nice fields (paid for by our tax dollars) can only be used by Little League, Inc.

"I think that's why African youngsters are not playing. They have no "sandlot' opportunities. All schools are fenced and locked at night. Baseball is a great game.

"As a girl, I loved playing. As a grandmother, I take grandchildren to pro games and they enjoy. Back in the neighborhood, there is no place to play unless with a sanitized league."

Simon Volinsky (Winchester, Va.), a retired CBS executive from New York who finds joy as official statistician for his grandson's baseball team, offers, "We have met seven high school (junior varsity) teams in northern Virginia and, including our squad, I'm yet to see a black kid.

"Our staff would love black players but they go into basketball and track. Perhaps, as you say, it involves more flash and glitter. Too bad for the game of baseball and for all."

- Hubert Mizell can be reached via e-mail at

[Last modified May 22, 2004, 23:37:24]

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