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Special Awards to be Presented at Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Banquet

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame will host its annual banquet this Saturday, Aug. 2, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Four Special Award winners will be recognized at the event, in addition to the Hall of Fame class, the Corbett Award winners and multiple annual award winners. The Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame is sponsored by the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Inductees
Corbett Award Winners
Annual Award Winners

While there are many different categories of awards presented by the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee, some years the committee finds that there are people deserving of recognition who do not necessarily fit into one specific category. For that reason, the Committee presents Special Awards to outstanding individuals and organizations. This year's Special Award winners are an extraordinary group demonstrating excellence across a unique and broad spectrum.

Rob Bernardi, the Director of Athletics at Nicholls State University, was honored by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) as one of four winners of the Under Armour AD of the Year Award for the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. With 13 years as director of athletics at Nicholls, Bernardi is the second longest tenured athletics director in the school's history. Since arriving in Thibodaux, he has reinvigorated Nicholls athletics by transforming the department into a modern, progressive program aimed at increasing funding, improving facilities and enhancing the student-athlete experience.

A Special Award will also be presented to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette Athletic Department after its unprecedented success this past year. UL-Lafayette captured five conference championships and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in four sports, along with collecting a New Orleans Bowl victory. The Ragin' Cajuns were the only athletic program in the country to achieve four elite goals: win a football bowl game, send a team to NCAA basketball tournament, host NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals in baseball and softball, and send a team to the College World Series.

One of the more unique Special Awards stories in recent years is that of Mark Slessinger. In his three years as the head basketball coach at the University of New Orleans, he has continued to rebuild the program, however, his largest impact on the community, and society, comes off the court. Slessinger and his wife Toni have dedicated themselves to being foster parents for young children in need. The goal of the foster system is to give a child a solid and safe environment while giving the birth parents the opportunity to work out any issues they may be going through. It is a noble cause, but also a heartbreaking one; if the system works as designed, the foster parents will return the baby for whom they have cared for many months.

In 2011, the Slessingers took in their first foster child, a six-and-a-half month old girl. Ten months later, the birth family was ready, and the Slessingers were able to return a child they had taken in as their own. Since the first child, the Slessingers have welcomed two more foster children into their home; in February, they were able to officially adopt Nola Ann, while they hope to adopt the second as well, but will cherish any opportunity they have with the baby. In a story on CBSSports.com, Mark stated, "Don't make me and Toni out to be heroes - neither of us are. I'm just some regular common dude. I don't want it to be that I'm some savior."

The writer, Gregg Doyle, followed with a perfect summation: "Sorry. They are heroes. Foster parents, this small army of selfless soldiers, are heroic. They open their homes and their hearts to children from awful backgrounds, strangers with heartbreaking histories, and they spend weeks or months or maybe a lifetime trying to make it better. It's not a game-winning basket in the final seconds. It's not a conference or national championship. It's better than that."

The final Special Award winner is Paul Hoolahan, the chief executive officer of the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the sponsor of the Hall of Fame. "The committee wanted to recognize Paul and the Sugar Bowl for everything they do for the community," said Sports Award Committee chairman Will Peneguy. "Their support for the wide-range of community events, including this Hall of Fame, often goes unrecognized and we wanted to let Paul and the Sugar Bowl Committee know that the community appreciates their efforts."

The Greater New Orleans Sports Selection Committee began in 1958 when James Collins spearheaded a group of sports journalists to form a sports awards committee to immortalize local sports history. For 12 years, the committee honored local athletes each month. In 1970, the Sugar Bowl stepped in to sponsor and revitalize the committee, leading to the creation of the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1971, honoring 10 legends from the Crescent City in its first induction class. While adding the responsibility of selecting Hall of Famers, the committee has continued to recognize the top amateur athlete in the Greater New Orleans area each month - the honors enter their 56th year in 2014. To be eligible, an athlete must be a native of the greater New Orleans area or must compete for a team in the metropolitan region.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl has established itself as one of the premier bowl games in the country, having hosted 23 national champions, 86 Hall of Fame players, 46 Hall of Fame coaches and 15 Heisman Trophy winners in its 80-year history. The upcoming Allstate Sugar Bowl Football Classic on January 1, 2015 will also serve as a College Football Playoff Semifinal, one of the first semifinal games in the new college football postseason format. In addition to football, the Sugar Bowl Committee is involved with various community initiatives through hosting and sponsorships of sporting events, awards and clinics. Through these efforts, the organization supports and honors over 13,000 student-athletes each year, while injecting over $2 billion into the local economy in the last decade. 

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