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The Hall Calls

Featured Photo from The Hall Calls

The 2019 class of inductees into the Seminole County Sports Hall of Fame spans decades, multiple sports, and the full spectrum of community service

Sarah Reece admits she was taken aback when she heard that she had been chosen for induction into the Seminole County Sports Hall of Fame. She’s not an athlete, and she’s not a coach. She has worked in the healthcare industry since starting out as a nurse back in 1972 at what is now Orlando Health, where she currently works as a programmer analyst.

Sarah is also an Altamonte Springs city commissioner and current vice-mayor, and she is also president of the board of directors for the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center in Sanford.

Still, on May 15 at the Lake Mary Events Center, Sarah was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame along with two absolute titans of the sports world: four-time Grand Slam tennis champion Jim Courier and Drew “Bundini” Brown, the longtime cornerman for heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

The induction was part of the 2019 Breakfast of Champions, which honors all the Seminole County high-school Athletes of the Year.

“When I was told I was being inducted into the Seminole County Sports Hall of Fame, I was really taken by surprise,” says Sarah, an Altamonte Springs resident since 1977 and mother to three sons and grandmother of six. “It’s a great honor, but a Sports Hall of Fame is usually reserved for great athletes. I’m certainly no athlete. But I have spent many, many years promoting youth sports in this area.”

That is an understatement. Sarah has been a tireless volunteer in the community for more than three decades, and when her sons began their involvement in youth baseball, Sarah was always there to lend a hand, starting as a team mom and working her way up to league president. In 1995, she was the first president of Babe Ruth Baseball in Altamonte Springs, and in 2008, she founded Central Florida Bambino Buddy Ball, a free baseball program designed specifically for players with special needs.

As that league’s president, Sarah spearheaded the construction of the area’s only 100-percent accessible field built specially for Buddy Ball, located at Eastmonte Park. The park’s baseball/softball complex, home to Altamonte Springs Babe Ruth Baseball, also includes Sarah Reece Field, which was named for Sarah when she became a city commissioner in 1999.

“It’s not shocking to me,” Sarah’s son Seth says of his mom’s induction. Seth, 37, is a longtime baseball coach and volunteer who introduced his mom to the idea of Buddy Ball. “The reason I’ve been volunteering since I was 21 is because she taught me to do that. We put a lot of time into the community with no regrets. It humbles us.”

The other 2019 Hall of Fame inductees did not spend much of their lives in Seminole County, but their accomplishments made them worthy honorees.

Jim Courier, born in Sanford, moved to Dade City when he was three years old. He went on to become the world’s #1-ranked player in 1992, and his 23 singles titles included two French Opens and two Australian Opens. Now a TV tennis commentator, Jim was introduced to the sport by his great-aunt Emma Spencer, a 1983 Seminole County Sports Hall of Fame inductee. His grandfather, John Courier, is the namesake of Oviedo High School’s football field.

Bundini Brown, who passed away in 1987, was born in Midway and raised and buried in Sanford. He left home at 13 when he lied about his age to join the Navy as a messboy. He became part of Muhammad Ali’s entourage in the early 1960s, when the iconic boxer was still known as Cassius Clay, and was with him until Ali retired in 1981. Bundini was also one of Ali’s speechwriters and coined his most famous phrase, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

The Breakfast of Champions also included three other special inductions into the Hall of Fame from previous years: Herbert “Whitey” Eckstein, former Sanford city commissioner, youth sports advocate, teacher, and coach at Seminole High School; Talmadge “Buck” Metts, Seminole High graduate and Florida State University football star; and June Winn, a Seminole  High School teacher and women’s sports pioneer. All three are deceased.

Whitey, father of former Major League Baseball star David Eckstein and MLB coach Rick Eckstein, passed away on June 5, 2018, at age 73, just three days short of his 50th wedding anniversary. His widow, Pat, attended the awards ceremony along with two of her grandchildren, Kenneth and David Eckstein-Schoemann.

Whitey was born in Newark, New Jersey, and moved to Florida as a teenager. Pat, who was also born in Newark, ended up moving to the same street in DeBary a few years later, and the two started dating when she was a senior at DeLand High School and he was a sophomore at the University of Florida. They married on June 8, 1968, and raised five children. Whitey began his teaching career at All Souls Catholic School in Sanford before switching to Seminole High, where he taught American history and law studies and also coached the boys’ golf team.

In 1987, Whitey became a Sanford city commissioner, and that’s when he began making several contributions to youth sports. He was responsible for the restoration of historic Sanford Memorial Stadium and the building of an aquatic center at Seminole High School. The Herbert “Whitey” Eckstein Youth Sports Complex in Sanford is named in his honor. Pat accepted Whitey’s Hall of Fame award on his behalf.

“I was really proud to receive that award,” Pat says. “It should have been given to Whitey while he was alive, but he probably would’ve said, ‘Not me! So-and-so has done much more than me.’ He would have been a reluctant recipient, and he would’ve had a list of people he thought deserved it more than him. That’s just how Whitey was. But he did deserve it. He did so much for the kids and for the community.”

One of the stories Pat likes to tell is about when Whitey read an article in a newspaper about a young boy drowning in a local creek. He said, “That should never happen,” and then made it a goal to have a swimming facility built in Sanford where everyone could learn how to swim. The Dale Aquatic Center opened for just that purpose in 2000.

“I thought that was nothing short of brilliant,” Pat says. “Whitey’s philosophy was to do whatever is best for the youth and the people of Sanford. He was a very intense person and always gave 100 percent and expected his family to do the same. Whitey was always pushing people to reach farther, to do more. He wanted everybody to be the best they could be.”

In the eyes of the Seminole County Sports Hall of Fame committee members, Whitey Eckstein and the other inductees did just that.

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