My cell phone rang Monday at 4:16 p.m.

It was a Raleigh, N.C. number.

I do not owe on a student loan, and have no interest in extended warranty so I did not answer.

The voice mail popped up, so I listened in.

"Hey there Mr. Martin this is Michael Hall up here in North Carolina," said voice mail stated. "I just wanted to let you know that Russell Johnson passed away Sunday afternoon. I was just thinking about some articles you had written throughout our high school years and you came to my mind. I remember the articles you did on Russell Johnson and Michael Richardson back in the day. Stage 4 cancer got him. Sorry to talk to you on these terms. Talk to you later."

I called Michael back and had a long, enjoyable chat with the former Cathedral standout athlete who excelled in just about everything he did.

I had actually mentioned Russell in a column last year. It started out: I joined a couple of groups on Facebook -- Legends on the Football Field in Natchez, Ms., and The Mount Rushmore of Natchez Basketball.

It's been a lot of fun re-uniting with former players and recalling fond memories of years gone by.

I have to admit I've stayed away from who is the best, although I did commit to former North Natchez Ram Russell Johnson as the best athlete I watched perform on local fields and courts.

Russell could do it all on the football field and basketball court.

And he was quite the outfielder on the baseball team with a good bat.

So the news of Johnson's passing did bring back some great memories.

Russell was all over the place in his green and gold jersey at North Natchez, one of the most dynamic kick returners I've ever seen in the Miss-Lou.

And Johnson soaring over everyone to slam a dunk at Thompson Gym, in the quaint North Natchez High gym, and at South Natchez in some of the most intense athletic events I've ever watched.

And then the summer brought a Russell Johnson who would rob hitters of base hits with his quick reaction and speed in center field.

And, of course, there was track, where Johnson was able to show off his individual talents.

The best part was Johnson's genuine and contagious smile that lit up rooms when he walked in.

With colleges bombarding his mail box in all sports, Johnson chose basketball, and the USM Golden Eagles where he roomed with Clarence Weatherspoon.

"I really wasn't surprised," said Wilbert "Wiz" Whitley, who coached Johnson at Thompson Junior High along with Bobby Hill, and then coached defensive backs at North Natchez. "Basketball was his love. But he could have played in the NFL, NBA and the Major Leagues. They just didn't get any better. He was one of the best. I have no doubt if he would have picked up a golf club he would have been great at that."

Johnson played in 61 games at USM, averaged 11.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists. His field goal percentage was 55 percent and he made 76.3 percent of his free throws.

I had the privilege of watching Johnson when Southern Miss came to LSU on November 15, 1989.

LSU, with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Shaquille O'Neal, Stanley Roberts and favorite Vernel Singleton, won that game  91-80.

Rauf, then known as Chris Jackson, hit 18-of-29 field goals, finishing with 37 points. O'Neal only scored 10 points.

Daron Jenkins led USM with 25 points, Weatherspoon and Jenkins grabbed 14 rebounds each.

Later in the year, Johnson would scored 29 points against Southwestern Louisiana  in a 106-104 overtime win.

It was fun seeing Johnson go up against Singleton once again. Those two had some dynamic games in Natchez. Those would take many more columns.

Thanks for calling, Michael. By now a lot of people know of Russell's passing. And a lot of people are talking about his exploits on the football field, basketball court, baseball diamond and track. 

And those are some long conversations.


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