The Martin Chronicles: A Hero in Black & White
By Buddy Martin
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They buried Larry Dupree at Macclenny’s Woodlawn Cemetery last week, in the rural dirt of Baker County from whence he came … on a sunny, grassy spot -- out in the daylight, where he loved to run.
Somewhere in the dimly lit banks of our memories, long before there was an ESPN or tsunami waves of talk radio, our sports heroes resided on the black-and-white pages of newspapers.
Today, we often struggle to conjure up the personal recollection of those splendid nights or days of yesteryear’s autumn. But even after all these seasons, Larry Dupree is not somebody soon forgotten.
I first laid eyes on Dupree in the obscure setting of Starke, Florida, on a Friday night circa 1960. I was covering high school football for the local newspaper, assigned to cover the Bradford County powerhouse in a game against Baker County High of Macclenny.
Dupree jumped off the page immediately.
I had never seen anything like him. As memory serves, Dupree scored three -- maybe it was four -- touchdowns from 50 or more yards out that night. I do remember one of them came just one play after Dupree was helped off the field following a blow to the head. On the next play, he broke it for 60-plus yards. It was one of the most remarkable performances I’d seen by a high school football player.
Sometimes you can smell greatness even if you can’t describe it.
Late into the season, despite impressive game after game, the Florida Gators had still not offered him a scholarship. I went back to the Gainesville Sun office and accosted my boss, Joe Halberstein, expressing wonderment how such a talent could be overlooked. Once Georgia started recruiting Dupree, however, Ray Graves stepped in, sending assistant coach Dave Fuller to seal the deal.
Larry Dupree made them all look like geniuses.
Typically, though, he waited his turn. Freshman ball. And then he dazzled them. Three-time All-SEC. All-American.
At a school which produced runners like Emmitt Smith, Errict Rhett, Fred Taylor, Neal Anderson and John L. Williams, even the stats of an All-American can get lost. Dupree’s numbers were not fattened by an extra season or an extended schedule, and they won’t reflect Dupree’s greatness. However, his were yards made the old fashioned way: He earned them, finishing second all-time on the Gator yardage list (1,725 yards) at that time.
Country strong and country tough. He never missed a game because of injury -- even played against Georgia the week his stillborn child was born to him and his wife Denise.
Although his fame was somewhat muted by time and circumstance, buried by the archives of headlines about the Tim Tebows and Danny Wuerffels and all that national championships bling, Dupree was one of the best football players to ever set foot on Florida Field. Ask anybody who ever saw him play.
Watching Dupree run with the football was a joy to behold. He could find more angles than a geometry professor, slicing and slashing, stopping and starting his way around and through defenders. He also ran with power.
I talked to several of his teammates about him when I was writing a chapter in the book “The Boys From Old Florida.”
“He could be a slasher, but could also stop on a dime,” remembered Charles Casey, an All-American wide receiver who played with Dupree and later caught the passes of Steve Spurrier. “You think you had him and – poof! – he was gone.”
Recalled his teammate, quarterback Tommy Shannon: “Larry would run one way and then cut back across the grain. I saw the best moves in the world after I handed the ball off. He could run as fast sideways as we could forward. And he could deliver a blow.”
Spurrier told the media Dupree “was a quiet guy, a very good tailback and respected by everyone. Really fast and tough. A good person and well-liked.”
Shannon only had one complaint. You’ve heard of players who “left it on all the field”? Larry left a little more. So intense was Dupree that he often upchucked during the game. Once he picked up a linebacker on a blitz and vomited right in his face. Shannon said he often had to watch his step when breaking the huddle. Larry Dupree played his guts out.
With that intensity, Dupree carried the Florida Gators on his back to respectability during the early 1960s, their best year being the 7-3 mark in 1964. That season climaxed with a 20-6 upset of the No. 7 LSU Tigers in a December game played in Baton Rouge because the earlier date was “hurricaned out.”
Though the game wasn’t for a championship, Florida’s 10-6 upset over Bear Bryant’s Alabama team in 1963 was, at that point, the biggest win in school history, representing Bear’s only home loss in history at Denny Stadium (now Bryant-Denny). The hero of that game was a little known running back named Dirk Kirk, who unexpectedly scooted for the winning touchdown. All Dupree did was run for 83 yards against a very stingy Crimson Tide defense. The losing quarterback was Joe Namath.
The recollections of remarkable feats are sometimes lost or blurred by the years, and even the record books can write you out.
Earlier in 1963, Dupree had set a school record with 31 carries (for 138 yards) and scored the game's only touchdown in a 7-0 win over new cross-state rival against Florida State. But in the Florida media guide where all the 100-yard rushers are listed, Dupree’s name doesn’t show up.
It wasn’t his legs that made Dupree so special, however – it was more his heart.
Ordinarily it’s not necessary to say this, but Dupree was a white running back, color-blinded by the black families in his community around him as a kid during the 1950s. His best friend from childhood, Fuller Reed, was black. When time came for them to attend the segregated schools, Larry and Fuller went separate ways. Puzzled, Dupree wondered aloud, “Why does this have to be?”
Later Larry and his wife adopted a young African-American boy. Yet more evidence that Larry saw inside a person’s heart, past the color of their skin.
Sad news reached the Gator Nation last week that Dupree had lost his battle with cancer and died. As the late Jim Murray once wrote of Michigan legend Tom Harmon’s death, “if he’d had been carrying a football, God would never have caught him.”
When they told him he had lung cancer recently, he reportedly declined chemotherapy, saying he would “rather die of a massive heart attack.”
And he did.
I just never believed Dupree’s heart would run out.