Updated: Aug 22, 2020
“I only wish you had known how he learned to run and spin on a dime and run all over players trying to tackle him.” Beth Dupree.
Sometimes in this morass of mental anguish that assaults our brains these days, we fall victim to sieges of nostalgia as we crave the tender yesterdays like mothers’ milk. Was it really that sweet? And for a moment we are transported into a safer, simpler time as a respite with a happier ending. I need to go there today.
While I remain thankful for every crumb of college football thrown our way — almost hour by hour, day by day — please let me escape the medical analysis of Coronavirus and the options of opting out and whether we are in danger of losing tailgating. I just don’t want to lose the season. So let’s put it on pause and return to yesteryear for some football memories.
As we wavered back and forth pondering whether college football would make it through August, I received an unexpected email which harkened me to the past. Last week I heard from the younger sister of the late Larry Dupree, arguably one of my top ten favorite all-time Florida Gator football players. She revealed how he first fashioned his style of running.
“I only wish you had known how he learned to run and spin on a dime and run all over players trying to tackle him,” wrote Beth. “Lol! I was his first football. He was 13 years old when I was born.” She went on to explain that Larry would grab her up in his arms when she was about to get a spanking and, dodging trees and bushes in the woods out back, cart her to safety, out of harm’s way.
Larry was not Tebow-famous, but his warmth and sincerity, his emergence out of the small-town dirt of Macclenny -- plus his raw talent and spectacular selflessness -- still radiate with those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him personally and bask in his inspirational talent.
Watching Dupree run with the football was a joy to behold. However, unless you saw the All-American tailback that he was from 1961-64, you probably won’t fully appreciate that.
I referred to him as: “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.”
Quoting from my last column on him: “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. 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 bring. Yet Dupree was one of the best football players to ever set foot on Florida Field. Ask anybody who ever saw him play.”
Former Gator quarterback Tommy Shannon, MVP of the 1962 Gator Bowl team that beat Penn State, once told me, “Larry Dupree is still the greatest Gator football player I ever saw.” And since he had a great vantage point, turning around to hand off or pitch out the football to No. 35 hundreds of times, Tommy would know. (By the way, we must not downplay Shannon’s reputation for stellar judgment as one of the key partners in the foundation of Outback Steakhouse.)
A random e-mail from Beth Dupree and her beautiful reminiscence reminded me of Larry’s remarkable career and validated my memory of what I wrote more than six years after his death in June 2014: “Larry Dupree is not somebody soon forgotten.”
Some of his greatness has been blunted by the shadows of time: “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.”
As Beth recalled she was there to watch him from the beginning:
“I only got one spanking in my life that I deserved and ‘Bubba’ (as she called Larry) wasn’t there. If he heard Mama or Daddy raise their voice at me, he scooped me up, tucked me close to him and ran like lighting through the woods behind our house. He dodged pine trees, palm bushes and blackberry bushes with thorns. When we reached a safe distance, we would stop and he would sit me somewhere safe. If it was blackberry season, he’d pick me some berries. If not, he could always find me some wildflowers. We would wait long enough for Mama or Daddy to not be mad and we would head back home.”
Soon “Bubba” was emerging as a bonafide star at Baker County High, dodging tacklers instead of bushes and trees. It was in a game against Bradford County in Starke that I first spied him on a Friday night circa 1960. I was writing high school football for the local newspaper, the Sun, assigned to cover the Tornado powerhouse in a game against the team from Macclenny.
My recollection was: “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 he was helped off the field following a blow to the head. (That was his version of concussion protocol). One play later he was back and breaking 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.”
One of the best parts of my job all these years has been reconnecting with people I’ve known and written about, either through them, loved ones, or friends. It reaffirms and validates my recollections and extends relationships.
I particularly enjoyed the feeling of jubilation expressed by Beth, who remembered the joy of returning from their journeys through the woods:
“Only on the return trip, I was on top of the world on the shoulders of my hero! So when he played football, after the reporters were done talking or getting pics of him, he would always come find me and I rode off the field on the top of the world again. God, what I wouldn’t give for one more ride on his shoulders!”
And then she added this note of gratitude: “Thank you Buddy for all you ever wrote about him. When I am missing my brother really bad, I want you to know, the obituary that you wrote is a great comfort to me.”
I could never appreciate any comment more than one like that. That is what I will take from today, this week, in the face of uncertainty and into future weeks when I am reeling from doubt and my passion is flagging because of the troubles that seem to be encroaching on us all. And it reminds me of why I got into this business in the first place: For the gratitude of people like Beth and authenticity of people like her late brother. Thank God for the recollection of yesterdays.