For those of you too young to have seen him play, Larry Dupree was an absolute stud among studs. Old Gators like Tommy Shannon, who have seen practically every game Florida has played since his own playing career came to an end in 1964, call Dupree the best player they have ever seen in the orange and blue.
Maybe you can argue best. Don't even try to argue toughest.
In the early morning of November 8, 1963, the day before Florida-Georgia in Jacksonville, the first born child of Larry and Denise Dupree was stillborn. Dupree was absolutely devastated and so was the entire Florida campus when word spread of the tragedy. There wasn't a more humble or better liked player on campus. Teammates have always remembered him as the ultimate, selfless Gator who never really thought he deserved all the acclaim. He was a three-time first team All-SEC performer and a first team All-America selection in an era when the great offensive teams racked up for a full game about what Baylor and Oregon ring up in a typical first half before they pull the starters and start playing the backups and scrubeenies.
That afternoon, before the Gators boarded the buses that would take them over to Jacksonville, Dupree asked Coach Ray Graves if he could speak to the team. Coach Graves said yes. When Larry walked into the room, Gene Ellenson was about halfway through one of his fiery pep talks. Ellenson saw Dupree and just walked out of the room without saying a word.
"I still don't remember the exact words I said, but it was very emotional for me," Dupree told me in one of the rare interviews he ever gave back in November of 2004 for a feature piece for Fightin' Gators magazine. "I thanked my teammates because they were so supportive and I let them know how I felt about them. I saw some pretty tough guys with big ole tears streaming down their faces."
Dupree spent the night at the hospital with Denise. Saturday morning, Dupree's father-in-law, Col. Eldridge Beach of the Florida Highway Patrol, came into the room at Shands and suggested that he go to Jacksonville and play.
"I looked at him and looked at my wife, and something inside me told me to do it. I've always had strong religious faith. I had it then and I have it now. Somehow I knew I was supposed to do this."
What Dupree didn't know was that Beach had this all arranged. There were two Highway Patrol cruisers waiting outside the hospital. With flashing lights and sirens blaring, Dupree made the trip to Jacksonville. When he walked into the Florida locker room holding his uniform there was a surge of energy.
Coach Graves then made the shortest pre-game speech of his career.
Jack Hairston, who was the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, told me that Graves offered up one sentence: "If you guys don't want to play today, you never will."
Dupree ran over, under, around and through Georgia that game, leading the Gators to a 21-14 win. He had a 70-yard touchdown run called back for stepping out of bounds although replays clearly showed he was in bounds.
Dupree told me, "There was no way we were going to lose that game to Georgia. There were a lot of big ole guys that not much would make them cry, but they cried that day. They cried that game. They cried for me. They opened their hearts for me that day and they were a Godsend. I got more from them than I ever gave to them."
When I heard the news today that Larry had passed away, that last line was the first thing that flashed in my mind. Everybody I've ever talked to about Larry Dupree tells me that he always gave everything he had and still found a way to give some more but he never once thought he deserved anything in return.
Larry gave me that interview in 2004 with great reluctance. He spent a good ten minutes trying to convince me that I needed to interview someone else. When he finally gave in and agreed to talk, he answered each question after taking a moment to think. When he talked, the tone was genuine and humble. He truly loved his former coaches and teammates, loved being a Gator and was so filled with pride that the Florida football program that he helped build was now considered one of the elite programs in the nation.
He was still overwhelmed that teammates loved him so much. There was a legitimate reason for all the love. That's because Larry always understood that football is a team game that requires all 11 players functioning together to find success. He never once thought that his contribution was greater than the contribution of the other 10 guys on the field with him or that he was any better than the last guy on the bench. It wasn't an act. That's just the way he was.
I also remember him as a guy who quietly did his part to break through racial barriers. His best friend growing up in Macclenny was Fuller Reed. If they weren't playing football or baseball together, they were in the woods or fishing. They were inseparable except that when it came time to go to school, Larry Dupree went to the all-white school and Fuller Reed went to the all-black school. That was the way it was in the 1950s in Florida but Dupree never understood it and never thought it was right, which has something to do with the way he coached kids as an adult. He never saw color, just kids that he could treat the way he wanted to be treated and that came with a price. There were those in Baker County who thought he might have treated the black kids better than the white kids and let him know it. Larry didn't care what they thought. He only saw kids and a chance to give something to someone who might need a little love and encouragement.
I saw that game in Jacksonville in 1963 and I remember reading the stories by Jack Hairston, Joe Halberstein and Tom McEwen that gave us a glimpse of the courage and toughness it took for Larry Dupree to not only play, but dominate that game. I came away from that weekend knowing two things: Larry Dupree was a man's man and someday I wanted to be able to write stories about how sports brought out the best in people. When I got to write that story for Fightin' Gators in 2004, it was like a piece of my own heart was fulfilled.
I know where Larry Dupree is tonight. He's in heaven getting to know that child who was stillborn back in 1963, saying hi to all the Gators who got there before him and marveling that he's in a place where everyone is known by the purity of their soul not by the color of their skin.
And I know he's already heard these words, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
To honor a great Gator, today's musical selection is the wonderful "People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, a song that was written just after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
People get ready, there's a train comin' You don't need no baggage, you just get on board All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin' You don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord
People get ready, there's a train to Jordan Picking up passengers coast to coast Faith is the key, open the doors and board them There's hope for all among those loved the most There ain't no room for the hopeless sinner whom would hurt all mankind Just to save his own Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner For there is no hiding place against the kingdom's throne
People get ready there's a train comin' You don't need no baggage, just get on board All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin' You don't need no ticket, just thank the Lord