Tommy Durrance: A Great Gator, A Better Man

When Tommy Durrance breathed his last breath Friday morning, a five-year struggle with a rare degenerative neurological disease that had gradually taken away his ability to speak, swallow and function ended quietly. Quiet is the way he would have scripted it if he had been in charge of his own passing. He would never have wanted to go out with a tremendous amount of fanfare. That just wasn't his style.

For you older Gators, it's a sad day because the guy we called "Touchdown Tommy" during that magical Super Sophs year of 1969 is gone much too early at age 55. Those who saw him play remember an undersized tailback who compensated for his lack of speed by playing smart, determined and with an uncanny ability to do great things at critical moments in big football games. If you remember the Tommy Durrance who was a student on the University of Florida campus, you remember the always approachable nice guy who never was consumed by his football stardom.

For you younger Gators who came along after that marvelous year that caught the imagination of everyone who had ever followed Florida football, Tommy Durrance can best be remembered as someone who was tough and determined when the pads were on, but gracious, humble and quietly successful off the field. During his sophomore season he scored 18 touchdowns and 110 points, both still tied as single season bests in Gator football history.

"Tommy was the kind of guy that maybe you didn't notice so much when the game was being played," said Fred Pancoast Friday afternoon from his home in Nashville. Pancoast was the offensive coordinator for the Gators in 1969. "He just went about doing his job and getting it done. It wasn't until we'd grade the film that we really came to appreciate all the things he did … things like making a key block, or getting an extra yard for a first down to keep a drive alive, or catching the ball out of the backfield. He did all the little things. He probably should have been an All-American but he never complained that he didn't get as much publicity as John (Reaves) or Carlos (Alvarez)."

* * *

Coach Ray Graves remembered the first time he saw Tommy Durrance playing high school football. Durrance and quarterback John Schnebly were two of the best players in Central Florida. Both would start for the Gators for three years.

"I saw Tommy play in high school and I saw that even though he wasn't all that big and he didn't have great speed, he was a truly natural runner," said Graves, who spent Friday at a hospital in Tampa where he was at the bedside of his wife Opal, who suffered a mini-stroke. "He was like one of those old Tennessee tailbacks in the single wing the way he followed his blocks and turned the ball up in the hole to get the extra yards. I knew I had to have him on my team because guys like that are winners."

Although he knows that Durrance scored touchdowns when Florida was turning games into a rout that 1969 season, Coach Graves said his lasting memory of Tommy as a football player was how he had a knack for getting the ball into the end zone when the Gators most needed a touchdown.

"That's why they called him 'TD' …. 'Touchdown Tommy'… because he could squeeze through a hole or break tackles to get a touchdown," said Graves. "He had that ability to make a big play when we needed it the most. He'd get in there and score a touchdown and then he'd act like that wasn't anything special. For him, it wasn't special. It was just him doing his job."

* * *

In the first game of the season in 1969 against the mighty Houston Cougars, preseason ranked number one in the nation, the Gators were three touchdown underdogs. This was a Houston team that had scored 106 points in a game against Tulsa the year before. When the Cougars got to Gainesville, the expectation was that this game would get out of hand quickly.

It did get out of hand quickly, only it wasn't Houston that put the points on the boards, it was the Gators. Everyone remembers the third play of the game when John Reaves threw the perfect 78-yard bomb to the streaking Carlos Alvarez for Florida's first touchdown. What most people don't remember is the second series of the game when Reaves hit Durrance on a wheel route out of the backfield for a 46-yard touchdown pass.

"I was standing on the sideline getting ready for the next series," said Reaves, who choked with emotion recalling his good friend. "Houston played a lot of man coverage which left them with a linebacker covering the guys out of the backfield. Coach Pancoast said, 'When we go back in we're gonna run the wheel route. Who do you want to run it?'

"I told him put Tommy in there. Well, we ran the play and Tommy beat their linebacker. He caught a 46-yard touchdown pass. I didn't know it but when I was talking to Coach Pancoast, Tommy was within earshot and he heard everything. When he came over to the sideline, he said, 'Thanks for asking Coach Pancoast to put me in.' That's how gracious he was."

Pancoast knew the wheel route would be successful and he had no doubt that Durrance could make the play.

"We knew they were going to bite on Alvarez after he had made that long touchdown catch," said Pancoast. "The wheel route was a predetermined play that we were going to use after a successful pass to the wide receiver going deep. We knew they would bite on the long receiver and the short receiver could turn it up. Tommy was so good coming out of the backfield and he did what we knew he would do. He ran the perfect route, he made the catch and then he got the touchdown. That's basically what he did all season. He just did what we knew he would do. He went about his job and getting it done right."

* * *

Later that season, Reaves and Andy Cheney, another of the Super Sophs, got to see just how tough Tommy Durrance was. In the final regular season game against Miami, Durrance got smashed in the face badly and he came to the sideline.

"Man, his lip was almost torn off completely," said Reaves. "It was just hanging by a thread and they wanted to stitch it up, but he said just stop the bleeding and put a bandaid on it. They put the biggest band-aid they could find on it and he was back in the game the next play."

Cheney had injured his knee a couple of plays before. Durrance was his best friend and roommate. As much pain as he was in with a hurt knee, he winced when he saw Durrance.

"I'm over there, hurt on the sideline and I couldn't even look at him," said Cheney.

On his first play back in the game Durrance made the longest run of his career, a 67-yarder for a touchdown, breaking five or six tackles along the way.

"It's one of the greatest runs I ever saw," said Cheney. "He was just so tough and so determined."

Reaves added, "Most guys would have called it a day, but he wanted back in the game and he made an incredible run, but that's the kind of guy he was."

* * *

As great as the football memories are, especially of that 1969 season, it is Tommy Durrance the man that Reaves remembers the most. Durrance was from a wealthy family but you would never know it when he came to Gainesville. He had a small pickup truck, not a fancy sports car, and when he wasn't playing football, he wanted to be in the woods hunting or fishing on some lake.

"He'd pile six or seven of us … as many as we could get in the front and in the bed of that little truck," said Reaves, "and off we'd go. He was just content to be one of the guys, a guy who just fit in with everybody else, but he was more than just a guy who fit in. He was your best friend. He was a guy you knew you could always depend on."

After graduation from Florida, Durrance returned to Daytona Beach where he worked in the family paving business that he eventually would take over. He became a solid member of the community and a dynamic force in the Gator Club of Volusia County.

"He was a fine businessman, a great family man … well respected in the community," said Reaves. "He was a solid citizen and in every aspect of his life, he was somebody that we could all look up to."

* * *

Cheney knew Tommy Durrance as a roommate and best friend. Andy Cheney married Susan. Tommy Durrance married Jo Lynn. Tommy and Andy were roomates. Susan and Jo Lynn were sorority sisters. The four were best friends. They were family.

Over the last five years as he watched his best friend succumb to the neurological disease that took his life, Andy Cheney would bite his lip and fight back the tears. Seeing Tommy slowly lose his ability to talk and to swallow was especially difficult for Cheney.

"When I think of the young Tommy Durrance I think of this guy who was like a Greek god," said Cheney. "He was always in such great shape but it was more than that. It was the way he was with people. He had so many good friends because he understood what it takes to be a good friend.

"We elected him captain of our team. He was the captain not just because everybody liked him, but because he was a leader through his actions and he had the respect of everybody. He didn't have to say a lot. All you had to do was watch him and you respected him. He was the kind of guy who was never pretentious about his football skills, which were enormous, or his personal success, which was equally great. He just enjoyed being a good guy, someone you knew you could depend on."

* * *

Four weeks ago at the Silver Sixties Reunion of the Gators who played football for Coach Graves, Tommy Durrance was there with his family. He stared straight ahead most of the time, only occasionally looking to one side or the other. He sat in the back of the room as Coach Graves was honored, in the care of his loving, devoted family. The night was special because Coach Graves and Opal were honored by the men he still calls "his boys" but also because of one precious moment that everyone who was at the event will always remember.

A recording of the late Gene Ellenson's poem dedicated to the players of the Silver Sixties era was played. As everyone listened fondly to that familiar voice of "The Old Warrior" calling out the names and nicknames of the players who had played so hard and so well for Florida, every eye turned quickly to the back of the room when Tommy Durrance's name was spoken. Almost as if on cue, Durrance rose from his seat and raised his finger in the air to signify "number one."

It was one of the few moments that anyone could recall in recent weeks when Durrance had been able to visibly show that he was still there in mind even though his body was failing fast. Tears flowed freely. Tough guys like Dick Kirk and Allen Trammell made no effort to wipe away their tears. This was Coach Graves' night, but this was Tommy Durrance's moment.

"I just broke up when that happened," said Reaves, the tears flowing and his voice cracking. "Now it's a moment that I'll never forget. To know that he knew his name and knew that we all loved him … well, that's something special."

Later that evening after the festivities were over, Coach Graves went over to Durrance and put his hands on the frail shoulders of his former Super Soph. Coach Graves smiled and told Durrance how much he loved and appreciated him. For a few moments there wasn't much recognition, but suddenly, there was a twinkle in the eye that Graves had seen so many years before.

"He stuck out his hand and he shook it," said Coach Graves, his voice also failing. "He smiled at me. He couldn't talk but that smile told me he knew. I loved Tommy Durrance."

* * *

Two weeks ago at the Pepsi 400 in Daytona Beach, the Cheneys and the Durrances got together. Tommy's health was failing but he recognized Andy Cheney. They spent the evening together at the race. It was the last time the Cheneys and the Durrances had one of their special get togethers.

Thursday, when Cheney saw his old friend, the recognition was gone. The final hours were ticking down on a life that produced so much good. When word came to Cheney today that Tommy had passed, it made for a very tough day.

"This is the day I never wanted to see," said Cheney. "I've lost my best friend and the Gators have lost one of the best men that's ever been a part of our university. Here's what I'm going to remember about him: he was a great football player, but more importantly, he was a great husband, a great father, a great family man and a businessman who cared about the people who worked for him.

"As nice as he was when he was healthy, he was even nicer when he was sick. He was gracious for every time I came to visit even when he couldn't talk any more. He was thankful for what he had and thankful that people took the time to spend with him. He was gracious to the very end."

(Photo Copyright Glenn Danforth)

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