Rabbit Curry: Greatness Personified
It is the eternal tragedy of war that young men go to die. Lives are snuffed out before they can attain any longevity, before they can leave a sustained and constant imprint on other people, other communities, and various realms of activity. Life is still just beginning in one’s early 20s, and in the present day, with a much longer life expectancy and an explosion of technologies that make our world so much smaller and more connected, being young conveys so many more opportunities than it did roughly 100 years ago. Yet, as awful as war is, and as painful as it was for the Vanderbilt family to learn of the death of Rabbit Curry, his life – though brief – reached through so many barriers to become a treasured and poignant part of this school’s history.
Can you ever imagine Vanderbilt stomping on SEC opponents by absurdly large margins? That happened during Curry’s playing career. The Commodores became a true juggernaut – there’s absolutely no exaggeration in the use of that term – with “Rabbit” scampering past defenses with his ultra-light 130-pound frame.
In 1915, Vanderbilt obliterated Ole Miss in Memphis by a score of 91-0. Yes, that’s not a misprint. Curry scored six touchdowns, making a much more primitive and bruising form of football look incredibly easy to the untrained eye. The Commodores finished with a 9-1 record that season, and although legendary VU coach Dan McGugin – the greatest coach in program history – lost no more than one game in 15 separate seasons on the sidelines (he coached for 31 at Vanderbilt), he won nine games only twice. The 1915 season was the only season other than 1904 (McGugin’s first) in which the Dores collected nine wins. Curry was the man most responsible for lifting Vanderbilt to such great heights in 2015, and his 2016 season – in which VU went 7-1-1 – wasn’t too shabby, either.
The 1915 team also bears this remarkable distinction: In 510 scoreboard game clock minutes of competition, Vanderbilt posted 514 points. That kind of feat could very well be the singles greatest achievement of any Vanderbilt football team, never to be matched or reproduced. Curry was always nimble and quick, blessed with great footwork. Yet, a boatload of physical talents must be supplemented by creativity, alertness and imagination. Rabbit Curry possessed those qualities in spades.
However, for all that Curry achieved on the playing field, and as immensely popular as he became at Vanderbilt when he attended the school, his legend would be shaped and cemented for the worst of reasons… by the best of causes.
Curry pursued military service in 1917, becoming a pilot for the 95th Aero Squadron as part of the United States Air Service, as it was then called. In one of the worst scenarios any human being can ever encounter, Curry didn’t merely die in war; he died just months before a war – one of the costliest and most devastating in recorded history – was about to end.
World War I ended in November of 1918. Just three months earlier – August 10, 1918, to be precise – Curry was shot down by the German Richthoffen aero squad in combat over the town of Perles, France. Celebrated for his achievements in life, Curry became an even greater figure for the sacrifices he made – sacrifices which always become more profound – in death.
The heartbreak associated with the killing of Curry in war combat spread through the Vanderbilt community. The enormity of this loss was too great to easily or adequately describe. However, in time, Curry’s life – and the legend which surrounded it – would grow in stature because McGugin, a Vanderbilt icon in his own right, would make sure Curry’s memory never died.
McGugin said this to The Tennessean via telegram after hearing of Curry’s death:
“During the four years of my intimate association with Irby Curry, I never heard him utter a word his mother might not hear and approve. A game sportsman and scholar, truly he was gentle as a dove. He had a lion's heart, and now a hero's death. Poor Little Rabbit! How he pulls at the heart-strings of all of us who knew him and therefore honored and loved him tenderly."
The Charleston Daily Mail would later document more details of how McGugin kept the flame of Curry’s life alive in the Vanderbilt community, and in the hearts of future players he was able to coach before his final season in 1934.
For one thing, McGugin kept photographs of three men on his desk after Curry’s death: Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Curry.
In a more interpersonal circumstance, McGugin took the 1921 Vanderbilt football team to Curry’s gravesite in Marlin, Texas (where he was born), before a game against the Longhorns. The Delta Democrat-Times reported McGugin’s words to the VU team:
"They are betting Texas will beat you 20 to 0, they say you are a bunch of cowards. 'Rabbit' Curry, whose father is sitting here with you, is looking down on you from his Eternal Home."
Vanderbilt won that game, 20-0, inverting the score McGugin used to fire up his players. One could not have written a more appropriate script. Rabbit Curry seemed to guide the pen of history that day in Austin.
The Charleston Daily Mail later said this about the special bond between McGugin and Curry, a bond that remained eternally strong, beyond the chains of death:
"Uncle Dan may have had better players than Curry, but the Rabbit somehow wound himself more closely into the affections of the old master than any other Black and Gold athlete. It was one of those reciprocal admirations of a big man for a little man. Dan, husky old-time guard of a generation ago, marveled at the ball-carrying ability of the 130-pound Curry, and Curry had nothing but worship for the famous coach."
A full 100 years after the greatest Vanderbilt football season since the beginning of World War I, the memory of a man who died just before World War I ended remains indelible. This is especially the case for the people whose school and whose relatives were touched by Rabbit Curry. Though we now stand on older ground – a century after this seminal life in Vanderbilt history – it is easy to choke up in the face of the realization that VU’s greatest football coach was so deeply affected by a young man who gave so much in his 24 years.
It remains achingly sad that Rabbit Curry couldn’t have lived a much longer life, but it remains deeply inspiring that Curry packed his existence with beauty, excellence and sacrifice, making it an example whose flame still burns brightly today.
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