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Two-way player

Ex-offensive star Garron now in a defensive mode as martial artist

Larry Garron teaches self-defense to 10-year-old Sophia Dimidis and her brother William, 8. Larry Garron teaches self-defense to 10-year-old Sophia Dimidis and her brother William, 8. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / May 25, 2011

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FRAMINGHAM — The Patriots have hiked the ball 51,738 times since their inception in 1960. But no Patriot has run the ball farther from scrimmage on one play than Larry Garron, who scampered 85 yards for a touchdown against Buffalo on Oct. 22, 1961.

Garron played nine seasons for the Patriots, was a four-time American Football League All-Star, and is a member of the AFL Hall of Fame. But the former running back made his mark in another sport, too. He has the highest degree attainable in World Martial Arts, and at 73 years young, he can still kick butt.

“People laugh at me. Some guy came over and says, ‘You still doing this? I remember you were doing this when I was this high,’ ’’ says Garron, gesturing toward his waist. “ ‘You’re still doing it and I can’t get out of my chair.’ ’’

The oldest of nine children, Garron was born in Marks, Miss. He was stomped on by racist football fans in Arkansas. He beat Wilt Chamberlain in a high jump competition in track, pinch hit for Cardinal Cushing at a speaking engagement, played golf with Joe Louis, and practiced martial arts with Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris.

His father, who sparred with Louis, moved the family to Argo, Ill., where he became a police officer. It was there that the younger Garron started studying self-defense in 1948 after a holdup in town.

“There was a Chinese laundry there and my father got a call that some guy was trying to rob him,’’ Garron remembers. “By the time he got there, the old gentleman had the guy tied up on the floor. My father asked him, ‘Would you mind teaching my sons?’ ’’

The lessons in self-defense came in handy when Garron played for Lou Saban at Western Illinois University. Before a game against Arkansas State, Saban received death threats from racist fans. He asked the level-headed Garron to be team captain. The atmosphere was tense.

“When you were playing Arkansas State, they would try to ride you off to the sidelines and people would come out of the stands and trample you,’’ Garron says.

He ran the first kickoff back for a touchdown, but on the second one, he was forced out of bounds.

“The people in the stands came down and they were jumping on my legs,’’ he says. “I didn’t think I would ever walk again.’’

When Saban became head coach of the Patriots in 1960, he recruited Garron, but the running back got tonsillitis and was cut after three games. He came roaring back the following season 20 pounds heavier, all of it muscle, and averaged nearly 6 yards per carry.

But the racism of the turbulent 1960s followed him as quickly as Jim Nance once followed his superb blocking.

The AFL All-Star Game in 1965 was scheduled for New Orleans. Garron says the black players were refused rides at the airport and ran into trouble at a restaurant. “I remember this guy pulled a gun on Ernie Ladd and said, ‘You are not coming in here to eat,’ ’’ Garron says.

Garron was part of the black contingent that organized a boycott, and the game was moved to Houston.

Those were the fledgling days of the AFL. Garron remembers that the Patriots once flew to Buffalo early the day of the game and then negotiated a $5 rate to use the hotel room, with one condition.

“They said, ‘Hey guys, don’t move the sheets,’ ’’ says Garron with a laugh.

Garron quickly developed into a fine running back and receiver. In his nine years with the Patriots, he rushed for 2,981 yards, and he had 26 receiving touchdowns, the most by a Patriots running back. Garron was known for his smarts. In 1963, the Patriots made their first playoff appearance. On a slippery field in Buffalo, he put on baseball shoes with rubber cleats and ran circles around the Bills in a 26-8 victory that sent the Patriots to the AFL championship game against the Chargers.

But before the San Diego game, Garron had a real bad vibe during practice. He noticed some young men in the stands taking notes. He saw the same faces on the Chargers sideline on game day. The Chargers beat the Patriots, 51-10, in what might have been the original “Spygate.’’

“They knew every play we ran before we ran it,’’ he said. “Babe Parilli finally drew up a play in the dirt in the huddle. “It was a wedge and we scored on it.’’

In the AFL All-Star Game in 1968, he took a Joe Namath pass and eluded several tacklers for a 26-yard gain that set up the East’s winning score. He and Namath had a history. It was Garron who was sent by the Patriots to recruit Joe Willie at Alabama.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Do you have a stadium?’ ’’ recalls Garron. “We were playing at BU at the time. Bear Bryant had a look at me and he said, ‘I think we have a little better offer.’ ’’

After his retirement, Garron taught management, marketing, and economics at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown for nearly 20 years.

He calls the current NFL lockout “ a toughie’’ but he doubts it will sack the upcoming season.

“I don’t think the guys want it or the owners,’’ says Garron, who not surprisingly would like better benefits for retired players.

“I can see them doing a better job of medical treatment and insurance. That’s what I would be battling for. You know the lifetime for a ballplayer — pay for that time.’’

But Garron says professional football is totally different from when he played.

“It’s gotten so rough and tough that the physical demands per season are much greater,’’ he says.

Life is still physically demanding for Garron, who weighs less today than he did as a Patriot.

“It’s the conditioning,’’ he insists. “People laugh at me. I go to Japan and Hawaii to meet with my teachers — one is 91 years old and he bounces me along like I’m a rubber ball.’’

He recently opened a new school, the Buke Do Martial Arts Academy in Southborough. He teaches jiu-jitsu and karate to people of all ages

“The United States is one of few places that don’t have martial arts as a national physical fitness program for all kids,’’ he says. “It is needed.’’

He has no thoughts of retiring.

“My wife say it’s hard for me to sit around and do nothing,’’ he says.

Nor does he dwell in the past. Informed that his 1961 run remains a team record, he says it is news to him.

“It was two good blocks, one by Charlie Long and another by Gino Cappelletti, and I was gone,’’ he says. “That’s all there is to it.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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