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By Sam Strasner
Larry Brown rushed for a school-record 3,603 yards as a member of the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys football team from 1968 to 1971. His combination of power and speed made him a star for the 1971 Wonder Boys, perhaps the greatest team in Arkansas Tech football history.
But all of the rushing yards, the championships, the adulation – none of it compares to one 30-yard walk that Brown made Dec. 18.
Four decades after his last game as a Wonder Boy, he rose from his chair on the floor of Tucker Coliseum in Russellville, Ark., and strode to the podium to receive his bachelor of professional studies degree during fall commencement ceremonies at Arkansas Tech.
It was the most meaningful 30 yards in a long and improbable journey for the man known during his playing days as the “Marianna Mauler.”
“I’m elated,” Brown said. “I run with the alumni and I know all the alumni, but I wanted to actually be a graduate of Arkansas Tech. There are so many people who have been so supportive of me, and they were there at graduation. That’s what makes you so proud. I’m 60 years old, but I still had the fortitude to go ahead and do it. I think it’s a carryover from my early days.”
The fact that Brown returned after four decades and earned his degree is impressive. The fact that he is alive to do so could be described as a miracle.
Brown suffered heart attacks in 1996 and 1999. After the second one, doctors replaced the femoral artery in his left leg. By September 2002, though, Brown was back to his favorite free-time activities of hunting and fishing.
That’s when his life took a fateful twist. He went out alone on a snake hunt one afternoon, choosing to leave his cell phone behind because he only intended to be gone for a few hours.
Three days later, he was found semiconscious. He had left his interior light in his truck on, which drained his battery and left him stranded 30 miles from civilization with no means of communication or transportation. He became disoriented and tried to walk back to town, but the heat and dehydration were too much. A man who was looking for rocks happened by, found Brown and called the authorities.
Brown was airlifted to a hospital in time to save his life, but he had no blood flow to his left leg, which already had been weakened by the effects of dehydration on the replaced femoral artery. The leg was amputated because gangrene had set in, and Brown was fit with an artificial leg.
It marked the third time in life that Brown had to learn how to walk.
Brown was 7 years old when he dropped a bag of marbles and ran into the road to retrieve them. He was struck by a car. Multiple broken bones took his ability to walk.
He not only recovered and walked again but grew strong enough to gain a football scholarship to Arkansas Tech.
“I’m the oldest of nine kids,” Brown said. “Growing up, if the food ran out and I was still hungry, my mom told me to get up and cook it. Because I had to work so hard after I had the injury as a kid, I got so strong physically and so mentally tough. I wanted to be competitive, and I had to work to get there.”
After playing as a freshman on the 1968 Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference champion Wonder Boys, Brown rushed for a team-leading 1,118 yards in 1969. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry the following season and led the 1970 AIC champion Wonder Boys with 1,192 rushing yards.
In 1971, Brown’s team-high 990 rushing yards helped the Wonder Boys finish with an overall record of 12-1 and reach the NAIA national championship game. Arkansas Tech won the AIC title for the third time during Brown’s four-year career.
Brown entered the U.S. Marines after completing his football eligibility with the Wonder Boys. He returned to Arizona, where he had spent time as a youth, and began working in the copper mines.
He moved on to a career with the Arizona Department of Corrections. He worked in that field for more than two decades and eventually attained the positions of unit captain and chief of security.
For most people, the hunting accident would have been the end of the story. Surviving 108 degree heat for three days with no shelter and little water was difficult. The physical therapy and emotional struggles that followed the amputation were even more trying, so much so that they caused Brown to consider suicide.
But just as was the case 40 years earlier, Arkansas Tech and Russellville provided him with a safe haven.
Brown returned to Russellville, and surrounded by the support of friends and former teammates, he started a new life.
He began enrolling in the courses necessary to complete his degree at Arkansas Tech in 2008.
“It was a lot easier the second time around based on what my attitude is and what my focus is,” said Brown. “I was a young kid back then with an ability to play football. Those memories brought me back here. There are a lot of traditions at this school, and I hope we can keep those instilled in people. I felt it the first time I came here as a junior in high school. That’s what compelled me to come here.”
And it was that same love for Arkansas Tech and for the Arkansas River Valley that drew Brown back there.
“I knew before the accident with my leg that I wanted to retire in Russellville,” said Brown. “The people here in this community have always been supportive, and it’s always been heartfelt. I still have a lot of great friends that have supported me, and I talked to Arkansas Tech President (Robert C.) Brown about coming back to school.
“I had taken some classes at a university in Arizona while I lived out there and I could have finished up there, but it was so much more meaningful to graduate from Tech because this is where my roots are and this is where I wanted to be.”
Sam Strasner is the director of communications for university relations at Arkansas Tech.