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Edmonton Eskimo player Larry Highbaugh is seen in 1983. An outstanding natural athlete, Mr. Highbaugh won the Grey Cup six times with the Edmonton Eskimos, including the historic five in a row from 1978 to 1982.
Edmonton Eskimo player Larry Highbaugh is seen in 1983. An outstanding natural athlete, Mr. Highbaugh won the Grey Cup six times with the Edmonton Eskimos, including the historic five in a row from 1978 to 1982.

OBITUARY

Flamboyant CFL star Larry Highbaugh won six Grey Cups Add to ...

The story is true, right down to the lawn chair and punchline.

It was the summer of 1973 and the Edmonton Eskimos were holding their training camp at the Holy Redeemer Christian College. Back in those days, Canadian Football League training camps ran especially long, each team having to endure four preseason games. Players were allowed to play their way into shape.

For his charges, Edmonton head coach Ray Jauch devised a mile-long (1.6-kilometre) opening-day obstacle course. At Mr. Jauch’s command, the players took off, scampering down the field – except for one guy who sat in a lawn chair and watched his teammates.

“Aren’t you running?” the lone dissenter was asked. To which defensive back Larry Highbaugh smartly replied: “Last time I looked, I don’t have to cover [a receiver] for a mile.”

The coach thought it over then said, “Okay, you can sit.” And Mr. Highbaugh did, because he could, because when it came to football, he could do virtually anything he wanted. He could run like a startled forest animal with the ball or without it. He could catch passes on offence or intercept them on defence. He could return kickoffs and punts and he did so with confidence and style.

“Larry Highbaugh was Deion Sanders and Henry [Gizmo] Williams before there was Deion Sanders and Henry [Gizmo] Williams,” said long-time Eskimos equipment manager Dwayne Mandrusiak, who witnessed Mr. Highbaugh’s training camp sit-in. “He was flamboyant and he was so athletically gifted.”

Mr. Highbaugh died March 21 in Snellville, Ga. He had been diagnosed with a heart condition and had been due to receive a transplant. But when doctors discovered he was also suffering from prostate cancer, he was taken off the transplant waiting list and informed there was nothing more that could be done. He was 67.

While family, friends and fans lamented his loss, they marvelled at his disposition and what he accomplished in a storied career. His name can be found in the CFL record book, in the Eskimos’ record book and on the league’s championship trophy. He won the Grey Cup six times, including the historic five in a row from 1978 to 1982.

Just how good was Mr. Highbaugh? His numbers shouted brilliance: four selections to the West Division all-star team; 66 interceptions, with an average of eight a season from 1978 to 1981; a kickoff-return average of more than 30 yards for seven seasons. In three of them, he averaged more than 40 yards a return. He had a 118-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a 116-yard punt return for a touchdown and he ran plays as a receiver where his top-end speed created openings for the Eskimos’ already superb pass catchers, Waddell Smith, Brian Kelly, Tom Scott.

And let’s not forget, Mr. Highbaugh averaged 6.8 yards for every carry as a running back with the 1972 BC Lions, who unwisely chose to let him sprint to Edmonton, where his skills and temperament were a splendid fit.

“He was a real character, very funny, and a good teammate,” said former Eskimos linebacker Dale Potter. “He rarely made mistakes.”

If he did, he knew how to fix them. Former Montreal Alouette Joe Barnes quarterbacked against him for several seasons and in two Grey Cups (1978 and 1979) Mr. Barnes recalled plays that had Mr. Highbaugh down and seemingly out of it.

“We called a quarterback counter. We faked a run to the left then I came back the other way,” Mr. Barnes explained. “We had good blocking in front and we walled off [linebacker] Dan Kepley. I juked Highbaugh and he fell down. I had a big lead on him and he got up and caught me from behind. I caught hell from the guys when we watched [the game film days later]. They said, ‘He fell down and he still caught you from behind?’

“[Montreal head coach] Joe Scannella once called a quick out [pass play] on Highbaugh’s side of the field,” Mr. Barnes added. “Highbaugh read it, sat on it then he intercepted the pass and ran off with it. Did I catch him from behind? No, I didn’t.”

Larry Eugene Highbaugh was born on Jan. 14, 1950 in Indianapolis to James Marshall and Ida Mae Highbaugh. He came from a large family that loved sports. But none of his nine siblings proved to be as athletically gifted as Larry Eugene, whose speed was legendary. He was a three-sport sensation for Washington High School. In 1967, he set records at the city and sectional track and field championships in the 100- and 220-yard sprints. In basketball, he was a 5-foot-8 centre who scored 29 second-half points in a playoff game, which was almost as impressive as being selected to the first Indiana state all-star football game. That earned him a dual football-track scholarship at Indiana University.

On the track, he was the first Indiana sophomore to win the so-hailed Jesse Owens’s slam – the 100- and 220-yard sprints, the sprint relay and long jump – at a Big 10 Conference meet. He was a defensive back with the football team that played running back O.J. Simpson and the University of Southern California Trojans in the 1968 Rose Bowl, which USC won 14-3.

Near the end of the 1969 season, he was one of 10 African-American football players who walked out on Indiana amid allegations the coaching staff was starting players based on race rather than performance. He earned a tryout with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys in 1970 but failed to impress.

In 1971, he headed northwest to Vancouver to play for the BC Lions en route to a Hall of Fame career with the Eskimos.

“I had heard about him before I got to Edmonton [in 1978],” said Warren Moon, the standout quarterback from the University of Washington. “He was one of the more electrifying guys in the league and he was one of the veterans on the team who took me under his wing. Some of the guys were looking at me because I had a big contract and I was a rookie. Dan Kepley was always razzing me, but Larry always supported me. He called me ‘The Franchise.’ He called me that until the time he left the game.”

Mr. Highbaugh was even liked by rival players. Calgary Stampeders receiver Tom Forzani spent his first few years in the CFL lined up across from the grinning cornerback in the No. 13 jersey. Both men respected one another too much to talk trash.

“He was a really good athlete and a good guy, too,” said Mr. Forzani, who did recall one act of disobedience by Mr. Highbaugh. “I was watching a game on TV between Edmonton and B.C. [after Mr. Highbaugh’s release from the Lions]. He intercepted a pass and threw the ball at the B.C. coach [Eagle Keys]. That was something.”

So was Mr. Highbaugh’s presence in the community. He and his family lived in Sherwood Park, outside Edmonton, and stayed there year round. One of his off-season ventures was refereeing kids’ basketball games; another was playing one-on-six volleyball exhibitions against high school girls’ teams. With some rule adjustments (spiking was not allowed), Mr. Highbaugh didn’t just offer up a show; he usually won.

On the business front, he oversaw a shop called Larry Highbaugh’s Sole City, a sporting goods store where he sold Eskimos souvenirs. When the team didn’t get its agreed-upon percentage, it sued its star defender for $64,000. It also asked Mr. Highbaugh, then 34, to retire after what was said to be a subpar 1983 season. Eskimos’ defensive co-ordinator Herb Paterra had said, “Highbaugh got too old. He couldn’t play.”

Released by the Eskimos, Mr. Highbaugh opened too many Sole City outlets and eventually had to shut them all down. There were issues, too, on the home front. The Globe and Mail reported on April 28, 1984, that “his wife and children nearly left him, his friends say, when a former babysitter tried to extort money from him, claiming that he had kept her as a mistress. … He won the right in court to have her stop harassing him.”

Mr. Highbaugh and his family left Edmonton and he found work at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, where he coached and refereed sports and taught autistic students for more than 20 years. Those who knew him say his hunger for life was infectious.

“He once asked me, ‘You ever just stop and order a milkshake?’” Mr. Potter recalled. “I said no, because you’re always busy. You practice then you head home to the family and your wife. You have things to do at the house. But that day I did stop to order a milkshake and I enjoyed the moment. I listened to what Larry was saying.”

Mr. Highbaugh was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and named to the Edmonton Eskimo Wall of Honour in 1996.

He leaves his wife, Manuela (née Dent); five children, Monica, Angela, Tara, Alisa and Bria; seven siblings, Michael, Sandra, Kathy, Linda, Mark, Angela and Judy; 11 grandchildren, including grandson Tre Roberson, a defensive back with the Minnesota Vikings; and eight great-grandchildren. His brothers Gary and James predeceased him.

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