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The legend of Coral Gables’ star Larry Rentz continues to live on

 

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After the Coral Gables and Miami High 1963 football game a poem was written to commemorate the Cavaliers’ 14-13 victory that day:

There’s No Defense

For Larry Rentz

He shirks the shadows of defeat,

Each ride with Fate, he boldly cheats;

He guides his team with cold finesse

There’s no defense for Larry Rentz.

His role is governed by distress,

On Thursday night, ‘twas on offense;

The Gables trailed — his call commenced,

There’s no defense for Larry Rentz.

He passed and ran and drove his team,

He never wavered from the scene;

A fourth down play was no duress,

There’s no defense for Larry Rentz.

He watched two plays, his time had come,

He took the ball, began to run;

The winning touchdown he could sense,

There’s no defense for Larry Rentz.


Special to the Miami Herald

Lisa Dudley Rentz calls it “The Jello Factor.” It typically begins after introductions at business meetings, cocktail parties, even at a fitness gym.

“Lisa Rentz?” the questioner queries. “Are you related to Larry Rentz?”

“Actually I am, yeah, he’s my husband,” Lisa will reply of her 15-year marriage.

Recreating the next response, Lisa Rentz stands, her body now into a jello-like shimmy. “Oh, my god!” Larry Rentz’ wife? He was one of the best …”

“Literally they vibrate,” Lisa recounts, still in full swing mode. “And when we’re at a function, these people are stepping in-between, and Larry has had to push them aside.”

Fifty years after his name became synonymous with undefeated football success at Coral Gables High School (‘There’s No Defense/For Larry Rentz”), at the age of 65, the Rentz legend still lives. And there is as much poignancy as performance to a journey that has enveloped family, friends and associates.

Larry Smith, who was named to the list of 100 greatest high school football players in Florida in the last century, calls Rentz, his former roommate and teammate at the University of Florida, “probably the finest athlete I’ve ever seen.”

“We used to kid that Larry was so quick he could dodge raindrops,” said Smith, an attorney in Tampa, who completed his own illustrious high school (Tampa Robinson), college (Florida) and pro football careers (Los Angeles Rams/Washington Redskins).

Allan Brown, another teammate and friend of Rentz in high school and college, says of trying to scrimmage one-on-one against him as a defensive player, “I never ever, ever could tackle him. I never could get my hands on him because I never knew where he was going to be. He was such a natural.”

J. Harrell Reid, the long-time sheriff in Jasper has known Rentz since the two met at a North-South high school All-Star game. An offensive guard at Florida, Reid also roomed with Rentz and says today, “there was always that something special about him, and he’s demonstrated that in the way he has acted toward people — a gentleman in every sense of the word.”

Star quarterbacks

The state of Florida has produced its share of talented quarterbacks — from Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow to George Mira, Daunte Culpepper, Eddie McAshan, John Reaves, Tommie Frazier and Steve Kiner in high school to a decorated college crop that includes Steve Spurrier, Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar, Steve Walsh, Craig Curry and Steve Tensi among others. All had their share of magic moments and prolific numbers, but none carried the unlikely intangibles that have allowed Rentz’ legacy to endure:

• His unusual physical makeup. At 6-2 and closer to 135 pounds than 145, “he was so thin he couldn’t have two numbers on his jersey,” recalls Reid, who dubbed Rentz “The Blade.” Carl Rentz once saw a newspaper photo of his brother buried inside a football helmet, and dubbed him “Skullhead.”

• A speech impediment (stuttering) that might have stifled another athlete at such a skilled position. John Norris, a fullback and former Gables teammate, recalls how Rentz, in the 1964 state championship game against Jacksonville Lee, called a timeout late in the game, went to the sidelines and convinced coach Nick Kotys, on a goal-line fourth down, to shun a field goal and run a fullback power play that Norris ultimately converted into the winning touchdown.

• His versatility (quarterback, wide receiver, punter, defensive back) with a penchant for the unpredictable. A 77-yard kickoff return and a fake fourth-and-12 punt from his own 38 that stunned even Kotys provided a 13-6 victory against Miami High in their 1964 classic.

• The high visibility accorded high school football during Rentz’ era. Without pro football franchises in the state, sports fans treated prep football on a par with college teams. For the ’64 Gables-Miami High game, the Orange Bowl crowd was 28,360.

Rentz’ 21 consecutive victories and performances against Miami High remain indelibly etched in that rivalry. So much so that when he showed up to collect a Miami High Hall of Fame jacket on behalf of his ailing uncle, Frank Rentz, at a banquet a few years ago, the master of ceremonies, felt compelled to caution, “now Larry, the only reason why you’re here is because of Frank. We’re going to give you this jacket, but you’re not allowed to wear it.”

Even Spurrier, always primed for the last word, enjoys teasing about Rentz’ role as the holder for Spurrier’s game-winning 40-yard field goal against Auburn that might have cemented Spurrier’s Heisman Trophy in 1966. “Great kick, terrible hold,” Spurrier told a Jacksonville writer several years ago. “The laces were facing me.”

Special talent

Well before Rentz began his multi-sport career at Coral Gables High, friends saw special skills. As eighth graders, Rentz and John Norris would trek to a park on Rickenbacker Causeway and walk along the seawall that abutted against the first bridge leading to Key Biscayne. “Larry would have a jig — a spear with a rope on it — and spot and spear fish,” Norris recalled recently, “None of us could even come close to his ability to do that.”

Rentz and his brother Carl went fly fishing for tarpon out of a 17-foot back country skiff that could run over 70 MPH. His brother’s three-hour battle with a 200-pound tarpon on a fly rod is still etched in his memory. “He had’em in the boat,” Rentz recalls. “And Cecil Keith, a professional guide, gaffed the fish, but the fish jumped off the gaff and in doing so broke three of Cecil’s ribs.”

Rentz also played basketball and baseball at Gables and once was hastily recruited as a fill-in for the high jump at a sectional track meet in Fort Lauderdale and then proceeded to win the event, at 6 feet 2 inches, although he had never high-jumped before. He played golf well enough for his uncle to suggest he could succeed on the pro tour with practice (“but I hated just hitting balls,” Rentz now says). He still enjoys fishing and hunting upstate for deer, wild turkeys, groundhogs and duck but says “in my early years — 20s and 30s — I would pull the trigger, but now I don’t care to kill anything.”

It was not what Rentz did in leading Gables to consecutive state football titles in 1963 and 1964 (the first years of statewide playoffs) but how he did it, “I remember him as one of those people who make spectacular things look easy,” said Larry Davidson, who kicked the game-winning field goal against Tampa Robinson in the 1963 championship game after Rentz scored two touchdowns and returned a kickoff 44 yards to set up the field goal in the final 15 seconds. “Larry wasn’t the kind of kid who would brag about how much or how little he worked out. But I can tell you that at the end of practices when we did wind sprints — he was always at the head of the pack.”

Raymond W. Butler III, a friend since the fourth grade, calls Rentz his “hero,” as much for how Rentz has conducted himself off the field. “He’s a star everywhere he goes, and he has been the most influential person in my life,” says Butler, whose family founded Miami’s first insurance agency 102 years ago. Asked specifically how Rentz had influenced him, Butler said, “in formulating the kind of person I ended up being, from my moral character in treating people to being polite.”

Rentz wears his honors with self-effacing humility. Dr. Richard Whittington, the unofficial historian for Coral Gables High, has known Rentz since high school, well before Rentz’ No. l jersey was the first retired by the school. (It would be 50 years before other jerseys for the late Neal Colzie and Frank Gore were retired by the school).

“Larry has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I know,” said Whittington, who played on the Gables unbeaten national championship 1967 team. “His heart is true and pure and big. He’ll befriend anybody. He’s very humble, a very true friend.”

Some struggles

But Rentz’ career journey has not been stress-free. After a one-season fling in pro football with the San Diego Chargers, he had a “rude awakening” off the field. Besides having to adjust to a diminished salary (from $30,000 as a taxi squader with the Chargers to $7,500 in commercial real estate with The Allen Morris Co.), Rentz suffered an identity crisis, “a low time in my life,” he says.

Part of the problem was the speech impediment that became more complicated away from sports. Rentz can still recall the three-minute speech he was required to give in a college business course that “probably took me 30 minutes.” Then there was his special draft classification, rejection of his application for a pilot’s license and his first job interview at a local bank. Halfway through the interview, “the guy folds up my file and says, ‘well, I can’t hire you,’” Rentz recalled. “When I asked why, he said, ‘because of your speech.’ ”

Even among friends, Rentz was not sure who he was. Harrell Reid was in Miami to take a funeral director’s course, and Rentz invited him to a seafood dinner. Seated in a booth at the restaurant, Rentz was recognized and approached with the familiar, “aren’t you Larry Rentz?” Recalling the episode today, Rentz says he replied, “No, I’m not. The guy said, ‘are you sure? You look just like him.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure.’ He finally went back to his table. Harrell’s face was all askew, and he said, ‘why did you do that?’ I said, ‘I didn’t feel like being Larry Rentz.’ ”

His uncertainty extended to work. “I could see in business meetings, how it was affecting others,” Rentz says of his stutter. “So that was the part where I really had to start looking at who I was and who I wasn’t.”

Making it happen

What Rentz realized, while making cold calls, talking to strangers and delivering presentations, was “I had to go out and make things happen,” he now says. “In commercial real estate and especially in the development of business, it transects to many multiples of professions and disciplines. Architects, engineers, city, county, federal, state, with regulations. It goes on and on.”

On a football team, Rentz knew that each player has a position and individual responsibilities. “The quarterback is supposed to know them all,” he notes. “Those responsibilities don’t cross over. I can’t make a block for a pulling guard. But in commercial real estate, it became clear that you kind of had to take charge, become the maestro and organize and orchestrate these other professions. Everybody became of a single mind on the team. Their roles were defined and eventually everybody was reading from the same sheet music. That was a huge change.”

Rentz also saw that the beginning, middle and end in sports — where somebody wins, somebody loses — did not necessarily apply elsewhere.

“It took me a long time to get accustomed to the business world where you might’ve talked to 30 people during the day and had three meetings,” he says. “At the end of the day, you think, ‘what the hell did I come up with?’ You didn’t have anything because deals in commercial real estate don’t happen overnight. So there’s a long time between the beginning and the end. And that can be somewhat unrewarding compared to a game.”

Part of community

But Rentz’ roots were secure. He immersed himself in community service ranging from The Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami (where he has served on the board of directors for 30 years) to the University Club and the Brain Injury Association of Florida. He served as a member of the Orange Bowl Committee until the 1980s when he resigned because of travel and time constraints.

Socially, Rentz admits he is more loner than phoner which may explain why he was a bachelor for so long. His wife Lisa, who grew up in Miami Springs, once called the San Diego Chargers to find out more about him because Rentz spent three months eyeing her from a “coffin corner” stool in a Miami Springs bar, too shy to summon the courage to even make contact, let alone ask for a date.

“He watched me for three months and I didn’t even know it,” she says. recalling that their first meeting actually turned out to be an impromptu run-in for ice at a 7-11 on Northwest 36th Street. It took 2 1/2 years of dating before marriage.

“What caught my eye,” Rentz now says with a smile, “was not her external beauty but how she carried herself. She never let anybody buy her a drink. She hardly bought herself a drink.”

Rentz can still recite the numbers to their first date (April 15, 1995). Lisa, in sales at the time, confronted Rentz the next time she saw him, and wondered why he had left the pros after only one year and two games. And why did the Chargers tell her he was a cornerback if he was a quarterback in high school and college?

“I didn’t know anything about football,” Lisa recalled. “I didn’t even know what a cornerback was. I was just trying to find something to talk to him about.”

Rentz left the pros, he says because he simply “tired” of a game he had played since childhood. But even now, Lisa says “you don’t marry someone whose 50 years old, never have a roommate or a pet and expect them to be any different than they are. Larry’s always been very work and goal-oriented.”

Hard times

Their marriage has been tested by forces often beyond their control. Rentz’ older brother Carl, an attorney, had been in an assisted living facility in Tampa, permanently brain-damaged after being hit by a car while crossing a street in Islamorada 20 years ago. Rentz visited his brother once every three weeks, often staying for as long as 10 days, until his death last Sept. 30.

Lisa lost an 18-year-old son, Ricky, from her first marriage, 10 years ago in an auto accident in Idaho. Her father, Everett H. Dudley Jr., a former judge, died in 2007 after a long illness following heart surgery. Her brother, Rhett, 55, died in 2009 one month after a bicycle accident.

Five years ago, Lisa endured another event that changed her life. In her car at Southwest 17th Avenue and U.S. 1, she was verbally accosted by a homeless man. “He came out into the crosswalk and started yelling at everybody — just yelling profanities and threatening everyone,” she recalled, during an interview with Rentz at their apartment in Coconut Grove. “”When he saw me in the car, I don’t know if it was me, the car or the fact that I was the only one who was accessible. Luckily, the light turned, and I was able to get away before he was able to do any harm. But it was a frightening situation.”

The incident prompted Lisa to pursue what her husband calls “a mission to empower women.” She is now an NRA certified instructor in pistol training. “And she can outshoot 95 per cent of the men,” Rentz says proudly.

Rentz, meanwhile, has been with The Allen Morris Company since 1973 after the founder, Allen Morris Sr., who tried unsuccessfully to recruit him for Georgia Tech, offered him a job. His current title is director of asset management and brokerage.

Lisa describes their relationship as “an unconventional marriage” and not because of the two cats in their apartment or the pet iguanas that she brought back from Idaho after her son’s death. A natural, endearing Frick-and-Frack give-and-take seems to signal respect and caring on both sides.

“I was more shocked when Larry actually turned 50 and decided to get married,” Raymond Butler says. “I went from one side to the other. When he finally decided to settle down and get married, I thought it was wonderful. I love Lisa. She’s just a perfect person for Larry.”

For Rentz’ 50th birthday, even before they were married, Lisa called people all over the country and made a movie of his life. When she phoned Harrell Reid and introduced herself, she said Reid told her, “I would fly a thousand miles for that man.”

“I said, ‘Good, you’re going to be my mystery guest,’” Lisa recalled. She is even more pleased that the skinny 135-pounder she saw in a high-school football photo now weighs 180, adding “I like him better with a little meat on him.”

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