Y’all ever heard the story of The Rabbit?
The Marlin Marvel? The Mighty Midget? The Texas Terror?
The man who bumfozzled the Auburnites? The youngster who could run barefooted on greased grass and not be at all handicapped? The runningest gent who ever floated across the cross marks?
Yeah, that’s The Rabbit — Irby Rice Curry by birth, 1st Lt. Irby Rice Curry in death.
A hundred years ago, there would have been no need for an explanation. Folks from Texas to Virginia and beyond knew all about Rabbit Curry, the peppery little gridiron star who died a hero in the skies over France.
They revered The Rabbit back then, only a few years removed from his glory days at Vanderbilt, and his name would take on the sheen of legend. That lore was built and maintained by the men best positioned to do that kind of thing in those days: the sportswriters.
Scribes like Zipp Newman of the Birmingham News, James Stahlman and later Ralph McGill and Fred Russell at the old Nashville Banner, and above all the incomparable Blinkey Horn of The Tennessean, made Rabbit Curry a household name as a player and ensured future generations knew his story for decades to come.
You have to remember that throughout the 24 years and six days of Irby Rice Curry’s short life, from August 4, 1894 through August 10, 1918, it was the writers who created characters, who shaped public personas. With no other medium to compete against, they conjured the most florid descriptions their typewriters would allow, day after day and year after year. And boy did they spill some ink over Rabbit Curry.
So why don’t we step aside and let them tell you the story …
Marlin is a small town about 30 miles southeast of Waco, near the winding Brazos River. Whatever acclaim it had after the turn of the century came courtesy of its mineral springs, discovered a decade earlier and quickly harnessed to boost the local economy.
The town’s profile really took off when the Chicago White Sox set up a spring training base at the Arlington Hotel for 10 days in March 1904. A major league team would train there every year through 1918, with John McGraw’s New York Giants the most notable visitors. They trained in Marlin from 1908 through 1918, their players and staff becoming familiar faces around the city each spring.
In 1913, the visitors’ top attraction was 25-year-old rookie outfielder Jim Thorpe. He arrived in Marlin as arguably America’s most famous athlete, coming off gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and his second consecutive All-America selection in the fall as he led the Carlisle Indian School football team to a national championship.
A story in the April 6 Waco Morning News nodded at Thorpe’s all-around prowess in noting that the Central Texas high school track meet at Baylor’s Carroll Field the day before might have been a bit more interesting if Thorpe had shown up to give the boy who ended up as the “all-around champion athlete” a bit of competition.
The meet was one more highlight in a stellar high school career for the eldest child of local merchant Oscar Curry and his wife Emma. Irby’s athletic gifts were evident, but his leadership shone through. He captained the football, basketball and baseball teams during his time at Marlin, establishing a reputation for “clean living and gentlemanliness” that carried through when he moved on to study dentistry at Vanderbilt.
And make no mistake, those studies were expected to be his focus in college. However sharp, athletic or gentlemanly, the Texan who, at 127 pounds, was listed as the lightest player on his football team even in high school figured to get his competitive fix in intramural sports once he arrived in Nashville.
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Then fate intervened, and all because Dan McGugin needed … a lineman?
Entering his 10th season as football coach at Vanderbilt in the fall of 1913, the 34-year-old McGugin figured it might be worth seeking out talent already on campus. He knew there tended to be students at the medical and dental schools who had athletic backgrounds but were too engrossed in their studies to add varsity athletics to the load.
He assigned Fred “Rabbi” Robins, his quarterback from the previous fall, to assemble a team of players to scrimmage against McGugin’s regular squad, which had gone 8-1-1 the year before. One of the dentistry students who answered his call was a skinny freshman from Texas named Irby Curry.
McGugin figured he had added a player with some talent to fill out his roster, but Irby Curry’s impact on the program, its coach, and the university would resonate for decades.
On October 18, 1913, McGugin decided to take his new discovery for a spin — and why not? The Commodores had won their first two games of the season, against Maryville and Central (now Centre College), by a combined score of 107-0. They led their third against Henderson-Brown (now Henderson State) 26-0 after three quarters.
With the game in hand, McGugin sent Curry in to replace quarterback Hord Boensch, who had scored all three of Vanderbilt’s touchdowns. The freshman capped a 33-0 Commodore victory with a touchdown described by Jack Nye of The Tennessean as a 2-yard run up the middle “made by ‘Rabbit’ Curry,” which appears to be the first reference to the nickname bestowed on him by Coach McGugin.
Curry saw limited playing time in the next game against Michigan and later in the season against Auburn, but didn’t make much of an impact. He finally got a chance to stretch his legs a bit in the traditional Thanksgiving Day season finale against Sewanee, and even though Curry didn’t find the end zone in a 63-13 Vanderbilt rout, he caught everyone’s attention after subbing in at halfback in the third quarter.
That was no small praise, as Ray Morrison was considered the greatest quarterback in Vanderbilt history, and one of the best the South had produced to that time. Curry had yet to appear in the first half of a game, let alone start, but expectations were high as he settled into his new home.
As the 1914 season began, he was one of the few bright spots for a Commodores team that struggled to find its footing. Despite early routs of Henderson-Brown and Central, Vanderbilt had no answer for the big-name schools on its schedule, dropping its final five games of the season to finish 2-6.
Curry had his share of highlights amid the misery, though. He accounted for the only score in a 20-7 loss to Virginia when he caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Josh Cody on a fake punt. As the losses piled up, one newspaper account after another praised Curry for his work; the Commodores just couldn’t find the end zone often enough, as in a 6-0 loss to Auburn in the penultimate game of the season:
Curry’s efforts earned him individual recognition despite Vanderbilt’s subpar season. He was one of two halfbacks voted onto a composite “All-Southern” team by a collection of six writers and three coaches, and W.A. Lambeth afforded him the same honors in Spalding’s Official Foot Ball Guide, writing: “He is the lightest man on the team, but is alert, agile and full of courageous ability.”
Come the next fall, Curry would get a bit more help, and Vanderbilt would regain the form that made it one of the South’s most storied programs in the opening decades of the century.
Dan McGugin led the Commodores to at least a share of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association title in seven of his first nine seasons as coach, from 1904-12, going 67-10-4 in that span. Within that context, Vandy’s combined 7-9 mark in Curry’s first two seasons was an aberration, but the dominant ‘Dores of old returned in 1915 with a 9-1 record and another SIAA crown.
Vanderbilt won its first seven games, outscoring its opponents 459-0. (Perhaps the highlight: a 91-0 demolition of Ole Miss in which Curry scored six touchdowns and eight extra points.) The Commodores ended up allowing only 38 points the entire season, all but three of them coming in their lone loss, 35-10 at Virginia on November 5. Naturally, Curry scored the only Vanderbilt TD in that one — on a 92-yard fumble return, no less.
The Rabbit just had a knack for making those types of plays, and the sportswriters tasked with chronicling his exploits found another gear as Curry and the Commodores mowed down opponents throughout the fall. Though a few thousand people attended the average Vanderbilt game, it was through the prose of the press box wordsmiths that the broader public had a chance to visualize what it must have been like to witness such a spectacle firsthand.
Behold, over the span of a few days in November 1915, such gems as:
Even after expending that much verbiage leading up to the season’s final game, the men of the press still had more to give, and they needed it to encapsulate the signature contest in Rabbit Curry’s Vanderbilt career.
Late in the third quarter of the Thanksgiving Day rivalry showdown with Sewanee, heavily favored Vandy trailed 3-0. The Rabbit’s slight frame had caught up with him at the end of a long season, as he was slow getting up after multiple hits by the Purple Tiger defenders. But he kept getting up to run the next play.
After Curry converted a fake punt on the final play of the third quarter, two more runs put the Commodores on Sewanee’s 4-yard line. “Dough” Ray took it in from there, putting Vanderbilt on the board at last. Curry took another hard hit on a punt return after Sewanee’s next possession, forcing the team to take a time out. He remained in the game, The Tennesseean said, “although he was limping badly.”
Vanderbilt added another score on the first play after the Commodores blocked a Sewanee punt, with Ray again doing the honors. Vandy’s next possession ended in a 34-yard Curry touchdown run, and after Sewanee punted the ball away once more, Curry fielded it at the 20 and weaved through the entire Purple Tiger team for an 80-yard touchdown.
Cue Claude Sheetz “Blinkey” Horn:
Oh, but Horn was just getting started…
Believe it or not, there was even more, but you get the idea.
The remarkable thing about this particular performance, which had been immortalized with artistry like that, is that future generations still felt the need to lay on a little extra in the retelling. To wit, the Sewanee tale told by Fred Russell in a column nearly 30 years later transforms the moment into an out-and-out melodrama. In this version, Curry had been carried off the field earlier in the game with three broken ribs and was watching the game from the sidelines, wrapped in a blanket.
The weekend after the Sewanee triumph, Vanderbilt held its annual year-end football banquet. Amid the handing out of varsity letters and send-offs to the seniors came the announcement of the next year’s team captain. In 1916, Rabbit Curry would do the honors.
With that nod came another addition for the editors of Vanderbilt’s school yearbook. That spring, page 108 of The Commodore featured a portrait of Curry in cap and gown at the top and a litany of activities listed beneath in addition to football: Delta Tau Delta and Delta Sigma Delta fraternities, Commodore Club, track as a freshman, baseball as a sophomore, President of the South Campus YMCA and the South Campus Student Association, Commodore Band, President of his sophomore year class, editor of the YMCA handbook, and last but not least, the Texas Club.
Late that May, too late for yearbook inclusion, the Vanderbilt student body gathered for the annual Founders’ Day day election in which they would bestow the coveted “Bachelor of Ugliness” honor on the student “believed to be most representative of ideal young manhood.” By a final tally of 163 to 62, Irby R. Curry won in a landslide over Fred C. Woodard.
Two days later, Curry was one of 46 graduates honored at the dental department’s commencement exercises. But his work at Vanderbilt was not yet done.
Back on the field that fall, Curry and the Commodores enjoyed a similar start to the one they had scripted in 1915, with the welcome bonus of a 27-6 victory over Virginia to avenge their only setback from the previous fall.
McGugin’s eleven must have felt invincible once over that hump, but dreams of an unbeaten season ended in a stunning loss at Tennessee on November 11. Henry E. Dougherty’s lead in the Knoxville Sentinel compared the historical magnitude of the moment to Columbus discovering America and the signing of the Declaration of Independence — “but we venture the assertion that said declaration did not create such a furore and as much commotion in Philadelphia as Tennessee’s 10 to 6 victory over Vanderbilt did in Knoxville Saturday night.”
While we’re left to take Dougherty’s word for it on that front, even the Knoxville scribes showed some love to Vanderbilt’s vanquished hero.
The Commodores bounced back the following week, beating Auburn even though Curry had to leave the game early with an ankle problem. But there was no chance he would miss the season finale against Sewanee. Though Vandy’s title hopes were gone, this would be Curry’s final college game.
A season-best crowd of about 7,000 convened at Dudley Field for the festivities, but they hardly got their money’s worth. No doubt aided by a hobbled Curry, defense prevailed as the game ended in a scoreless tie. With little else to highlight, The Tennessean illustrated its report with a full-length photo of Curry, under the headline “All He Had Was Gameness.” Below the photo ran a tribute undoubtedly penned by Blinkey Horn.
The usual honors rolled in: Curry was voted “All-Southern” quarterback by multiple newspapers and even got some national recognition, named third-team All-America by Walter Camp in Collier’s.
Under the rules in place at the time, Curry could have kept playing if he had enrolled at a service academy, and West Point extended an offer, but by early January 1917 Curry was teaching and coaching college prep students at Memphis University School.
Whatever his thoughts and plans for the future might have been soon changed. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Almost immediately, Curry and numerous former teammates and foes joined up.
The Rabbit was about to fly.
Curry enlisted in the U.S. Army’s aviation reserve corps and received orders late in the spring to report to ground school training in Urbana, Illinois. But he had one more mission before leaving Memphis. On June 7, Curry married Dimple Rush, his longtime sweetheart from Marlin, at the Holy Trinity church. Or, in the words of the Nashville Banner, “enlisted for life under the command of a petite dame from his old home town.”
By early August, Curry had completed ground school at Urbana, an achievement trumpeted by the local press with sports-page hyperbole.
Next was flight school at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois, where Curry completed an eight-week course that was his final hurdle before shipping out. He sailed to Europe on November 14, departing Hoboken, New Jersey aboard the converted British ocean liner Aurania. After about a week in Great Britain, it was on to France, where further training awaited before entering battle.
By summer, he was judged ready, and he joined the 95th Aero Squadron along with five other replacement pilots on July 16, 1918. They arrived just two days after the 95th lost its most high-profile pilot in combat.
Quentin Roosevelt, 20-year-old son of President Theodore Roosevelt, had been shot down in combat on the 14th, taking two machine-gun bullets to the head before crashing enemy lines. If Curry and the other newcomers had any illusions about what they had stepped into, they must have ended there.
Keep in mind that airplanes had existed for less than 15 years, and the U.S. Army still hadn’t quite figured out how best to use them. But the various European combatants had employed them throughout the Great War, and the Americans would follow suit now that they were involved. Photo reconnaissance was the primary objective at this point in the war, and the 95th’s job was to provide cover for the planes surveying the trenches from the sky.
On August 10, Curry and 16 other pilots from the 95th were assigned a protective mission in the Château-Thierry sector. They took off around 1:40 p.m. from the U.S. base at Saints in their French-made SPAD XIII biplanes and stopped at Coincy to refuel before patrolling to the northeast toward the battle line running from Bazoches to Fismes.
Later newspaper reports said the enemy aircraft the 95th engaged that day were from Germany’s “Flying Circus,” Jagdgeschwader I, which was already legendary thanks to the exploits of its former commander Manfred von Richthofen — better known as the Red Baron. Richthofen had been killed in combat in April, and by August the unit was under the command of 25-year-old Hermann Göring.
Among the other pilots of the 95th on the mission that day was Lt. Norman Archibald, who in 1935 published a memoir of his war experiences called Heaven High Hell Deep. He had been flying with Curry when his own plane developed engine trouble, forcing him to return to base. When Curry didn’t return, Archibald and the others hoped a mechanical problem had forced him down, but they eventually received word from a medical officer of yet another comrade lost.
It took nearly a month for news of Curry’s death to reach home. An Associated Press report on September 4 broke the story to the public, and Curry’s father Oscar confirmed to the Houston Post that day that he had received a telegram from the War Department with official word.
The news prompted an outpouring of grief and remembrance. The Tennessean topped its front-page story on Curry’s death with a telegram it had received from Dan McGugin that read:
Newspapers paid tribute to Curry in their sports sections and on editorial pages, holding Curry up as the ultimate patriot.
A little over two months later, the fighting ceased. It would be nearly three years before Curry came home.
Curry was buried in a temporary cemetery at Belleau Wood, now the site of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. In late June 1921, his remains and those of more than 1,400 fellow servicemen were loaded aboard the SS Somme at Antwerp for the voyage back to Hoboken, where they arrived July 7.
Three weeks later, after a funeral described as “the largest ever held in Marlin,” Curry was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery. According to reports at the time, attendees included most of Marlin’s population in addition to Texas Gov. Pat M. Neff and numerous Vanderbilt alumni.
That October, coach Dan McGugin brought the entire Commodore team to Texas for a showdown with the Longhorns at the state fairgrounds in Dallas. Vanderbilt entered the game as a two-touchdown underdog, which McGugin seized on in his pregame speech to the team. Among those in the room when it was delivered: Oscar Curry. After warming up with some fire and brimstone (”You are to hurl yourselves like demons with the fury of hell on the crowd that has come here to humiliate us!”), McGugin struck a more emotional chord:
Vanderbilt won 20-0, the key result in a 7-0-1 season. Blinkey Horn was on hand to chronicle the historic victory in his inimitable style.
In 1922, the Vanderbilt Athletic Association decided it needed a bigger football stadium. Officials determined that the new 20,000-seat facility on the west side of campus should retain the same name, Dudley Field. That would mean a rechristening of the old football grounds, and in September 1922 the association announced it would now be called Curry Field.
The Commodores played their first two games of the 1922 season there before moving into the new stadium, which after much renovation and expansion remains the home of the Vanderbilt football team today. Though subsequent construction has encroached on its original boundaries, Curry Field remains on Vanderbilt’s campus.
In November 1933, McGugin proposed an on-campus monument be built honoring Curry’s memory. The idea seemed well-received, based on the number of newspaper stories written about it in Nashville and beyond, but it ultimately never gained traction.
While no statue was ever built, Horn and the generation of sportswriters who followed him, led by Fred Russell, kept Curry’s legend alive through another world war and into the middle of the century.
McGugin played a significant role, too, telling the story of the Rabbit through his death in 1933 at age 56.
Throughout the 30 seasons McGugin spent as Vanderbilt’s coach, he also put his University of Michigan law degree to use, maintaining an office in Nashville’s First National Bank building and teaching at Vanderbilt’s law school. Banner sports editor Ralph McGill visited him at the law office one day in 1927 and dropped a note in his column about it.
McGugin, he wrote, had three pictures hanging on the wall near the desk in his office. On the left, Abraham Lincoln. On the right, Robert E. Lee. In the center, Rabbit Curry.
But the writer with perhaps the closest personal tie to Curry was James G. Stahlman of the Banner, who had been a Vanderbilt student during Curry’s tenure and served as a manager for the football team. In October 1939, a month after conflict erupted once again in Europe, Stahlman wrote a column describing the moment two decades earlier when the AP teletype brought news of Curry’s death to the Banner newsroom.