Former Eagles punter Max Runager: Local hero's life, lonely death | Mike Sielski
He was a star in his hometown of Orangeburg, S.C. He was a fan favorite in Philadelphia and a Super Bowl champion with the 49ers. But when he lost football, everything changed.
ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Around 2 p.m. on Friday, June 30, Dennis Brothers, a general supervisor in the Orangeburg Parks & Recreation Department, was surveying the area around the city's Edisto Memorial Gardens when he noticed a black Honda Accord idling on a sloped strip of grass near a parking lot entrance. Unaware that the man behind the wheel was either dying or already dead, Brothers thought that the driver had backed up too far and would soon exit the lot. A half-hour later, curious, he returned to check if the car was still there. It was.
Inside was Max Runager, 61 years old, the punter on the Eagles' 1980-81 Super Bowl team, a Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers four years later, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons, a local hero here for his athletic accomplishments. He was 6-foot-1, his light brown hair graying, and a lumpy 220 pounds — 30 pounds heavier than he had been during his playing career. He wore a Citizen watch with a brown leather strap. His wallet, buried in his left rear pocket, contained his driver's license and nine dollars. The car was in reverse, the engine still running. In the front were a bank statement, an insurance bill, and a check for $200 that Runager had written to himself.
He and his wife, Mikie, had divorced in 2010. He rarely saw his three sons. He had a 1-year-old granddaughter he had yet to meet in person. He had been living with his parents for more than two years. In December, he had tumbled off their roof and fractured a vertebra, and not long after, while using a walker, he had fallen and broken his leg. He could not climb stairs. He had been in pain, physical and emotional, for a long time — from the moment football had left his life, really — and in many regards he had come to accept living with it, even chosen to live with it. It had been a slow, inexorable descent, and one of his sons had feared it would end terribly. Now, Runager was unconscious, and his face was beginning to turn blue.
After parking his department-issued Ford pickup truck, Brothers walked to the Accord and looked inside. The Gardens are Orangeburg's most popular and well-known public attraction, comprising 4,800 rose plants, the bushes arrayed in rows close both to the center of town and to the cypress and tupelo trees along the banks of the Edisto River. More than 600,000 people visit the Gardens annually, according to city records, and in the months before his death, Runager went there often. Sitting in the car allowed him to relax and relieve the stabbing sensation in his back, and he could lose himself for a while in the beauty of the flowers and the murmur of the waters. The roses' musky scent fills the air around the Gardens, but in his final moments, Max Runager had closed himself off completely from the sweet, familiar aroma. All the Accord's windows were shut.
Brothers knocked on the driver's-side window. He saw that Runager's chest was not rising and falling with breath. He called his boss, who called the police.
The prince of a small town
Everyone in Orangeburg knows him. Everyone calls him "Coach." Everyone has done it for years. Geb Runager is 90, and he still drives himself anywhere in town that he wants to go, and he can greet the publisher of the local newspaper, The Times & Democrat, with a hug, and he can greet the hostess at his favorite restaurant, The Chestnut Grill, with a fist-pound when he and his wife, Nancy, 85, arrive each week for dinner. They have been married 65 years and have lived here since 1958, when he became an assistant football coach and head basketball coach at Orangeburg High School. In 1960, his first season as head coach, the football team went undefeated and won a state championship.
The victory, its timing, and his work thereafter conferred a particular status and respect on him here. When Orangeburg High and the town's predominantly black high school, Wilkinson, merged in 1970 — amid the sprouting of all-white private schools born of resistance to desegregation, when being a white man who taught and coached at an integrated public school was enough to risk social ostracism and retaliation — Geb was a strong and heartening community presence, one longtime Orangeburg resident said, founding the local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, acting as "a bridge between white and black that has been needed and remains vital." A writer once described him as Orangeburg's "premier sportsman," which made Max, the second-oldest of Geb and Nancy's five children, akin to the town prince.
Such a legacy can cast an unforgiving shadow over a son, but Max stood out in his own right, starring for Orangeburg-Wilkinson High's football team at multiple positions, including quarterback and tight end. He didn't begin punting until his senior year, his rapid improvement made possible by the willingness of his sister, Jane, the youngest Runager sibling, to tag along and shag his punts while he practiced on his own. He walked on at the University of South Carolina and won the punting job. In his senior season with the Gamecocks, 1978, he was a team captain, a rarity for a punter, and had 11 kicks of more than 50 yards, one a 66-yarder.
In the following year's NFL draft, having lost a playoff game to the Atlanta Falcons because of a disastrous performance by fill-in kicker Mike Michel, the Eagles targeted Texas' Russell Erxleben, who could place-kick and punt. But after the New Orleans Saints selected Erxleben with the 11th overall pick, the Eagles took kicker Tony Franklin in the third round and Runager in the eighth.
"Going to the Eagles," Runager told The Times & Democrat in 2007, ahead of his induction into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, "was a dream come true."
He and Franklin solidified the Eagles' special teams. Runager did not put up gaudy numbers — he never averaged more than 41.7 yards a punt in any of his five years with the Eagles — but in general he was indifferent toward his statistics. He cared more about the placement and net result of every punt, tailoring a kick to its particular situation and coverage, and because he had played multiple positions in high school, because he hadn't come up in the sport as merely a specialist, he earned his coaches' and teammates' respect for his athleticism and mind-set.
When the Eagles' medical staff and coaches tested each player's strength and conditioning during training camp, Runager outperformed most of his teammates, his weight never fluctuating. Dick Vermeil, the team's head coach, called Runager the Eagles' "disaster quarterback" — "It would be a disaster if he ever had to play," Geb said — but in the Eagles' NFC divisional-round victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 3, 1981, Max completed a 12-yard pass for a first down on a fake punt, only to see an illegal-formation penalty nullify it.
He considered himself just another football player, as tough and capable as any of them.
"You always want to play that strong man, that nothing can hurt you," said Harold Carmichael, the team's star wide receiver at the time. "I knew he was a strong guy."
His amiable personality made him a fine fit in the familial culture that Vermeil cultivated, and it allowed him to make easy friendships.
"He didn't have an inside voice," Jane said.
He grew close to Carmichael, sometimes falling asleep on the team plane next to him and resting his head against Carmichael's shoulder, the pair cutting a striking contrast: Carmichael, 6-foot-8 and black; Runager, seven inches shorter and white, his hair usually brushed into a just-cresting wave. His looks were good enough to earn him a few modeling gigs, and like several members of the 1980-81 Eagles, the franchise's first team to reach a Super Bowl, he became a fan favorite simply by virtue of the team's relative excellence. One season-ticket holder, who parked a recreational vehicle outside Veterans Stadium, painted "RUNAGER'S ROOTERS" on one side of the RV. How many punters get their own fan clubs, even one whose entire membership can fit inside a Winnebago?
The Eagles released him in 1984, and he immediately signed with the 49ers, who in Runager's first season went 18-1 and beat the Miami Dolphins, 38-16, in Super Bowl XIX, Geb and Nancy making the cross-country trip to Stanford Stadium for the game. "Getting released from the Eagles wasn't the most exciting part of my career, but going to a championship team and winning the Super Bowl was a highlight of a lifetime and a highlight of my career," Runager said in 2007. "It's a tough thing to come by. It's something that you certainly strive to play for. Granted, the money is fantastic. But to say that you've won a Super Bowl … there are not a lot of players who carry that championship ring, and I'm honored to have won one and to have been in two."
He spent five more years in the NFL, rejoining the Eagles for a four-game stint in 1989, becoming the answer to an obscure trivia question: Who was the Eagles' official punter on the day Randall Cunningham boomed his 91-yard punt at the Meadowlands against the Giants? (It's no wonder coach Buddy Ryan took Cunningham up on his offer to kick; Runager averaged just 27.7 yards over his three punts that day.) He retired after the season, and he and Mikie raised their three sons — Kolby, Kramer, and Tyler — in Williamsburg, Va. Runager worked in orthopedic sales, for the companies Howmedica and Smith & Nephew, and he was closer to Orangeburg, to his roots and his parents, than he had been in years, just a six-hour drive from Williamsburg. It was, by all appearances, a comfortable, happy life. The family traveled to Orangeburg for every Christmas, and the boys grew up with a keen understanding of who their grandfather and father were and what they had done.
"One thing my dad always said to me," Kolby said in a recent interview, "especially in high school when I'd be going out with friends: Remember your name."
‘He didn’t have it to give’
This was a descent, yes, but it was not a rapid one. It transpired over years, every day a reminder for Max Runager that he was selling medical products and no longer playing football. He was not even coaching it, which would have been more fulfilling and satisfying. "Things would have been really different," Jane said. "Football was his love."
He changed jobs, going to Charlotte, then returning to Williamsburg. His sales territory shrank. The boys were getting older, going off to college. There were tuition payments to make. He began to drink too much.
"I guess you could say that my family had that all-American image of what a family should be, and things weren't going well," Kolby said. "He was trying to provide, but he didn't have it to give. He was trying to take care of us, but what was really going on was, he was struggling with work."
After he and Mikie divorced and he retired, money became a problem. He drew from his NFL pension, but there was only so much from which to draw. He borrowed cash from family members and acquaintances — $25,000 from one of them, the person who lent him the money said — without repaying the debts. He fell out of touch with Carmichael and Vermeil. He lived in Rock Hill, S.C., for a while, with Jane and with his aunt. Jane and her family are South Carolina football season-ticket holders, and occasionally, Max would return to campus for a game, and the fans and alumni would slip him into the secure tailgating areas, no armband necessary for an ol' Gamecocks great, and he enjoyed himself again, remembering the way it used to be, putting aside for a few hours the way his post-football life was turning out.
"You think it's going to be fun," Nancy said, "and suddenly you're a nobody with nothing."
The games were Band-Aids, nothing more. He moved in with Geb and Nancy, and he might assist Geb during a coaching clinic at a local middle school, or tutor a kid who wanted to refine his punting technique, or volunteer at their church, First Presbyterian. But no one paid him just to coach one aspiring punter, or just to tidy up the pews, or just to be Max Runager, former Orangeburg football star.
He was cleaning pine straw off his parents' roof in December when he slipped and fell to the ground, fracturing his L1 vertebra. Located in the lower back, the L1 bears the weight of a person's upper body. A doctor prescribed him painkillers — 49 pills containing Percocet and Oxycodone. Fearing they would be habit-forming, Runager wouldn't take them. Tylenol, he told his parents, was enough. "He'd say, 'I can handle it,' " Geb said. Nancy had recently undergone hip-replacement surgery and had needed a walker. She began using a cane and gave Max the walker. He slept in a cot in Geb's first-floor office.
Each morning, he'd wake up, pack a cooler with a banana and a nutritional shake, and drive to the Gardens, returning by 4 for supper. "I think a lot of depression set in," Jane said, and she remembered him telling her one day, How come I always do so much, and they don't do anything for me? When they're there when you're big, it was great. But I'm giving, and nobody's coming around to give to me?
His sons had their own lives to lead. Kramer lived in California; Tyler, in Florida. Kolby — 34, married, working as an actor and bartender in New York, living in the Bayside section of Queens with his wife, Sabrina, and his 14-month-old daughter, Charlie Rose — would text or FaceTime with Max. After Charlie Rose was born, Kolby realized how few photographs he had of Max around the house. He concluded the best way to get some more was to purchase some of Max's football cards online. When they spoke, he would urge Max to have surgery to fix his back, only to have his father deflect the advice, only to listen to him say that everything was wonderful.
On Wednesday, June 28, two days before his death, Max Runager went to his first physical therapy session, to rehabilitate his back.
"He had planned on turning things around," Kolby said. "But then things get put off, and then things happen out of your control. That's just life."
A vision to keep
Once Max Runager's body had been identified, David Farr, Orangeburg's deputy coroner, drove to Geb and Nancy's house to tell them that their son was dead. Jerry Proveaux, a police officer at the scene, soon followed Farr to the Runagers' home, to return the keys to the black Honda Accord. Farr and Proveaux told Geb that there was no indication Max had committed suicide, and five days later, an autopsy confirmed that Max's death had indeed been accidental. The cause was a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung.
That revelation was a relief to Geb and Nancy, and it was a relief, too, that Max's body had been found so quickly, that the car had backed up against that grassy incline and stayed there instead of, say, trundling into the river. But when Farr and Proveaux informed him of Max's death, Geb asked them if it had been suicide, which means that he thought Max might have committed suicide, which means that he thought Max had sunk so low that he might consider committing suicide, and so how much relief did the revelation really provide?
"He had to feel like an extremely broken man," Kolby said. "I feel like we all kind of had the fear. It was time that he started taking care of himself better, or this was a real outcome."
Five hundred people attended the funeral — dozens of cars parked on the lawn, the chapel packed. Kolby read an essay called "Rules for the Game of Life" that Max had read to him when Kolby was young and that Geb had read to Max when Max was young, and the presiding reverend recited lyrics from the hymn "In the Garden." Geb and Nancy received emails and letters from people whom they had never met but who knew Max. ("He made everyone feel like a million bucks!" wrote a nurse who had worked with him in Charlotte. "He was in a class of his own.")
Congregation members and friends still stop by the Runagers' home frequently. They bring food, sit and chat, and Geb and Nancy are always completely and perfectly kind and hospitable, and when they cry over Max they cry by themselves, where no eyes can see, where they can reach into the past and find a good memory.
There is one that Geb holds close. He and Nancy were in the Veterans Stadium stands on Jan. 11, 1981, when the Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys, 20-7, in the NFC championship game. It was 12 degrees, the wind chill minus-3.
"At the end of the ball game, we were still there," Geb said. "It didn't matter how cold it was. We were at the top of the stadium, looked down, and yelling and waving at me was Max. He wanted me to come down to the dressing room to help him celebrate. That, to me, is the vision I like to keep of that day."
It was a vision Max Runager wanted to keep of himself. Remember your name, he had told his three boys. But his torment was that he could not forget his, and what it had once meant. It had meant respect. It had meant status. It had meant pride and achievement. And if it still meant those things to everyone else, it had become harder for him to recognize them within himself. He did not die because of football, but it is not too much to say that he suffered because he no longer had football. Into mid-August, his parents still had the bottle of pills that he had refused to take, all 49 of them. They had tried to return them, but the pharmacy would not take them back. Someday, Nancy said, she will dig a hole in the backyard, pour them in, and bury them. There was no reason to keep them anymore. Her son's pain was gone at last.