Larry King is No. 5 on the list of the top 50 athletes of the 20th century in Berkshire County

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PITTSFIELD — The great irony of Larry King's sports career in the 1970s was that it was never about the numbers — unless the numbers were wins and losses.

But when reviewing his exploits, especially on the gridiron, the numbers jump out.

King, a three-sport athlete at Taconic from 1972-74, is No. 5 on The Eagle's list of the 50 greatest athletes of the 20th century. At least one of his coaches suggests it could be higher.

"I was very, very close to Mark Belanger all his life," said Dr. Robert Coakley, King's basketball coach at Taconic. "And Mark was the best athlete I've ever seen from this area. But the one guy that is pretty close to Mark is Larry King.."

King played football, basketball and track at Taconic. He was a four-year starter at Syracuse University, first as a special teamer, then as a strong safety. He was a No. 1 draft pick of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League

"He went to Crosby Junior High, which in those days went up to ninth grade," recalled Coakley. "So we didn't see him until his sophomore year. But he had an immediate impact. He started for us as a sophomore. We won the Western Mass. [basketball] championship in 1972. That was the best team I ever coached."

King recalled a slow start to his Taconic career.

"I was a backup quarterback my sophomore year," said King. "But after a couple games, I think, the third game, I started."

After only a few games, King started on both offense and defense, as well as kicking off, punting and, eventually, kicking extra points.

"Yeah, I didn't get off the field too much," he admitted. "I was out there a lot."

King was a great quarterback. But by his senior season, he had been switched to running back.

"Well, [teammate] Jeff Gifford was the backup my junior season," said King. "By my senior year, coach [Bill] Murray wanted to emphasize the running game a bit more and Jeff was moved up to the starting quarterback's job."

"He was our leader," recalled Gifford, in a story about King's ascension to the Pittsfield Football Hall of Fame in 2001. "Everybody looked up to Larry, basically, because of his personality."

The running game was indeed emphasized more, because King was one of the more explosive runners in county history. In his senior year, he was a one-man wrecking crew. There was the 95-yard run against Pittsfield, the 16-carry, 289-yard effort against St. Joseph, the 99-yard run against Wahconah and the 51-carry marathon (for 258 yards) against Northampton.

"I remember that one," said King with a laugh. "After the 50th time, I said, 'I don't know if I want to carry the ball anymore today.'"

King had five (in nine games) 200-plus yard rushing days for the Braves as a senior. It's hard to tell if it's a record, but it's pretty darn good.

During his senior year, King led the county in scoring with 99 points.

And he was equally adept in basketball and track.

"Basketball was my favorite sport," he said. "I enjoyed football, I enjoyed running track, but I loved basketball."

"He was good in his sophomore year, but by his junior year, he was so much better than everyone else," said Coakley.

Coakley recalled that King regularly guarded the other team's best scorer, whether that player was a point guard or a center.

"And he was a great kid to coach. A 'yes sir, no sir,' kind of guy."

Coakley recalled that an injury to King's shooting hand forced him out of thee lineup for most of his senior season. The team struggled without King.

In track, King was part of an ensemble of athletes, including sprinter Dan Reardon, jumpers David Bullett and Glenn Smith and javelin tosser Tracy Goodrich, that helped Taconic win three Berkshire County titles and dominate Western Mass. track during the three years King was there.

King was in the high hurdles, the 400 relay and the triple jump.

But King realized fairly quickly that as much as he enjoyed basketball, football was going to pay his way in college. He was recruited by most football powers in the East, including Boston College, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Army. UMass, he said, made a major push, "but it was too close to home. A lot of athletes from the Berkshires went to UMass, but I wanted go somewhere farther away."

West Virginia was in the mix, in part because King's family was from Virginia, but in the end, Syracuse won out, in part because of its football tradition and in part because it was only about a 3 1/2-hour drive.

"My father wanted me to go to Syracuse, my mother just wanted me to be happy wherever I went," recalled King.

King startled all four years at Syracuse, although he was only a special teamer his freshman year. But by his sophomore year, he became a fixture at strong safety.

"I was on just about every special teams you could think of as a freshman," he said. "Kickoff team, punt team, kickoff return team. But by my sophomore year, I was starting at safety."

During his senior year against Boston College, King returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown. That return is still eighth all-time in team history. He also returned kicks for the Orange as a senior.

The interesting thing about King was that as imposing as the physical challenges were to him, what he remembers most about his college career was the intensity of the coaching.

"At that level, you have coaches for every position," he said. "You film all your practices. I realized how much I didn't know about the game. You learn how to stand, how to read, how to attack. I always say, if I knew at Taconic what I learned at Syracuse, well, I would have been that much better."

There was a possibility of a pro career, recalled King.

"I was a first-round pick of Winnipeg, in the CFL," he said. "I went up there and gave it a shot, but it just didn't feel right. I just wasn't really interested. So after a few weeks, I came back to Syracuse.

"I had no regrets," he said. "I gave it a shot. But it wasn't for me."

That wasn't a bad decision. King has lived and worked in the Syracuse area since 1979. Married to Mary King, the couple have two children, son Kerry and daughter Katrina. It has been, he said, a good life.

"My son has me by a couple inches," said King with a laugh. "I'm six feet, he's about 6-3. He's a pretty good athlete, too. But we've had a good life out here. It worked out for me in the end."

Reach staff reporter Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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