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Formerly of Reidsville, Southern Conference football star Gwain Durden passes
Gwain Durden
Gwain Durden

Gwain Durden, a football star at the University of Tennessee (UTC) at Chattanooga died last Wednesday, July 6, 2022 in Savannah at Memorial Hospital of natural causes.  

Gwain was an outstanding running back at Reidsville High School (RHS) in 1975-76 and a track and field star from 1974-1976.  He scored a perfect 35 first place points during the 1976 class A State Track Meet when the RHS boys track team won the state championship. He placed first in the triple jump (10 pts), the high hurdles (10 pts) and the 330 intermediate hurdles (10 pts) and ran the last leg for the 440 relay (2.5 pts) and the mile relay (2.5 pts).  It was widely anticipated that the legendary Herschel Walker would tie Gwain’s record in 1979, but he was 2.5 points short.  During the 1976 region meet in Savannah, Gwain was tripped on the back straightaway during the last leg of the mile relay. He landed face down and dropped the baton, and by the time he retrieved it, he was last and approximately 20 yards behind.  He picked it up, put his head down and ran.  He won the event by almost 10 yards. Stunned track and field experts that watched his performance stated that it was the greatest individual effort by a sprinter they’d witnessed at any level. 

In the spring of 1976 Coach Bill Curry, who was an All American center at Georgia Tech and won Super Bowl I as a center for the Green Bay Packers, was coaching with Coach Pepper Rogers at Georgia Tech. He came to the Reidsville Glennville Spring game primarily to evaluate Gwain’s athletic potential. Midway the third quarter, Glennville Coach Bernie Weaver sprinted a receiver right up the middle of the field on a play action pass. Gwain was playing linebacker and saw the uncovered receiver streaking up the field and realized the running fake was to draw in linebackers and defensive backs to stop the run.  From a distance of about 12 yards behind, Gwain turned and raced after the wide open receiver.  When the receiver reached up for the ball Gwain went up and made an unbelievable one hand interception.  After the game Coach Curry said he had never seen a more athletic defensive football play in all his years in college or professional competition. Although Gwain’s academics didn’t meet Georgia Tech standards, Coach Curry stayed in the picture.  

Gwain was approached by Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn and other schools in the 1976 season, but he showed little interest as it was widely believed he would sign with Georgia.  When that didn’t happen for whatever reason, those teams had signed their most sought after recruits and team rosters were full.  Coach Bill Curry contacted UTC Coach Joe Morrison and recommended he look at the talented running back. Gwain visited the university, and it was reported that he ran a 40 yard dash in 4.34 seconds and Morrison offered a full scholarship. 

In his freshman year in 1977 before he ever played a game for UTC, he was on the cover of the first home game program with running back Mike Smith and Coach Morrison.  The coaches quickly realized what they had, and he went on to prove his potential as a freshman running back when he ran for more than a thousand yards that season.  These were the days when defense won championships and thousand yard running backs were scarce at best.   He ran for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns and led the Mocs to their first of three straight Southern Conference Championships.  He and Smith, who ran for 1,090 yards, were the first freshman duo in history to run for a combined 2000 yards. 

Gwain and Mike Smith became the dynamic duo at UTC. Although Mike bested him by 45 yards the first year, Gwain led the team in rushing yards for the next three years. Gwain was second all-time in rushing in the Southern Conference with 3,686 yards during his four years. He accomplished that even with an ankle sprain that hobbled him during the last three games of his junior year. Many observers believe he would have easily eclipsed the 4000 yard mark without the injury. He was seventh all time in in the Southern Conference with 540 attempts but second at 6.8 yards per carry.  

UTC was 33-9-2 in his four years which included Southern Conference Championships in 1977, 1978, and 1979. His 93.3 yards per game average in 1978 led the Southern Conference.  Gwain was inducted into the UTC Hall of Fame in 1988, and he was named to the UTC All- Century Team in 2003.

He signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in 1981 but never seemed comfortable playing Canadian football where the passing attack was primary and running the football seemed to be little more than an effort to let receivers catch their breath. It was during that time that rumors of alcohol and substance abuse really began to circulate.

After he was released from the Argonauts he was given a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals but cut before the regular season began.

His high school teammates remembered him as a dedicated athlete who very much wanted to play college and professional football, and he had the physical tools to reach those goals. Close friends said that Gwain never broke training rules during or after the season, and his work ethic was beyond reproach.  He didn’t even drink Coke or Pepsi because many coaches believed the high levels of sugar in those drinks diminished endurance.  He was in bed at 9 p.m. even during week days according to his teammates. In high school there were no rumors of alcohol or illegal drug use. If coaches needed to contact him at night they could find him at home. 

As a high school junior in 1975, he led a lethal Reidsville Tiger running attack as a halfback in the wishbone formation along with halfbacks Glenn Andrews, who also played briefly at UTC before a career ending knee injury, and Willie Smith, fullback Billy Collins, and quarterbacks Dale Wilson and Chan Williams. They operated behind an offensive line that included tight ends Glen Shuman and Rusty Jordan, split end Ronald Stanfield, tackles Frank Murphy and Herb Brown, guards Bo Brewton and Donovan Hawkins and Center Eddie McDaniel.  Defensive standouts included tackle James Smith, ends LeRoy Eason and Donnell Anthony, nose tackle Malone Holloway, linebacker Wilbert Sherd and more. Looking back at the speed and strength of those athletes, it had to be one of the most talented football teams in RHS history, and it showed. The eventual state champion Lyons Bulldogs beat the Reidsville Tigers by seven points in a steady September monsoon-like rain when Glenn Andrews’ 100 yard kickoff return was called back because one foot was in the end zone when he fielded the kickoff. Additionally Glenn was thrown out of the game for “spearing” in the second quarter. In the third quarter, Gwain ran 45 yards for an apparent touchdown but was hit and fumbled as he dived into end zone. After a lengthy conversation, officials ruled the ball was fumbled just before he crossed the goal line.  The Tigers fumbled the ball seven times in the rain and lost five. As a result of the self-inflicted wounds, one of the best teams in Reidsville football history had to watch from second place in the sub region as a great Lyons High School football team went on to win the 1975 Class A State Championship. 

Gwain was a pivotal player on the 1975 and 76 RHS teams, and he was equally hardnosed and aggressive on offense and defense.  At UTC that toughness served him well in the Houston Veer Offense although the ankle injury slowed him considerably in 1979. 

Perhaps his greatest compliment reportedly came during a Southwest Conference football game between Oklahoma and Texas when retired Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles and broadcasting legend Keith Jackson were discussing Heisman Candidates for the 1979 season. Several players including the eventual winner, Charles White, were mentioned before Jackson allowed that even though the great Gwain Durden was not playing for a Division I school, many thought he would get several votes for the Heisman. According to those who heard the conversation, Coach Broyles reportedly added, “He really is something special.”

Those who played with him or against him would certainly agree.