Fleet feet helped a 1970 Mac-Hi grad play with the big boys

Larry Spencer, a 1970 Mac-Hi grad, didn't have much size, but used his speed to stand out in high school and college sports.

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Larry Spencer playing on the Mac-Hi basketball team in 1968 (left), and with legendary Pendleton football coach Don Requa at the 1970 Shrine Game.

WALLA WALLA - As an athlete, Larry Spencer's eyes were always a little bigger than his appetite.

Or, to put it in his own words, "I always wanted to play with the big boys," the 1970 Mac-Hi graduate explained during a recent telephone interview from his home in Chico, Calif.

This despite the fact that he topped out at 5-foot-9 and about 155 pounds soaking wet as a high school senior.

Physical prowess clearly was not Spencer's forte as an athlete. Speed was. And even more than that, quickness.

"I was blessed with some good speed, and very good quickness," Spencer recalled. "I was capable of quick movements."

All of which led to an outstanding high school career in football, basketball and baseball, plus an occasional flirtation with track and field.

As a football player, Spencer was a quarterback until midway through his junior year when a shoulder injury forced him to change positions. He became a running back and led the Intermountain Conference in rushing as a senior with "around 1,200 yards."

He was a pure point guard in basketball, and play making and defense were his specialties. "I have these little tiny hands," he said, "and I was not a very good shooter."

Spencer put his athleticism to good use as a three-year starter at shortstop on the Mac-Hi baseball team, and he said he could "never remember not leading the team in hitting." Baseball, he said, might have been his best sport.

And although he was a talented sprinter and long jumper - he cleared 6-foot-1 as a senior - he only entered track meets "when it didn't conflict with baseball - baseball always took priority."

Interestingly, coming out of high school football appeared to be his ticket to college.

As a National Honor Society student and a two-time all-IMC selection, Spencer had caught the attention of Stanford University. Oregon and Oregon State also expressed an interest in the Mac-Hi flash.

"I had a really good senior year and was getting a lot of recruiting letters," Spencer remembered. "Until they got my size stats, that is, then they were not quite so interested."

Willamette University put together a scholarship package that was "supposedly the biggest the school had ever offered a player," Spencer said. But he rejected it out of hand.

"I never heard the details because I wasn't interested in a private school," Spencer recalled. "I wanted to play with the big boys."

Also coming out of high school, Spencer received a West Point Academy appointment from then-Sen. Mark Hatfield. He ultimately rejected that, too.

"I went through the process of taking a physical and submitting the paperwork, but at some point in that time I decided I didn't want to accept the nomination," he said.

"I had been selected to play in the Shrine All-Star Game that summer, and that was a big deal to me. If I accepted the nomination, I would have had to give that up.

"I also couldn't picture a nine-year commitment to the military," Spencer said. "And even at 17 years of age, I had a serious girlfriend."

As a fall-back plan, Spencer accepted a partial-scholarship offer to play football at the University of Idaho. He signed a letter-of-intent with the Vandals, then went out and won the Shrine Game's most outstanding back award and rekindled Stanford's interest in his football skills.

"I can remember having a great game, and we won 7-6," Spencer said. "But because I had signed that letter with Idaho, nobody could talk to me. I was kind of left up in the air."

So, Spencer changed his mind one more time and enrolled at Walla Walla Community College. His mentor, former Mac-Hi basketball coach Don Parker, was going into his second season as WWCC's basketball coach at the time, and that influenced his decision, he said.

Also, the Warrior football coaches agreed to provide Stanford with weekly updates on Spencer's gridiron progress. But three games into his first collegiate football season, Spencer suffered what proved to be a career-ending shoulder injury.

"Those guys didn't look all that big up until that point," Spencer remembered. "Then all of a sudden I didn't want to hit them anymore."

As soon as his shoulder healed, Spencer accepted Parker's invitation to turn out for the Warriors basketball team.

"With the kind of team he had, I just thought he wanted me to help them run up and down the court in practice," Spencer recalled. "And I'll be darned if I didn't wind up starting at point guard, and we lost in the (NWAACC) finals to Tacoma."

Spencer's next move was to walk on at the University of Oregon hopeful of earning a baseball scholarship.

"I was on the varsity roster," he said, "but I only played in jayvee games. And I was still having trouble with my shoulder."

Disillusioned with school, and unsuccessful in winning a scholarship, Spencer dropped out. He returned to Milton-Freewater and took a job in the orchards, where he had worked summers since he was 13 years old.

"My parents had divorced about then," he remembered. "I didn't have any money. I didn't have a place to live or financial support. I needed to regroup and start over."

In the fall of 1973, three years and one summer after graduating from Mac-Hi, Spencer decided to give school another try. He enrolled at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., with another shot at baseball in the back of his mind.

"In a very roundabout way, I guess I realized that I was a small-school athlete after all," he said.

But Pacific wasn't the answer, either.

"I worked out with the baseball team that fall," he recalled. "But I was still having trouble adjusting to the world. And school was expensive. I lasted one semester and went back to work in farming."

It wasn't until his second go-around at the University of Oregon that Spencer discovered the maturity to earn his bachelor's degree, he said. He reunited with a high school friend, Al Renville, who was working on his master's degree at the time, and together they graduated in the spring of 1976.

But even then, Spencer couldn't resist the desire to play big-time college athletics.

"Watching the Ducks play football at that time, Dan Fouts was the quarterback, and I kept telling myself, ‘I'm faster than that guy. I can catch that ball.'" Spencer remembered.

"So I walked on as a 22-year-old. And they said, ‘Well, you're not very big.' And I said, ‘I can play with these guys.'

"They checked me out, and it turned out that I had used up my eligibility. You had five years to complete four, and I was outside that window. I had lost track of that."

Thus ended Spencer's long and circuitous college athletic career. But not his love of sport and athletic competition.

After graduation, Renville took a job at Butte Community College in Chico. Shortly thereafter, Spencer visited his buddy in California. And he's been there ever since.

"I visited Al just to see what the area was like," Spencer recollected. "And I ended up basically staying here."

The racket-sport boom was in its beginning stages in America at that time, and California was fast becoming a racquetball hotbed.

"Racquetball clubs were popping up all over the place," Spencer remembered. "And with my interest in athletics, I went to work for an outfit that was building its second California racquetball club in Chico.

"We eventually put together four clubs up and down the valley. I eventually became a partner in the company, and I worked in that industry for 25 years."

He played in it as well.

In addition to organizing and running racquetball tournaments that attracted hundreds of top amateur players, Spencer used his athletic gifts of speed, quickness and hand-eye coordination to become a Level 1 player in his own right.

"I played in a lot of tournaments, although I never won one," he said. "Racquetball kept me in shape and kept me competitive, and it fit my skills."

By then, however, another demanding sport was working its way into his system. Golf.

And like racquetball, golf was a game that required more brain than brawn, more skill and less brute power. In other words, it was right up Spencer's alley.

"We used to swing golf clubs at Yantis Park in Milton-Freewater, before there was a golf course, but none of us knew what we were doing," Spencer remembered. "Then, when I was at WWCC, I borrowed some clubs and played my first round at Vets, and I had this dynamite slice that came from my baseball swing. But right away I could putt."

However, it wasn't until his move to Chico that he caught the fever.

"When I first got into the fitness business, a couple of the partners were avid golfers," Spencer said. "And I got addicted to it.

"I had some success, but I was not great. I could shoot in the mid-80s without much trouble. And when I was able to join a private club, my handicap went from 11 to 5 very quickly because I got to practice more and play more.

"It got to the point," he said, "where every spare moment I wanted to play golf. And it's still that way today."

He's a 1-handicapper now and decided to give up racquetball "because it was screwing up my golf game."

About 10 years ago, when the racket boom began to subside, Spencer changed career paths and went into the banking business. He is now a vice president in commercial lending at Northern California National Bank.

"It's a small community bank, intimate with a lot of face-to-face customer service," Spencer said. "The decision making is done just down the hall."

He and his wife Lori have been married for 32 years. They met when they were paired in Renville's wedding - Larry was best man, Lori maid of honor.

"Our eyes met, and we got married one year later in the very same backyard," Spencer recalled. "It's kind of a neat story."

They have one son, Chad, who is 28 years old, single and employed in the restaurant business in Davis, Calif. And, of all things, he's an avid ice hockey player.

"He is a different type of athlete than I was," Spencer said. "He was never very interested in other sports, but he loves hockey and has played it since he was 10.

"There were no ice rinks in Chico, so I did the soccer mom thing for quite a few years, driving to Sacramento once or twice a week so he could play."

Spencer's mother, Donna, died three years ago. His father, Merle, a longtime school teacher at Central School in Milton-Freewater, has relocated in Eugene after first retiring to the Oregon Coast. And an older sister, Coniee, is married to Pendleton wheat rancher Gary Hanzen.

"I also have a younger brother Alvin who is something of an unknown dude," Spencer said. "He's kind of been a vagabond all of his life who walks to the beat of a different drummer. He might go several years without contacting any of us and then call and say he's camping out in the same gully where Billy the Kid was killed. Right now I think he's living in the Virgin Islands making baskets."

Now 58 years old, Spencer thinks fondly of his years growing up in the Walla Walla Valley, even though he doesn't make it home often.

"I think you have to get away from a place before you appreciate it," he said. "I had a wonderful experience growing up in Milton-Freewater. Those were happy times.

"I don't get back often," he added. "But every time I see those Blue Mountains, it makes me homesick."

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