Larry Vuillemin isn’t sure why he wrote to Jim Houston.
But when the 15-year-old student at Akron’s St. Vincent High School lost his father, Al, to a heart attack at age 48, he turned to the Cleveland Browns legend to help ease his grief.
Perhaps Vuillemin was drawn to Houston because both played defensive end and linebacker. Perhaps it was because his dad was a huge Browns fan. Perhaps there was somewhat of a local connection because Houston won titles at Massillon High School and Ohio State.
But after his father’s death on June 13, 1964, Vuillemin reached out to Houston during training camp before what would be the Browns’ most recent championship season.
In the wake of Houston’s Sept. 11 passing at age 80 from complications of dementia and ALS, Vuillemin felt compelled to share the message from Houston he’s carried with him for the last 54 years.
“‘Remember Larry, when you come to the point where you can’t take one more step, take two,” was how Vuillemin said the responding letter concluded, with Houston signing, “Sincerely, Jim Houston, No. 82.’”
“I sent this letter to him, a kid really grieving, just reaching out for some direction. I asked him about how it was to play for the Browns and told him about my dad’s death and my dad being such a big Browns fan,” Vuillemin said in a phone interview earlier this month. “I never really expected anything to come out of it.
“A couple weeks later I got a hand-written letter from Jim Houston; it was a couple pages.”
Houston’s death sent Vuillemin rifling through the papers in his desk. The retired Akron attorney and city councilman, now 69, never met Houston. whose life will be celebrated Sept. 30 at a 5 p.m. memorial service (which follows public visitation from 2-5 p.m.) at Ferfolia Funeral Home in Sagamore Hills. Vuillemin no longer has the first letter he mailed to Houston, but saved another he wrote to him on Aug. 7, 1998.
Vuillemin was so moved by Houston’s inspirational line that he refers to it often. Twenty years ago, he brought it up at a Bible study when a passage of scripture referred to persistence. He told the men in his group about the contact with Houston during the summer before his junior year at St. V.
“I said, ‘I always wanted to thank him for that,’ and they said, ‘Why don’t you?’” Vuillemin said.
Vuillemin tracked down Houston, who sold life insurance and securities. Vuillemin, who along with his brother Ed earned a football scholarship at Notre Dame, wrote Houston again, this time on the letterhead of his firm, Mentzer, Vuillemin and Mygrant.
After he heard of Houston’s death, Vuillemin dug out that letter, along with the message memo from his secretary that Houston was on the phone.
In it Vuillemin wrote, “You should know that your ending to that letter back in 1964 serves me better now than it did even back then. And since you went on with the Browns to win a championship that year, I am sure that you certainly practiced what you preached to me. ... Perhaps in some way this letter may also encourage you as you once encouraged me.”
In his last years, Houston may have called on the phrase that meant so much to Vuillemin. According to Houston’s obituary, he donated his brain and spinal cord to Boston University’s Concussion Legacy Foundation to help in diagnosis and treatment of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
In 1998, Houston responded again. When his secretary told Vuillemin Houston was on the phone, Vuillemin at first thought she was joking. But what he said to Houston was easily recalled.
“I said, ‘I just wanted to thank you. You don’t know what you did for some kid years ago. I’ll bet you did that for any number of kids,’” Vuillemin said. “I said, ‘I have to ask you, did somebody point that out to you, ‘When you come to the point you can’t take one more step?’ and I remember him telling me, ‘My high school coach used to say that.’”
That was their last contact. But Vuillemin’s respect for the Browns great seems as strong as the day in 1964 when a grieving teenager opened a letter he wishes he’d kept.
“He’s just a beautiful man,” Vuillemin said of Houston, whom he may always regard in the present tense. “What he said, I get emotional now just thinking about it.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.