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Max Runager – who starred as a punter for the University of South Carolina and two Super Bowl teams – died Friday.

The 61-year-old was found in his vehicle at the parking area near the Lady Fountain at Edisto Memorial Gardens at about 3:30 p.m., his father Geb Runager said Saturday.

“He had a very slight pulse rate,” Runager said. Efforts to revive him were not successful.

Max was found by Orangeburg Department of Public Safety officers with the motor running and his vehicle in reverse as if he were preparing to drive away, Geb Runager said.

The Orangeburg County Coroner’s Office ordered an autopsy, which was being performed in Newberry on Saturday.

Foul play is not suspected in the death, said Geb Runager, who asked officers about the possibility of Max having taken his own life.

“They said that was virtually impossible,” Runager said of the circumstances. “Nothing indicated along that line.”

Geb said Max being at Edisto Gardens was normal as he was recovering from a back injury suffered in December.

“He spent a lot of days at the gardens,” Geb said. He would go there to enjoy the river and other features of Orangeburg’s famous site.

Max, who had been living in Orangeburg for the past two years, fell from the roof of his parents’ home in December while cleaning off pine straw, Geb said. He cracked a vertebra.

Max refused to have his back treated, his father said. “He said he was NFL tough.”

But while using a walker, Max fell and fractured his leg, further complicating his recovery.

“He had a bad time,” Geb Runager said. “The only place he could relax was in the bed or in the car.”

Max refused to talk about his injuries, Geb said. And he did not want to get out so people could see him using a walker.

“It's been a long night,” Geb Runager said. “It’s a void you cannot fill. There is no way I can fill it except to keep on praying.”

Prayer as part of athletics is well known to the Runagers -- Geb, his wife and Max's mother Nancy, and Max. An Orangeburg coaching icon and a founder of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Geb saw his son follow in his footsteps by helping others.

“He had been saved. He was a Jesus person,” Runager said of Max. “He had a passion for helping people.”

When his playing days with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers were done, Max spent years working as a master teacher. He helped athletes around the nation from youth to the college level learn the skill of punting, also joining his father in efforts locally.

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Max Runager punted in the NFL from 1979-89 for the Eagles, 49ers and Cleveland Browns. He punted for two Super Bowl teams – the Eagles in 1980 and the winning 49ers in 1984.

Runager, who starred at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School and for South Carolina Coach Jim Carlen’s teams of the late 1970s, was drafted by Philadelphia in the eighth round of the NFL draft in 1979. He retired after 11 NFL seasons.

A 2007 inductee into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, 2013 inductee into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame and an SEC Football Legends pick also in 2013, Runager is described as “arguably the best punter in Carolina football history.”

Not unlike many pro athletes, Max Runager carried more than fame away from the game.

He had been under concussion protocol with the NFL for some time, Geb Runager said. He had been tested two or three times regarding concussion and neck injury issues.

As a result, Max Runager’s brain will undergo testing in Boston the same as in the cases of other NFL players dying early and unexpectedly.

Max Runager has three adult sons, all of whom followed in their father’s footsteps in one form or the other as soccer standouts and with coaching.

Geb Runager said his son’s service will be held on Wednesday or Thursday, with his cremated remains being placed alongside an infant daughter in Memorial Park Cemetery. Dukes-Harley Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.

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Lee Harter has been editor of The Times and Democrat since 1981

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