Larry Cardonick was an unlikely sort of special education teacher.

When he walked into that first classroom in the late 1950s, he had just left the Canadian Football League, where, despite being under six feet tall and not particularly large, he played defense for the Sarnia Golden Bears on the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario.

That was until knee injuries caught up with him, and he returned to his native Philadelphia.

Mr. Cardonick, 80, of Cherry Hill, died Friday, Feb. 8, at the Genesis Eldercare home in Voorhees after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Most knew him as a dedicated special education teacher who worked with children with developmental disabilities for 40 years before he retired from the Cherry Hill School District in 1998.

But before that, he was a football star. Known by the nickname "Reds," Mr. Cardonick played at Olney High School and Germantown Academy before heading off to Temple University in 1952.

There he was named the football team's most valuable player in 1954 and was selected to the All-Eastern U.S. team that same year.

NFL teams, including the Baltimore Colts and the Eagles, showed interest, but when no offer materialized, he headed north.

When he returned to Philadelphia - his playing career over - his search for work led him to the Bancroft school in Haddonfield. A family friend advised against it, but Mr. Cardonick was undeterred, said his wife, Charlotte.

"He'd never seen kids with those sorts of needs," she said. "He felt he could help them, and he dedicated his life to that."

Mr. Cardonick would go on to teach at Thomas Sharp Elementary School in Collingswood and Thomas Payne Elementary School in Cherry Hill, earning the Hannah G. Solomon Award from the National Council of Jewish Women in 1978 for his work.

Along the way, sports accolades piled up.

He was inducted into Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Pennsylvania State Hall of Fame.

Even after his playing career was long over, he would still call his family to come to look through his scrapbook or watch his old playing films.

"He always loved football," said his son, Dan.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Cardonick is survived by daughters Jennifer and Amy; a sister, and three grandchildren.

A funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, at Platt Memorial Chapels, 2001 Berlin Rd., Cherry Hill. Interment will be in King David Memorial Park, Bensalem.

Contributions may be made to the Alzheimer's Association, the National Parkinson Foundation, or Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill.

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.