Friday Night Legend: East’s C.M. Yates
Claude Morris Yates Jr. has turned 56, but you get the feeling he could walk out the front door of his Rockwell home tomorrow and toss a perfect spiral.
If C.M. launched that pass in the direction of Clemmons, his old friend Johnny Yarbrough would walk out in the yard and find a way to catch it.
The legend of Yates, the quarterback, and Yarbrough, the split end, has grown, not diminished, during the past four decades. From 1968-70, the Y boys sparked East to a record of 31-4-1.
It’s 1969, their junior year, that people remember. That was The Year of the Rooster in China but the Year of the Mustang locally.
East was 13-0.
The 1969 Mustangs remain the only Rowan football squad since consolidation and integration to experience a perfect season.
Yates, also the placekicker, will talk all day about his great receiver, who was also the punter. He’ll talk all night about his coaches, his offensive line, his running backs and his defense, but he won’t crow about himself.
“You don’t win championships with just one guy or two guys,” he said. “We had a whole lot of close games, but different guys kept coming through. Our defense always came through.”
While Yates won’t pat himself on the back, the record book does it for him.
What he accomplished statistically ó he remains East’s career record-holder with 4,110 yards of total offense and 3,910 passing yards ó was amazing because he played for a great coach whose basic philosophy was to run the ball and play defense.
If you believe the myths and listen to the tall tales, East threw on every down in 1969, but that was hardly the case. East halfback Jerry Sifford and fullback Randy Sheffield were the county’s No. 2 and No. 3 rushers.
North, South, West and Boyden all had more passing attempts than East during the 1969 regular season. Prior to airing it out in the playoffs, Yates averaged eight passing attempts per game.
Yates and Yarbrough are eternally linked. Yates remains the most efficient passer in county history. Yarbrough remains the county’s greatest receiver ó period. Any rational arguments are about who’s No. 2.
Yarbrough is to Rowan receiving what K.P. Parks is to rushing. In 33 games, his 136 catches produced 2,863 yards and 43 touchdowns.
“I’m not sure how fast Johnny was, but he was sneaky fast,” Yates said. “He had that long stride and would run by people before they knew it. In baseball, watching him cover ground in the outfield, well, it was something to see.”
Beyond the numbers, Yates and Yarbrough are legends because they made their biggest plays in the pressure-packed final minutes of championship games. Their defining moments came in November struggles with great Concord and Shelby teams on back-to-back weeks 40 years ago.
Intimidating Concord was bigger. Razzle-dazzle Shelby was faster. East beat both with storybook drives.
Yates’ road began as a kid playing backyard games with his big brother and his sibling’s high-school age friends in Faith.
“There was no such thing as tag then, so really it was tackle football with no equipment,” Yates said. “My brother was eight years older than me, and I’d get hit pretty hard. I could’ve cried a lot of times, but I knew that wouldn’t cut it.”
By the time he got to organized Y league football in the fourth grade, he was a proficient passer and kicker. That’s where he met Yarbrough and many of his future East teammates.
As part of Erwin’s first ninth-grade class, the Y boys went undefeated. Reid Bradshaw was their coach.
“Reid kept us in line,” Yates said. “What I remember most about that year is they hadn’t finished building the cafeteria. Kids brought sandwiches from home. We ate in the classroom.”
Yates was a sophomore in 1968. East went 9-2 and won the NPC title for the school’s first football championship.
The pivotal game was a headknocker late in the year against North Stanly. Cline went a little crazy at halftime. It came down to a goal-line stand by the Mustangs.
“They had first-and-goal at the 1 late in the fourth quarter, and they had a 240-pound fullback,” Yates said. “Somehow our guys stopped them four times.”
East took over on its 1-inch line, leading 8-7 and still needing to run one play to kill the clock.
“I worried about a safety because I was deep in the end zone taking that snap,” Yates said. “But our center, Chris Stiller, told me just to follow him, and that’s what I did. I got it out to the 3 or 4 on a sneak, and it was over.”
While it ended with magic, the 1969 season didn’t start smoothly. Yates and Yarbrough arrived late from the American Legion team’s state title and appearance in the Southeast Regional.
Yarbrough missed the opener because he hadn’t practiced enough days.
Yates was still recovering from a concussion he suffered at the regional. A pitcher, he was covering home after a wild pitch when he was upended by a sliding runner. He missed the first three games as East edged South Rowan 6-3 and West Rowan 12-6.
After Yates was back at the helm, East survived a 9-6 struggle with South Iredell and won all 10 regular-season games.
The NPC was split into two divisions in 1969.
East hammered North Rowan 38-0 in the NPC title game in freezing conditions. Yates’ 36-yard field goal opened the scoring. East picked off five passes.
East traveled to SPC champion Concord for the Piedmont championship game and was an underdog for the first time. The SPC hadn’t lost a title game to the NPC since 1961.
Concord was huge. Yates is sure the Spiders outweighed the Mustangs 40 pounds per man.
“We had just one guy who weighed 200, but (lineman) Willie Lowe was something,” Yates said. “If you tried to run away, he’d just chase you down.”
Yates was smashed to the ground on his first two passing attempts. Then he had a pass batted down. Then he was intercepted.
“But then I got a short sideliner to Johnny on the right, and he was gone,” Yates said. “I ran past (Concord star) E.Z. Smith and yelled at him, ‘Hey, we’re gonna win this game.’ E.Z. yelled back, ‘It’s not over.’ ”
It see-sawed all night. Concord led 22-17 late. With 1:30 left, Yates hit Yarbrough for a potential touchdown. Jaws dropped. Yarbrough dropped the ball.
“One of the two I remember him dropping in all our years together,” Yates said. “Lowe comes up to me and says, ‘Run that play again. We’ll block. You throw it. Johnny will catch it.’ ”
The ball was on the Concord 40. Yarbrough lined up left, angled right and split double coverage that included great Concord running back Martin Livingston.
“It was the fastest I’d ever seen him run in his life, and looking down that field, I wondered how I could get it to him,” Yates said. “All I saw was a red streak.”
Yates’ pass was perfect, his 10th completion and Yarbrough’s ninth catch.
Yarbrough snagged it in on the 2 and stepped into the end zone. East led 23-22. The scoreboard said 1:22.
A pick by David Cecil sealed the victory, and East was 12-0. Next was a showdown for the WNCHSAA title with Shelby and brilliant running back Marcus Mauney.
The game was played at Ludwig Stadium to provide more seats. The crowd still overflowed, with 6,500 pouring into a 4,000-seat facility. Hundreds watched from outside through the fences.
Shelby double-covered Yarbrough from the outset, but East took a 20-13 lead.
Then Shelby scored with 1:45 remaining and added a two-point conversion on a pass to Mauney for a 21-20 lead.
East took the kickoff back to the 35, and Yates went to work. He threw to Yarbrough for 28 yards. Then he hit Yarbrough for 21 more. Then he found Yarbrough for 11, and a penalty for roughing pushed the ball to the Shelby 2.
Yates, who had thrown for 213 yards, then made the most famous quarterback sneak in county history for the winning touchdown. It was for the championship, and it also was for 13-0.
“We never went into any game that year we didn’t expect to win,” Yates said. “We knew we’d win. We just didn’t know how.”
When the Y boys were seniors they were 9-2-1 (including a forfeit loss), but 13-0 is hard to duplicate.
Yates is well aware West Rowan has a chance at perfection this season. He won’t pop a champagne cork if the Falcons fall short. Actually, he’s pulling for them.
“Well, if they play East in the playoffs, then West can go ahead and lose one,” Yates said with a laugh. “But I’ll pull for them against anyone else. These are young men representing Rowan County, and I hope they get to experience that same feeling we had in ’69. I can tell them that going undefeated is something they’ll never forget. And if they do it, it won’t take anything at all away from what our team did. We’ll always have 1969.”