Mike London’s Friday Night Legend: John Yarbrough
John Yarbrough has only one regret regarding an athletic career that included records, championships, bowl games and a TD reception against Alabama on national TV.
“My dad died when I was 11,” he said. “Dad really liked football. He didn’t get to see me play, and I just wish he’d been there.”
Yarbrough found no shortage of father-figures on East Rowan coaching staffs ó W.A. Cline, Aaron Neely, Phil Harbinson, Gilbert Sprinkle ó and those who watched him in his heyday are sure he’s the best receiver Rowan County has ever produced.
His senior season at East was 1970. Thirty-nine seasons later, his 136 catches are a school record that’s never been challenged. Ben DeCelle is second with 88.
Yarbrough, a Shrine Bowler and prep All-American, still owns four major Rowan records ó receiving yardage in a season, receiving yardage in a career, TD catches in a season and TD catches in a career.
Records are made to be broken, but his 43 TD catches could last forever.
When he graduated, Yarbrough owned the state record for receiving yards with 2,862. High school teams rarely excelled in the passing game until Yarbrough and quarterback C.M. Yates, who tossed 50 TD passes from 1968-70, arrived at East. The Y boys were ahead of their time.
“It’s kind of hard to believe I still have records,” said Yarbrough, now a real-estate developer in Forsyth and Davie counties. “But I think you have to look at the teams I played on, the quarterback I played with, the coaches I had. You don’t set records without a whole lot of things coming together.”
Unofficially, Yarbrough also holds the title of most heavily recruited football player in county history.
He had at least 15 major offers. In January of 1971, coaches from North Carolina, South Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Alabama knocked on the door of his mother’s white house on Stokes Ferry Road.
Duke’s Tom Harp took the Yarbroughs out to dinner and was fired two days later. Yarbrough finally picked Tennessee.
“They threw the ball, they were a winning team and they said they’d let me play baseball once I made the football travel squad,” said Yarbrough, a standout for Rowan’s 1969 state champion Legion team and East’s 1970 WNCHSAA champions.
Looking back, Yarbrough is grateful he had a brother, Tony, who was two years older.
“He was a quarterback, so he needed someone to throw to,” Yarbrough said. “I learned how to catch a football trying to keep up with my big brother, and I found out I liked to catch the football.”
Yarbrough believes he and Yates were teammates for the first time when they were on the Lions Club Little League baseball team.
“I thought C.M. and I would play baseball together forever,” he said.
They were awesome at baseball, and Yarbrough was the leading scorer for East’s basketball team his senior year, but it was in football that they became legends.
“C.M. could always throw the ball,” Yarbrough said. “Seventh grade, I remember he hit me with a 65-yard touchdown pass. Most of that 65 that ball was in the air.”
When they arrived at East in 1968, Yarbrough and Yates were sophomores who found a veteran, hungry team.
“Coach Cline was in his second year and eager to build a winning program,” Yarbrough said. “There were great seniors leading us ó guys like John Morgan, Terry Deal ó and I remember how hard they were pushing to win the school’s first championship. I was lifting weights for the first time. I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
A 13-7 win against Mooresville, East’s first-ever win against the Blue Devils, proved pivotal in producing that first NPC title.
Many have forgotten Yarbrough began his sophomore year as a defensive back. He wasn’t even All-NPC, but he was catching passes in bunches by midseason. He finished with 29 catches for 700 yards and nine touchdowns. It was a start.
Yarbrough’s junior year, the Mustangs went 13-0, the last perfect season recorded in Rowan County, and won the WNCHSAA championship. Yarbrough remembers a 9-6 win against South Iredell as the key regular-season game because the Vikings handed East its only NPC loss in 1968.
Of course, he remembers his heroics in the final minutes of the Concord and Shelby games that capped that historic 1969 season.
He caught the winning TD in the Concord game one play after dropping a potential game-winner.
“I remember turning around and looking up and C.M.’s pass hitting me right in the helmet on a post pattern,” he said. “I knew I should have had it. That’s why I ran so fast on the next play to get open. I was upset with myself. People said I looked like I was running for my life, and I sort of was. I didn’t want our seniors mad at me.”
He remembers the Mustangs painting their shoes red before they faced a Shelby team sporting golden footwear.
“I also remember I went hunting with a shotgun the day before that game,” he said. “I’m told the crowd was really loud, but I still couldn’t hear anything.”
Yarbrough caught 16 TDs as a junior despite missing a game and had 18 catches as a senior even though the flu kept him out of two early road contests.
He topped 1,000 receiving yards in both 1969 and 1970.
East’s 1970 season ended with a 40-19 loss to a Robert Pulliam-led Boyden in the Piedmont championship game. Yarbrough caught passes for all three East scores.
Yarbrough and Pulliam were teammates on Tennessee’s freshman team the following season.
“We played Notre Dame’s freshmen on a Saturday when there was no varsity game,” Yarbrough said. “There were 40,000 people there.”
While Yates went to Catawba to play baseball and football ó a knee injury playing racquetball derailed his football career ó Yarbrough found success for the Vols in both sports. His televised TD triggered a UT rally against the Crimson Tide in 1973, and he made four receptions in that year’s Gator Bowl.
He was at Tennessee at the same time as all-time great receivers Larry Seivers and Stanley Morgan, but he started some.
“We had three guys rotating at two positions, with the receivers bringing in the plays,” Yarbrough said. “So if I didn’t start the game, I was in there on the second one.”
His best college day came his senior year when he grabbed two TD passes in a victory against Colorado State. He just wishes his father could’ve been there to see it.
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