Friday Night Legend: John Willett

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 25, 2011

By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — There was a play in a South Rowan game at Asheboro in 1964 that summed up John Willett’s career.
There were 7,000 fans in the stands, most of them cheering for Asheboro’s spectacular junior quarterback Darrell Moody.
Clinging to a 3-0 lead in the fourth quarter, South’s Rebels — they wouldn’t be Raiders until 1972 — faced fourth-and-1 at the Asheboro 20, and everyone in the stadium knew Willett, the fullback, was going to get a handoff from QB Devan Brown.
A Blue Comet hit Willett in the backfield. Another grabbed his legs. Willett still got that precious yard, dragging both tacklers to move the chains.
And a few minutes later, he plowed into the end zone for the clinching score.
When that game ended, the 1964 season was six weeks old, and Lope Linder’s team was 6-0 and on top of the mighty South Piedmont Conference.
Not only was South unbeaten — it hadn’t been scored on. West Rowan, North Rowan, East Rowan, Albemarle and Boyden had gone down in order.
North’s single-wing offense was held to 21 yards. In the game against East, Willett scored two TDs.
South had plowed Boyden’s defense for 231 rushing yards, and young end Larry Deal had caught a touchdown pass and forced a safety.
“Six games, six straight shutouts,” remembers Willett, who played linebacker on that airtight defense. “It was an exciting year. We had a lot of good players and a great punter (Paul Adams) and Lope was a very sound football coach.”
Linder, who had starred at Boyden in the 1940s had been schooled by Bill Ludwig and was strong with defensive X’s and O’s. South opened in 1961. In their first four seasons, the Rebels played 13 times against Rowan foes and allowed two TDs.
“We threw a lot of shutouts,” Willett said. “My three years (1962-64), no one in the county ever scored on us, so we always got off to a good start.”
The problem in the SPC was that A.L. Brown, Concord, Thomasville and Statesville were always waiting. South’s 3-0-1 start in 1962 fizzled to 4-4-2, while a 4-0-1 start in 1963 flatlined at 4-5-1.
But there was euphoria after that huge win at Asheboro in ’64. When the papers came out, the Greensboro Daily News ranked South No. 3 among the state’s 3A powers.
The Charlotte Observer was even more impressed. It declared South was No. 1.
“No. 1 in the state,” Willett said. “That team gave South some recognition.”
South was off a week.
Fourteen days after it beat Asheboro, it was set to play A.L. Brown, which has broken South hearts often.
But the teams didn’t get to play on Friday, as Hurricane Isbell dumped rain.
Skies cleared on Saturday, Oct. 17, and 8,000 jammed into South’s stadium. The Post reported it was the largest crowd ever to see a prep game in the county.
Fifty seconds in, South gave up its first points. Brown’s Keith Honeycutt spun through the line at his own 7, bounced off a tackle at the 12 and sprinted 93 yards, collapsing into the South end zone at the end of his long, six-point journey.
“Their first play, and they score,” Willett said, sadness lingering in his voice. “Put us behind the 8-ball.”
Willett pounded out 56 yards, but South lost 14-7.
Losses to Concord, WNCHSAA champ Thomasville and Statesville quickly followed.
South finished 6-4.
Willett went on to college, first at Catawba, then at N.C. State. He was working at Cannon Mills when he got an unexpected phone call from South. There was a vocational teaching position open, and it would also mean an assistant coaching role.
Would he be interested?
His answer was yes.
“I was fascinated with football from the time my father took me to Duke games when I was small,” Willett said. “I didn’t know what I’d teach, but I knew I still had that football itch.”
He joined head coach Reid Bradshaw’s staff in 1974. South struggled, the fourth straight year it had experienced tough times under Bradshaw. Fans, to put it nicely, were restless.
“Reid had played at South, and his staff was made up of South guys,” Willett said. “People were saying it was time to bring in someone from outside.”
But that 1974 team was the program-turner. Two goal-line stands won games. South took its last five in a row for the school’s first winning season in 10 years.
South was a force after that for a long time. From that finishing kick in 1974 until he stepped down after the 1982 season, Bradshaw’s teams went 72-20-2 and won five conference titles.
Willett would coach South’s running backs for 22 seasons. His prize pupils included ACC standouts Greg Poole and Michael Ramseur.
“It was satisfying to win coaching with guys I grew up with,” Willett said. “We played throwback football, even for that time. I’m sure we drove some fans crazy because it was conservative, run-the-ball football, but it was very sound football.”