Prep Football: Friday Night Legend: Jerry Sifford
SALISBURY — Chris Sifford, a spectacular multi-sport athlete at North Rowan in the late 1980s, advised us this was the perfect week to track down his father, Jerry.
“Dad just had elbow surgery,” Chris said. “So he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”
Sure enough, we caught up with the swift halfback who eluded so many defenders in 1968 and 1969 when East Rowan football was enjoying its golden gridiron era.
Fans still remember quarterback C.M. Yates and receiver Johnny Yarbrough — and with good reason. But at the core of East’s success under coach W.A. Cline (a three-year run of 31-4-1) was a ball-control offense and a lockdown defense.
Sifford teamed with all-county fullback Vernon Bernhardt in 1968, and then with all-county fullback Randy Sheffield in 1969 to give the Mustangs a running game that was frequently devastating.
Through the 10th grade, Sifford attended school at Dunbar in East Spencer, but integration brought change.
“By 1968, we had busing, and you were supposed to go the school you were closest to,” Sifford explained. “We lived in Granite Quarry, so I went to East that year. I’d always been a quarterback growing up, but that’s the year they made me a running back.”
Sifford’s outside speed proved to be the last piece to the puzzle for a rising program. The Mustangs had gone 5-5 in Cline’s first season in 1967, but expectations were higher for 1968 with the addition of Yates as a touted sophomore QB.
Those Mustangs got off to a fast start. Sifford rushed 16 times for 69 yards in his East debut, a 27-14 opening-night win against South Rowan.
He followed up with a fine outing against West Rowan, the first of five straight defensive-minded wins for East. It was 7-2 against West; 7-6 against Davie County; 13-12 over North Davidson; 12-7 vs. North Rowan, and 13-7 against Mooresville, a breakthrough triumph against a school the Mustangs had never beaten.
Part of the Mustangs’ offensive struggles were due to a dislocated shoulder that Sifford suffered. He missed three games, and that prevented him from putting up huge numbers for the season.
“We had enough talent to two-platoon and we really had a fantastic defense with guys like Willie Lowe, June Sifford (Jerry’s cousin) and Johnny Brown,” Sifford said. “Brown was tough — we called him ‘Pine Knot.’ ”
It’s not always remembered that the 1968 Mustangs won their first six before surprisingly being stuffed 19-0 by South Iredell.
It initially appeared that setback might cost East the NPC title, but the Mustangs moved back on top of the league when North Rowan knocked off North Stanly.
The fact that Sifford’s shoulder improved was also a boost. He enjoyed a career game the week following the loss to South Iredell, romping for 214 yards and three TDs on just 10 carries as the Mustangs crushed North Iredell 55-0. One of Sifford’s romps went for 83 yards.
East used a pivotal goal-line stand for an 8-7 victory against North Stanly in Week 9 and sewed up the first conference title in school history by blasting Central Davidson 47-0 in the regular season finale.
Central was another big game for Sifford. He broke a 73-yard scoring jaunt on his first touch and had two TDs in the first five minutes. He sat down early with 112 yards on 12 carries.
While the 1968 season ended for East (9-2) with a 25-21 loss to Thomasville in the first round of the WNCHSAA playoffs, even that setback was partially positive. Down 19-0 at one point against the powerful Bulldogs, East had fought almost all the way back.
While East was expected to be stout in 1969, the season began with adversity.
Rowan County had won the American Legion baseball state championship to qualify for the Southeast Regional, and four East football players, including Yates and Yarbrough, were a key part of that run. By the time they returned, the football season was about to get under way.
On top of that, Yates had sustained a concussion in the regional. A pitcher, he’d been covering the plate after a wild pitch, and a sliding runner had upended him. He landed on his head.
Yates actually missed the first three games of that magical season. East also didn’t have Yarbrough available for the opener because he hadn’t yet been able to put in the state’s required number of football practice days.
With Mike Bernhardt operating at quarterback, East breezed past Trinity 36-0 opening night, but South Rowan was next, and what would eventually become a perfect year for East was nearly blemished in Week 2.
South held a precarious 3-0 lead — another goal-line stand by the Mustangs had forced South to settle for a field goal — but it appeared those three points would be enough when South star Jay Bradshaw boomed a soaring, 53-yard punt to the East 9 with barely two minutes left in the game.
Dan Lesley’s punt return enabled East to start its drive at the 22.
The first play the Mustangs called was a conservative one. Had Yates been in the huddle, they’d have gone to the air, but that option wasn’t available.
“It was a play we called ‘Quick 5,’ ” Sifford recalls. “I was to take the handoff and look to go off the right guard. A lot of times on that play we’d get 10 — maybe even 15 yards.”
On this occasion, the Mustangs got 78. It’s the play Sifford remembers best from his career. Steve Staton and Al Lentz threw springing blocks, and suddenly Sifford was sprinting free with green grass in front of him.
“I went right down the middle with lots of boys chasing me,” Sifford said with a laugh. “I kept expecting someone to catch me, but no one never did.”
Looking back 42 years later, Sifford’s dash was one of the defining moments in that perfect season.
East survived West Rowan 12-6 the next week, and then Yates returned for a rain-delayed Monday game against Davie. He threw three TD passes to Yarbrough that night, East won 43-14, and the Mustangs didn’t look back.
Sifford would produce 100-yard rushing nights after that against North Davidson and North Stanly. For the season, he and Sheffield would rank No. 2 and No. 3 in the county in rushing.
“I was very fast and Sheffield was good,” Sifford said. “When I was healthy, I’d get us 80 yards. We had a strong offensive line, and we ran the ball so well it opened up C.M. and Johnny for the passing game.”
It was the perfect storm, a lot like West Rowan’s modern champions. East could run it or throw it and it could stop the opposition.
Sifford missed the Mooresville game that year with a sprained ankle. He hobbled through the stretch run, but he still contributed his share to the glory-coated wins against Concord and Shelby that brought Rowan County its first WNCHSAA title and its first 13-0 season.
With Jerry hurting, East elevated his brother Ken, a sophomore, from the jayvees to the varsity to help out at running back, and he also had his moments.
“I was real banged up and my brother had to do some running for me, but that was OK,” Jerry said. “You didn’t get rings back then, but they did give us trophies. It was a pretty great season.”