Friday Night Legend: Landis' Ken Orbison

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 17, 2011

KANNAPOLIS — To A.L. Brown’s football players, their affable, white-haired 71-year-old equipment manager is just plain “Orbi.”
“I’m pretty sure none of these kids know my real name,” Ken Orbison says.
But in the late 1950s, Orbison was a household name in Rowan County. He was a three-sport athlete at Landis High in a time when just about every athlete was a three-sport guy.
“Well, I wasn’t much of a basketball player,” Orbison. “Just played because they asked me to play.”
The record book says otherwise. He averaged double figures for the Yellow Jackets.
Baseball was his best sport. He played in the minor leagues from 1960-62 and was on the New York Mets Triple-A roster for a little while. If not for a letter from Uncle Sam, he might’ve gone all the way to the bigs as a shortstop, but Orbison shrugs and says he wouldn’t take anything for the time he spent in the U.S. Army in Germany. He spent most of his service time playing for crack baseball teams.
“I told them I had played pro ball, and they sent me to see the special-assignments officer,” Orbison said. “I told him my name and he reached in his desk for a book that had every guy in pro ball listed in there. Then he says, ‘Hey, you weren’t kidding,’ and they had me on the baseball team after that.”
But this is a story mostly about football and Orbison’s days as the tailback in Landis’ single-wing offense. Orbison wasn’t nearly as affable in those days.
If he was on your side, you said he was a competitor. If not, you said he was an ornery son-of-a-gun.
The combining of Landis and China Grove into South Rowan High was still a few years away, and in the late 1950s, both Landis and China Grove competed separately in the South Piedmont Conference with bigger schools such as Albemarle, A.L. Brown, Concord and Mooresville.
Landis’ biggest rival was always China Grove, with the Wonders coming in second, but Orbison’s personal duel was with Mooresville.
“Now that was like an ongoing feud,” he said. “ One year, they sent word that they were going to get me, and they did their best. Every time they tackled me — we just had those one-bar facemasks then — they’d try to claw my face out. Well, one guy piled on me and started to claw, and I finally retaliated. I punched him in the face and they threw me out of the game. That was about the only time I ever came off the field.”
Orbison wasn’t sure, but that … uh, let’s just call it an incident, must have happened his junior season because his senior year he just lit up the Blue Devils.
A quieter highlight of his junior season was his 76-yard punt return for a touchdown against Spencer.
There was also the night A.L. Brown’s Glenn Compton blindsided him and knocked him right into the bleachers that lined the field at the old ballpark before Kannapolis’ Memorial Stadium opened.
“Now he was an animal,” Orbison said. “He had to be 250 pounds, and I’d never seen anyone that big move that fast.”
Orbison’s senior season was 1958, and it was a year in which the Yellow Jackets went 6-2-2 and challenged for the SPC championship.
They had big guys that year — guys like center Oscar Overcash, who would star in the Shrine Bowl and start for N.C. State.
They had talented backs, not just Orbison, but future Lenoir-Rhyne hero Howard Barnhardt, Marshall Murphy and Lamont Goodman.
Besides being the tailback, Orbison played safety on defense, handled the punting and was the kick returner. Like he said, other than ejections, he didn’t come off the field.
The season began with a hard-fought 13-6 loss to Concord that put Landis in a hole in the SPC race, but coach Bill Kluttz’s troops bounced back to whip Monroe 39-0.
China Grove was next.
“Now that was always a dog-eat-dog game,” Orbison said.
It was mostly Orbison’s game in 1958. He ran for three touchdowns, including a scamper on which he reversed his field and dashed 77 yards past Red Devils.
The following week, Landis scrapped to a 0-0 tie with A.L. Brown.
But then the Yellow Jackets’ schedule softened.
Landis mauled North Mecklenburg — yes, North Mecklenburg — 40-0. Orbison threw three touchdown passes to Goodman in that one, and Goodman rushed for his fourth TD.
North Meck made two first downs. Landis rushed for 475 yards. It was that big of a mismatch, and North Meck probably didn’t appreciate the TD pass Orbison threw to Rudy Wise with just two seconds left to play.
A 53-7 rout of Winecoff was next. Orbison added two more TD runs, including an 86-yard gallop.
Mooresville was next, and Orbison had probably never been more ready to play in a game in all his life.
According to the Post’s description of the action, Orbison took a snap on the first play of the night, twisted through three would-be tacklers and was finally wrestled down after a 59-yard gain.
He passed for two touchdowns and ran for another. Landis romped 40-0.
North Rowan was next, and the Cavaliers, who were in their first year of football competition, were no match for Landis. Orbison scored twice in a 45-0 romp, and Landis had outscored its last four foes 178-7.
Landis was in contention for a title and fans couldn’t have been more fired up for the game against league-leading Albemarle.
But that was the night Albemarle’s legendary coach Toby Webb recorded his 100th career victory. Albemarle’s great back Roger Smith, headed to North Carolina, scored the game’s only TD, and the Bulldogs prevailed 7-0.
That game took some steam from Landis, and it finished the season with a disappointing 6-6 tie against East Mecklenburg.
That game was played on “Moms and Dads Night” in Landis. They didn’t call it “Senior Night” then, but Orbison and 11 teammates played their final prep football game.
Orbison moved on to Presbyterian Junior College in Maxton to play baseball (that school became St. Andrews after a move to Laurinburg), and it wasn’t hard for a pro scout to sign him.
“Bonus? It didn’t take any money,” Orbison said. “I didn’t ask for money. I just wanted a chance to play.”
In 1960, Orbison batted .280 as a shortstop for the Newton-Conover Twins in the Western Carolinas League. He even pitched in six games.
Hall of Famer Enos “Country” Slaughter was a player/manager for the Raleigh Capitals in 1961 and wanted Orbison on his team. He hit 13 homers that year.
He spent the 1962 season playing for the Santa Barbara Rancheros in the California League. He belted 12 homers and batted .260, but that letter from Uncle Sam came not long after that.
The years have flown by.
Orbison, who has worked with coach Empsy Thompson’s A.L. Brown pitchers for a decade, has no regrets, and he loves his current job, working and laughing with guys like Bob Farris and Keith Hodge in the battle to keep all the Wonders — and there are a lot of them — properly equipped.
“We dressed 88 kids last Friday, and that’s a whole lot of work for us,” Orbison said. “But I love it. I wouldn’t last long sitting at home on the couch. Doing this helps keep me young.”