Sturgis was Cavs’ standard for almost four decades

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 5, 2014

SPENCER — Mark Sturgis is in his mid-50s now, but he’s a teenager on Friday nights at North Rowan’s Eagle Stadium.
He’s on the field, in a sense, running the ball, making the cuts. That guy reaching for him has no chance because he’s one move ahead — already working on the next would-be tackler.
“I try to see the game through Jareke Chambers’ eyes,” Sturgis said. “He’s a runner like I was a runner. I see the field the same way he sees it. Jareke was hemmed in on the sideline one night, and everyone else thought he had nowhere to go. I said out loud, ‘He’s gone,’ and a second later he was.”
Chambers broke North Rowan’s career rushing record on Friday at Carson. Sturgis was intensely proud of his 3,259 career yards and with good reason. He set the mark in 1976. That was in the era when North Rowan was still a ground-and-pound team.
“Everywhere I went, people would ask me, ‘No one’s broke that record yet?’” Sturgis said. “It’s going to feel different next time I walk into North’s stadium. I was No. 1 almost 40 years.”
Sturgis also held the county rushing mark 27 years, until West Rowan’s Joe Jackson broke it in 2003. Then Wade Moore broke Jackson’s record. Then K.P. Parks pushed that record past the 10,000-yard barrier, a lofty place where it’s unlikely to be broken again.
Sturgis’ stats came in just 26 games as a running back, and he played in an era when a 28-21 game was considered a shootout. The South Piedmont and North Piedmont conferences were balanced, and 80 percent of the games were tight. Only division champs made the playoffs and seasons were 10 games long.
“Guys are bigger, stronger and faster now,’ Sturgis said. “But there were great players in my era. There was a huge heart factor in my era.”
Sturgis earned a starting linebacker job entering his sophomore season. He also was a backup running back. After Mayhew Cuthbertson was injured, Sturgis played both ways. He had 66 carries for 532 yards.
The Cavaliers were 5-5, 8-2 and 8-2 in Sturgis’ time but never saw the playoffs. The problem in the NPC was North Davidson, which had future Clemson and NFL star Perry Tuttle. The problem in the county was Salisbury. Sturgis’ teams lost three straight times to its neighbor.
“We were as talented as Salisbury, yet they had an intimidation factor over every team,” Sturgis said. “But I grew up with those guys and I wasn’t intimidated. Every game they’d tell me they were going to hold me under 100 yards. Every game I got at least 100.”
The 1976 game, his senior year, hurt the worst. That was a 2-0 loss to the Hornets.
“I ran 75 yards to score, but it was called back for holding, and then I ran 85 yards, and it was called back as well,” Sturgis said. “Then we fumbled. Then we snapped the ball out of our end zone on a punt.”
Sturgis had tremendous seasons as a two-way player in 1975 (1,613 rushing yards with three 200-yard games) and 1976 (1,114 rushing yards). In both 1975 and 1976, Sturgis was All-NPC at running back and linebacker and was named NPC Player of the Year.
Sturgis closed his high school career with a 230-yard rushing night against Mooresville. He was a normal-sized guy (5-foot-11, 180 pounds), but he was recruited by everyone. It broke his heart when North Rowan coach Larry Thomason told him he wasn’t picked for the Shrine Bowl team, but that pain was eased when North Carolina coaches stopped on their way back from the Shrine Bowl and signed him at his mother’s house.
Sturgis was a fan of the Tar Heels. He was a very good basketball player, and he had loved UNC since the first time he saw Charlie Scott make a jumpshot on TV.
Strurgis also loved head coach Bill Dooley and running backs coach Jim Donnan. He said no to Clemson, which had come after him hard and was building a national championship team.
After playing in the East-West All-Star Game, Sturgis was part of a memorable freshman class in Chapel Hill. It included linebacker Lawrence Taylor, tailback “Famous” Amos Lawrence and Steve Streater, a great athlete from the mountains in Sylva, who could’ve played almost any position.
“I was a pretty good running back, and I was eighth on the depth chart,” Sturgis said. “That’s how much talent we had. Coach Dooley wanted to move me to cornerback, and that was fine. I’d always played defense at North.”
Sturgis still wears his 1977 ACC championship ring from that freshman year.
But Dooley moved on to Virginia Tech after that, lured by a 10-year contract and the joint titles of football coach and athletic director. Dick Crum, a personality opposite of Dooley, was hired by UNC.
“Coach Crum said he was going to play the older guys,” Sturgis said. “I never saw eye-to-eye with him. I left school.”
If he had to do over, he would’ve stuck it out, but he came home, with the idea of playing for Catawba.
“But I was bitter and I got into trouble,” Sturgis said. “Then I went into the army.”
He was stationed at Fort Riley, close to Kansas State. He worked out fanatically. The plan was for him to walk on at Kansas State after his military service.
But he had a terrible injury playing service football. His right arm bears has a jagged scar that looks like he was hit by shrapnel, but it was actually an opponents’ knee.
“They had to put screws in my arm,” Sturgis said. “That was all for football.”
There was more bitterness followed by bad decisions.
His friend Streater was paralyzed in a car crash in 1981 shortly after signing with the Washington Redskins. That tragedy actually got Sturgis back on track.
“I went to see Steve and it hit me, ‘Why am I crying about not being able to play football when Steve can’t even walk,’ ” Sturgis said.
Sturgis found a management job in the fast-food industry and started a comeback.
Eventually he reconnected with North Rowan when his son, Mark Sturgis Jr., starred there. The younger Sturgis was a track standout as well as a running back who enjoyed a five-touchdown game in 2003.
Sturgis got a phone call not long ago from North Rowan grad Chris Sifford.
“Someone wants to talk to you,” Sifford said.
“It was Perry Tuttle and he told me that the two players from our era people still talked about were (Lexington’s) Joe McIntosh — and me,” Sturgis said. “That was a phone call that made me feel good.”
Sturgis’ life has come full circle. He runs a catering business and is on track to get his college degree this spring from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
“I’m from a smart family of teachers, engineers and doctors,” Sturgis said. “It’s just something I wanted to do.”
He said goodbye to his rushing record at North Rowan last Friday, but there were no tears. It was time to pass the torch.
“I went down and found Jareke, and I gave him a bear-hug,” Sturgis said. ”He’s a gifted kid.”
Follow Mike London on Twitter at @mikelondonpost3.