Prep Football Legend: Robertson was part of the ‘Airport’
By Mike London
The 1997 football season produced one of the best East Rowan teams in school history and one of the best A.L. Brown teams in school history.
Many recall that East (10-3), eventual 3A state champion A.L. Brown (15-1) and Concord (12-2) finished in a three-way tie for the South Piedmont Conference championship that season.
What isn’t often remembered is that 2A North Rowan slugged it out with the Wonders (a close loss) and the Mustangs (a thrilling win). It was the heyday of coach Roger Secreast’s “Airport” in Spencer, and the Cavaliers feared no one.
The Cavaliers, Central Carolina Conference co-champs, finished that injury-plagued season a modest 8-5, but everyone who played against them, remembers them.
A senior receiver named Omar Robertson emerged that year, along with fellow receiver J.R. Neely and a young quarterback named Mario Sturdivant.
Robertson’s father (Robert Henderson) was a running back, but he traces his interest in football mostly to his church.
“Shady Grove Baptist,” Robertson said. “The guys I looked up to most were athletes at church — Jamel Aldrich, Ed Suber, Lamont Tucker. They got me involved.”
Robertson was a decent defensive back as a ninth-grader.
Then his time in Rowan was interrupted by a move to Rock Hill, S.C. His sophomore year was spent at Northwestern High, a perennial football power, where he played with some big-time recruits.
He returned to North for his junior year and joined forces with his brother Greg Yeldell, a spectacular jumper, who played running back and linebacker.
“I got a lot stronger and a lot faster while I was in South Carolina,” Robertson said. “When Coach Secreast saw me before my junior year, he was like, ‘What in the world were they feeding you?'”
Robertson’s junior season (1996), senior Craig Powers was a fine QB, and North’s 8-4 record included losses to 4A Mount Tabor, A.L. Brown and Albemarle.
Robertson started to come into his own with a five-catch effort in a loss to Starmount in the playoffs. For the season, on a team with a lot of good receivers, he had 21 catches for 277 yards and one TD.
Bobby Myers was the quarterbacks coach at North Rowan, and Robertson recalls that it was Myers who told him Sturdivant was going to be North’s next great quarterback.
“Bobby took some of us over to 8th Street Ballpark to see this kid pitch in a baseball game,” Robertson said. “It was Mario. We could see that he could throw it.”
The 1997 season did not begin well for Sturdivant, who was only a sophomore. In a 19-6 loss to Albemarle, Sturdivant was 9-for-28 for 141 yards and was picked off three times. Meanwhile, East Rowan was debuting with an impressive 31-0 romp against 4A South Rowan.
North took on the Mustangs in Week 2.
“Oh, man, all we heard all week in the paper was ‘Mustang Mania,'” Robertson said with a laugh. “East had a lot of size, but the guy that worried us was Nick Heard. He was a very fast receiver, and he could catch a little slant and go 90 yards.”
North defensive coordinator Robert Steele is an East graduate, and he was extra-energetic that week.
“He fired us up, turned us up,” Robertson said. “All week our coaches talked up 87, 87, 87. That was Heard’s number. (North defender) Richard Hailey was supposed to knock Heard into the middle of next week.”
It was a phenomenal game. North won, 40-28.
Heard caught two touchdown passes, but the Cavaliers intercepted four passes.
Sturdivant was intercepted three times, but he broke records, throwing for 414 yards and five touchdowns. Neely and Robertson combined for 374 receiving yards. That was the breakout game for Robertson — five catches, 175 yards and two TDs. Like Heard, he caught slants, and no one was catching him.
“They came out in man-to-man coverage, just mano-a-mano,” Robertson said. “East was a physically strong team, but we used our speed and we used the brain of Coach Secreast to get the win.”
The next week, North lost 34-32, to West Rowan, even though Sturdivant threw five touchdown passes to Neely. After a win against South Rowan, the Cavaliers were 2-2 when they squared off with the Wonders and Nick Maddox, the state’s top player.
North lost, 29-22, despite a huge night by Robertson. He had nine catches for 151 yards and scored two TDs.
“I remember sitting there at halftime with J.R. Neely, we were down, and Coach Steele told us we needed a play,” Robertson said. “The first play of the second half I was able to take a screen 80 yards.”
The Cavaliers won their first three CCC games against Salisbury, Ledford and Lexington. Next was a showdown with High Point Central, ranked No. 1 in the state (2A).
“They’d come down from 3A that year and they were considered the top dogs,” Robertson said. “We got rained out that Friday, so we played them on a Saturday.”
Robertson was shut out in the first half, but Neely kept the Cavaliers in the game. The second half belonged to Sturdivant and Robertson (five catches, 112 yards). North beat the Bison, 42-28.
“Mario was young, but I’d never seen anyone so young who also was so level-headed,” Robertson said. “He found the mismatches like he was a coach.”
Injuries to Sturdivant, Neely (broken wrist) and Robertson (broken knuckle) derailed the Cavaliers down the stretch. Late in the season, with their passing game wiped out, the “Airport” was running the wishbone.
Still, Robertson put up a senior season — 52 catches, 941 yards, nine TDs — among the best in school history. The yardage total still ranks as the third-best by a Cavalier for a single season.
Robertson walked on to play at Livingstone in the late 1990s when the Blue Bears were strong, and his next goal was a coaching career.
He coached football for a decade at Salisbury High, North Rowan and Livingstone, but when he became a family man, more reasonable hours were appealing. Now he works in finance in Greensboro for Hendrick Automotive Group.
He has three children, ranging from a 3-month-old to an 8-year-old, who is a budding athlete.
“She’s feisty,” Robertson said.
Robertson’s family connections to Rowan County are still strong. So are his emotional connections.
“I still look up to Coach Steele and to Chris Sifford, and (Salisbury basketball coach) Bryan Withers is my uncle,” Robertson said. “I work with young people as much I can. I want them to stay on track and do the right things. We all made mistakes. We can help them not make the same ones.”