Prep Football Legend: Jeff Gryder quarterbacked the ‘Southerners’
By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — Jeff Gryder died last August at 62, but his contributions to South Rowan athletics during a challenging period in the early 1970s are remembered.
Gryder’s last game in a South Rowan uniform came on a baseball field, May 16, 1972, with average teams from South and Salisbury playing out the string in the season finale in Landis. Neither team had any hope of advancing to the playoffs.
Still, that game must have meant a great deal to Gryder because he stayed on the mound, not just for the standard seven innings, but for the eighth, the ninth, and then the 10th.
It’s likely that Gryder, who struck out 11 while dodging seven hits and four walks, kept telling his coach, the late Jerry Pless, that he had one more inning in him. And then one more. And then one more after that. No one worried about pitch-counts in those days.
It was in the bottom of the 10th that South finally won that game, 1-0. Clint’s younger brother, Brad, the shortstop, scored the run, racing home from second base on a base hit by Steve Shipwash.
Gryder had a difficult time with Salisbury’s hard-hitting outfielder Craige Hilliard in that game. Hilliard went 3-for-5 and was a reason Gryder had to pitch out of bases-loaded jams in the first inning and in the top of the 10th. In the eighth inning, Salisbury had runners at second and third when Jeff calmly got the third out.
“Jeff was an easy-going guy off the field, but a super-competitive guy on it,” said former teammate Dennis Stamey. “He could throw the ball hard and he could throw it a country mile.”
Gryder went 7-3 for a South team that finished 8-8. He was first team all-county, and there were some good athletes in the county.
Stamey who graduated in the spring of 1971, was a year ahead of Gryder at South, but they spent countless hours together in an era when good athletes were expected to play all three major sports. They practiced together, together played together, rode buses together and double-dated together. They were cut from the same cloth. Both were average-sized quarterbacks and strong-armed pitchers. Both were also usually on the bench on the South basketball team, although Stamey, a good shooter, turned in a respectable senior year on the hardwood.
“Jeff and I passed a lot of jokes along,” Stamey said. “But he was serious when it was time to be serious. He really was a great all-round athlete. He could’ve played about any position.”
Gryder’s best position on the football field was defensive back. There wasn’t much doubt about that. There was a fearlessness about him. Defensive back is the position he played as a junior, even though he also was listed as Stamey’s backup at quarterback.
“Jeff had an uncanny ability to read passes and to knock down passes,” Stamey said. “And he was a fierce tackler. He’d stick his face right in there. He’d knock your jock off.”
South endured a difficult 1970 football season when Gryder was a junior, going 1-9, with the lone victory coming by forfeit. That was Lope Linder’s last season as head coach at South. It also was the last year the school’s sports team would be known as Rebels.
Reid Bradshaw, who had been an assistant coach under Linder, was named head coach for the 1971 season.
“There was a lot of unrest, there had been some racial problems, and it was a difficult time at South,” Bradshaw said. “With all the uproar, changing the mascot, some of the players didn’t come out that could’ve helped us. We were trying to turn things around, trying to turn the corner, and it was hard to do that in the South Piedmont Conference.”
South’s 10-game schedule for 1971 didn’t offer a great deal of hope.
Eight games were against teams in the South Piedmont Conference which included Lexington, Concord, Salisbury, Albemarle, Thomasville, Asheboro, A.L. Brown and Statesville.
The two non-conference games were against East Rowan,riding a long streak of success in the North Piedmont Conference, and South Point, which had one of the state’s best players in running back Scott Crawford. South Point would go 12-0-1 that year, with the tie coming against Salisbury High in the Western North Carolina High School Activities Association championship game.
For South Rowan, the 1971 season would be a transition year from Rebels to Raiders. The Post referred to South at the beginning of the 1971 football season, simply as, the Southerners.
Bradshaw picked Gryder as his first starting quarterback.
“I’d known Jeff a long time before he was in high school,” Bradshaw said. “Jeff was coachable. He was one of those guys who was never a problem. He was going to play wherever you asked him to play and do whatever you asked him to do without any complaints.”
Bradshaw’s first game as South’s head coach was a stunning success. East had graduated the passing combination of quarterback C.M. Yates and receiver Johnny Yarbrough and other players who had been part of three straight NPC championships, but East was still good. Tthe Mustangs were still coached by W.A. Cline and they would win their division in the NPC that season.
South had suffered the tragic loss of lineman and captain Mike Daniels shortly before the season, and honoring him that night contributed to the emotion South played with throughout that game. Gryder had a very solid debut, throwing two short touchdown passes to end Gray Barker, and South won 27-14. It was the first on-the-field loss in a regular season game for East since 1968.
South came close in its next outing, losing 19-14 to Lexington. Gryder ran for a touchdown and threw a touchdown pass.
But South Rowan hit the toughest part of its schedule next, losing 42-6 to South Point. Next came shutout losses to Concord and Salisbury back-to-back, and South was starting to wear down.
A 10-7 squeaker against Albemarle on Oct. 8 — Rick Brafford rushed 31 times for 169 yards to lead the way — provided South’s second and final win and its lone SPC victory.
But then came more shutouts. South didn’t score in its final four games against Thomasville, Asheboro, A.L. Brown and Statesville.
The final numbers for Gryder weren’t pretty. He was fourth in the county passing stats with 426 yards, completing 28 of 117 aerials. He was intercepted 21 times.
Still, he fought through that grinding schedule, ignoring the bruises and losses, and he helped lay the foundation for better times to come.
South would go 6-29-1 in Bradshaw’s first three and a half seasons, but South moved over to the NPC in 1973, where it had a better chance to compete. South won its final five games in 1974 and won a pivotal, program-changing game against East Rowan early in the 1975 season.
After that, the Raiders were on their way. They piled up championships in the second half of the 1970s. They also were big winners through the 1980s, with Bradshaw turning the reins over to Larry Deal in 1983.
Gryder could fix anything and he became a successful electrical engineer.
His contributions to South athletics continued well into the 1990s, when he and his wife Shelia’s sons, Clint and Matt, wore the red and black.
Both the boys played football, but like their father, baseball is where they excelled most. Clint as a pitcher; Matt as a catcher.
Inevitably, whenever Clint pitched, Jeff’s good-natured but commanding voice could be heard when the first borderline strike of the night was deemed a ball by the plate umpire.
“If you’re an umpire,” Jeff would bark at the top of his lungs, “then the woods are full of them.”
In 1996, South set a school record for baseball wins with 23. Dwayne Fink was the head coach. His ace pitcher was Clint Gryder. Clint went 11-0 that season and made the All-State team.
“I have no doubt Clint learned a lot about pitching from his dad,” Stamey said.