Obituary: China Grove’s Danny Safriet
By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — A little guy with a lion’s heart, China Grove High teammates affectionately referred to Danny Safriet as “Sawed Off.”
Over the course of Safriet’s athletic career with China Grove’s Red Devils, “Sawed Off” gradually morphed into “Solder.”
Soldering is a process in which things are joined together by melting and putting a filler metal into the joint. That was Safriet, the solder, the glue, that held the Red Devils together through their undefeated 1951 football season. No one saw that coming. Not when rival Landis High had Bill Barnes in the backfield.
“I think ‘Solder’ was a tribute to Danny’s strength and ability to keep his team stuck together,” said Jim Morton, a co-captain for the 1951 Red Devils who started at center and linebacker. “Most of us had to play both ways — although we enjoyed it.”
Safriet passed away in Columbia, Md. his adopted home, on Friday. He has a sister, Sybil, who still lives in China Grove. It’s a small town. Word quickly spread through church congregations and down Main Street that Danny had passed away.
“You build life-long bonds on the football field,” Morton said. “And I’d still see Danny some when he came home to visit his sister.”
A lot of years have passed since the glory days of the 1951 Red Devils. Safriet was 81. Morton says he’s halfway between 82 and 83.
“A lot of the guys are gone now,” Morton said. “But there are about 15 of us — men and ladies from China Grove High — who still get together regularly for breakfast.”
The story of the 1951 Red Devils starts with coach Don Kelly. Kelly served in the U.S. Army during World War II, came down from Altoona, Pa., to play end for the devastating Catawba College football teams coached by Gordon Kirkland in the late 1940s and earned a masters in P.E. from the University of North Carolina.
Then Kelly became director of boys athletics at China Grove High. That meant he was the basketball coach, baseball coach and head football coach, as well as AD.
It was a small school. Morton recalls he was part of a graduating class of 72.
Kelly was supposed to have an assistant football coach in 1951, but Ken Huffman resigned shortly before the season began to go into business. That left Kelly on his own.
Kelly had played for Kirkland, so he believed in the the single wing offense. Morton recalls that a few T-formation plays also were in the playbook. Morton began the season in the backfield.
“But I got beat out for my position by Norman Beaver,” Morton said. “Coach moved me to center, and that was fine. I liked it.”
The triggerman for China Grove’s offense was Safriet, who ran or threw for at least one touchdown in every game.
One of the ends was Bob Mauldin, who would go on to considerable fame in the wrestling world.
The Red Devils’ most talented player was Jerry Mauldin, a guard, linebacker and kicker. He’d go on to play guard for the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears.
China Grove opened the season with an easy 31-0 win against Cleveland, but the second game promised to be a sterner test. It was against an orphanage, Mills Home of Thomasville. Mills Home had just lost to a strong Concord team, 13-7.
“We never looked forward to playing Mills,” Morton said. “Orphans were just tough people, I guess because they had to be.”
China Grove won, 19-7. Tommy Faggart and Glenn Carter broke touchdown runs. The key play was a 60-yard touchdown pass by Safriet to Bill Carter.
“Danny was a fire-plug kind of guy, but he seemed to be able to see over the tallest defense to complete passes,” Morton said. “I don’t know how he did it.”
Next was Rockwell. Safriet got a TD. Glenn Carter scored twice. Beaver had a 56-yard scoring run in a 25-0 victory. China Grove was 3-0.
The game against Mount Pleasant on Oct. 12 began with a disaster on the first play from scrimmage. China Grove tried some razzle-dazzle, and Mount Pleasant intercepted a lateral and took it for a touchdown.
But China Grove put up the next 31 points. Safriet scored three touchdowns.
The game at Mocksville was wild, with Faggart, Morton and Don Smith all thrown out for what was deemed “rough play.” China Grove still won easily, 38-0.
Beaver scored three TDs. John Mayhew, who replaced Faggart, scored two.
China Grove’s game against Granite Quarry was touted by the Post as the first serious test for the Red Devils. It was a tough game all right, but China Grove won it, 13-7. Safriet scored one TD. China Grove was 6-0.
Concord’s Hartsell High was supposed to be next for China Grove, but it rained for a solid week. With the showdown with neighbor Landis looming, China Grove canceled the Hartsell game. Landis was supposed to play Mooresville, but that game was postponed so Landis could focus on China Grove.
Landis had dropped one game, the season opener against Winecoff, but speedy backs Barnes and Bill Hare — known as the “Two Bills Show” — had run roughshod over Landis’ next five opponents, including North Meck and East Meck.
Landis had crushed China Grove in 1950, so the Yellow Jackets, playing on their home field, were about a two-touchdown favorite. It was an 8 p.m. game on Nov. 9, played in front of a packed house.
China Grove’s Don Smith sacked Barnes for a 25-yard loss, and China Grove won the battle in the trenches. The Red Devils had eight first downs to just four for Landis.
Still, Landis scored first, in the second quarter, with Hare scurrying for a score and kicking the PAT for a 7-0 halftime lead.
It was still 7-0, late in the fourth quarter, when Safriet eluded a tackler and streaked around left end for 30 yards to the Landis 6.
Beaver got the ball the next three plays. On third-and-goal, the crowd howling, Beaver made it to the 1-foot line. On fourth down, Safriet punched into the end zone on a sneak. Jerry Mauldin kicked the critical point for a 7-all tie.
Landis was driving hard when time expired.
Landis also had an apparent touchdown called back because of a flag for offsides. Barnes had hit J.C. Scercy on a beautiful, 50-yard pass play.
“We were lucky to get out of there by the skin of our teeth with a tie,” Morton said. “But it was a tie we were proud of.”
Landis still had one game to play, but it had left something on the field, physically and emotionally, against China Grove. Landis fell to Mooresville, 14-0, in its weather-delayed finale.
The Landis game, the greatest of their careers, was the last one for the senior Red Devils. They were 6-0-1 and were declared Rowan County co-champions, along with Landis, by the Post.
“We kept bugging Coach Kelly to get us a playoff game,” Morton said with a chuckle. “But I think we were all secretly crossing our fingers that he wouldn’t. We wanted the Landis game to be our last.”
The Post named a 1951 All-Tri-County team for players from Cooleemee, Mocksville, Winecoff, Hartsell, Mount Pleasant, Cleveland, Rockwell, Granite Quarry, Landis and China Grove.
Safriet was edged out by Winecoff’s Gene Carter for first-team quarterback, but Safriet and Morton were both on the second team.
The Red Devils had outscored opponents, 165-27. They posted three shutouts.
When Kelly was recognized by the Post as Tri-County Coach of the Year, he singled out one Red Devil above all the others. That was Safriet, his cool-headed field general.
Safriet, who also played baseball and basketball for the Red Devils, and Morton both went to N.C. State. Both studied engineering.
“Danny always had a smile and a chuckle,” Morton said. “I can attest to his fine character and he was a great athlete.”
Most of Safriet’s working life was spent with the Army Corps of Engineers. He settled in Columbia, Md.