Sports obituary: Stratton was integral part of Catawba for decades

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 8, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — John Harvey Stratton Jr. died at 91 on Sept. 29 at Ocean Isle Beach.

Seventy years ago, the linebacker had quite a day on the football field for the Catawba Indians. Stratton intercepted three passes as Catawba upset Appalachian 14-13.

Stratton had nine interceptions in all in the fall of 1953, his senior season.

The term “pick-six” hadn’t been invented yet, but Stratton had more than his share. His banner 1953 season included a 46-yard interception return for Catawba’s only points in a 13-6 loss to East Carolina.

That 1953 season was a critical year for Catawba, as head coach Clyde Biggers made the switch from the single wing to the T-formation. Catawba lost its opening game 44-0 to VMI, as fans lamented the change, but the Indians progressed so much that they beat rival Lenoir-Rhyne 14-0 on Thanksgiving to close a respectable season.

Stratton also could kick in a time when PATs weren’t automatic and games often were decided by scores such as 13-12 or 14-13. In Catawba’s surprising 21-all deadlock with Elon, Stratton calmly kicked the three extra points.

As a player, Stratton made the Catawba record book mostly for his interceptions. He had 19 in his career (1950-53). That total stood as the program record for 27 years and he is credited with a 96-yard runback of an interception against Lenoir-Rhyne.

One of Catawba’s co-captains in 1953, Stratton made the All-North State Conference team, the All-State team and was Honorable Mention Little All-America. He received the Capitol Theatre Award as the Indians’ most outstanding player.

Stratton was a charismatic fellow who inspired admiration rather than jealousy from teammates and classmates. Off the field, he was the president of the clubs he was a member of and he was the annual winner of Catawba superlatives such as “Class Favorite.”

Stratton no doubt would have made the Catawba Sports Hall of Fame for his deeds as a football player, but he also excelled as a hard-hitting baseball captain, a dependable third baseman at Newman Park, and he is remembered fondly for what he did for Catawba as a professor, coach and administrator after his playing days were over.

Stratton was born in 1932, depression days, in Morganton. He became a star athlete there before arriving at Catawba.

He completed his military service in the U.S. Army — he was stationed primarily at a medical facility in San Antonio — and earned a master’s degree in education at the University of North Carolina before being hired by Catawba as head baseball coach and assistant football coach in 1957.

After coming back  to Salisbury, he coached the Salisbury American Legion baseball team and he served as a pro baseball scout.

He guided winning Catawba baseball teams, taught anatomy and P.E. classes and inspired enough confidence in his coaching ability that Catawba elevated him to head football coach in December 1961. That announcement was a pleasant Christmas present for Stratton, who had a wife (Carolyn) and two children (Johnny and Cindy). Stratton was 29 when Catawba AD Earl Ruth announced the hire. He would serve as head football coach of the Indians until 1972.

In 1963, Stratton became Catawba’s AD and had golf added to his coaching duties, but at he was able to step away from baseball.

The 1963 football season would be an epic one for the Catawba Indians, as the young head coach led a turnaround from a 3-6-1 season in 1962 to 6-3. That was Catawba’s first championship season in football since 1947.

Catawba posted four shutouts, had a stunning win against Davidson in the opener, beat Elon on homecoming and won against Lenoir-Rhyne on Thanksgiving. Even the three losses, including a 36-33 setback against Appalachian, were thrillers that went to the wire.

Stratton was honored as coach of the year by the Carolinas Conference and by District 26 after the 1963 season, and he had the satisfaction of seeing Catawba’s star receiver Bucky Pope being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams.

On the field, that 1963 season would be the peak for the Indians during his coaching tenure, but Stratton led the Indians admirably through challenging years, as Catawba’s football program was integrated. Ike Hill, Catawba’s first Black football player, debuted in 1965. Hill’s presence wasn’t welcomed at every school on Catawba’s schedule, but Stratton was always in his corner. If a team refused to play against Hill, then Catawba’s team would stay home.

Stratton stepped down from football coaching following the 1972 season. That was a 5-5 season for the Indians, but they won their last three, concluding Stratton’s career with an emotional victory over Lenoir-Rhyne in his final game.

The Indians’ record was 50-58 for his 11 football seasons.

Stratton continued his service as Catawba AD until 1982. That’s when he made a transition to the development office. He served there until his retirement in 1998.

He was inducted into the Catawba Sports Hall of Fame in 1984 and was part of the inaugural class inducted into the South Atlantic Conference Hall of Fame in 1999.

The family asks with gratitude that memorials in Stratton’s name be made to Catawba College Athletic Department, 2300 W. Innes St., Salisbury, NC 28144.