AUBURN, Ala. -- Ron Yarbrough didn’t shy away from contact on a football field. He relished it, in fact.
Hit ’em hard, hit ’em high and tell ’em about it -- that was his philosophy.
“And I told them if they came back, they’d get the same thing,” he said with a chuckle. “A little bit worse.”
It’s an attitude that helped the former Columbus High and Auburn standout earn a spot in the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame’s class of 2011.
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The other members of that class include Dr. Champ Baker Jr., Claude English, Wendell Barr and Joe Harrell. The ceremony will be held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center on Saturday.
“The people who were selected are really outstanding individuals,” Yarbrough said. “And I’m real honored to be associated with all the people that I know of that have already gone into the hall.”
Yarbrough, 64, was a prep and college standout. A two-time All-Bi City Lineman of the Year at Columbus High, he was the first Columbus-area high school All-American, being named to the Scholastic Magazine, Parade Magazine and McDonald’s All-American teams his senior year in 1964-65.
That recognition led him to Auburn, where he played from 1965-69 for Ralph “Shug” Jordan’s teams, first on the freshman team and later on the varsity, teaming up with future NFLer Mike Kolen to form what the Auburn football guide still refers to as the “best pair of inside linebackers in Auburn history.”
“His greatest attribute was his dedication and work ethic,” said Sam Mitchell, Yarbrough’s coach first at Columbus and later at Auburn. “No one was going to out-hustle him on the field or in the offseason training. In my four years of high school and 14 years of college coaching, Ron was the best defensive player I ever coached.”
Yarbrough began playing organized football in the eighth grade, held back from playing during his youth because he was over the 100-pound limit. He picked it up quickly, however, establishing himself as a precocious talent.
Nicknamed “Moose,” he starred on the Columbus High teams that had fierce rivalries with the other city schools, Baker and Jordan, sometimes before Memorial Stadium crowds of up to 19,000.
Columbus won all but two games his junior season and advanced to the state semifinals his senior year before losing to eventual state champion Glynn Academy.
Every college coach in the Southeast made a strong push for him, including the coaching legend triumvirate of Jordan from Auburn, Paul “Bear” Bryant from Alabama and Vince Dooley, who had recently been hired by Georgia.
Bryant, who Yarbrough called “the biggest gentleman you’ll meet,” went so far as to make a rare in-home visit just days before signing day, offering to let Yarbrough wear Alabama’s famed No. 54, which was Lee Roy Jordan’s former number and one the Crimson Tide only allowed standout defensive players to wear.
While Bryant was there, other coaches kept calling Yarbrough’s house.
“Every time we sat down and started talking, the phone would ring again and every time my mother would get up, Bear Bryant would stand up,” Yarbrough said. “Every time she stood up and left the room, he would stand up and stay there. And he would talk to me while he was standing up. And then I’d stand up with him naturally every time she left the room. And we were up and down.”
Yarbrough didn’t commit that day, though, eventually choosing Auburn for the close relationships he formed with Jordan, his primary recruiter, assistant coach George Atkins, and his wife, Leah, a history professor at the school.
“Coach Jordan was really such a father figure and such a great person and such a great man,” said Yarbrough, who lost his father to cancer when he was 11. “And I felt more at home and more comfortable here at Auburn than I did up (in Tuscaloosa).”
Yarbrough played on the freshman team in 1965 (one of his teammates was current Troy coach Larry Blakeney) before redshirting in 1966.
He was a second-team All-SEC pick in 1967, starting nine games as a sophomore.
He started 10 games in 1968, capped by a Sun Bowl victory against Arizona, during which he had 15 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, he was the same size or bigger than most of Auburn’s lineman.
He had quick reaction time, so quick that Kolen, who’d go on to play eight years for the Miami Dolphins, once asked him how he did it.
“He says, ‘How can you tell who’s carrying the ball? You get to the ball really quick and sometimes it looks like you know who is going to get the ball,’ ” Yarbrough said. “I said, ‘I just look at the guys with the whitest face and I know he’s scared and he’s going to run it.’ ”
Knee injuries prevented Yarbrough from following Kolen’s NFL path. The first came during spring before his sophomore year, when he suffered a complete tear of his right knee’s ACL.
He underwent what was still a relatively new and experimental surgery to repair it (he has the eight-inch scar to prove it) and played for two years before tearing it again his senior season against Wake Forest. He played through it the rest of the year but was only marginally effective.
“I’d play a little bit in each game until I got hurt and then I’d just come out,” Yarbrough said.
“I was preseason All-SEC and All-American, because I had a really good sophomore year and junior year. So to get knocked out like that, it just destroyed all my hopes naturally.”
After another surgery and a brief stint in the Canadian Football League with the B.C. Lions, he tore his ACL for a third time, ending his football career.
Yarbrough passed up an opportunity to teach and coach to go into sales with a tire business in Atlanta. After 15 years, he started his own roofing company in Montgomery, where he’s been the last 30 years.
He and his wife, Brenda, have been married for 19 years.
He has two sons, Ron Jr., 33, and Seth, 32, and one stepson, Jon, 33, in addition to three grandchildren: Jonathan (7), William (5) and Karson (2).
An Auburn season ticket holder, he and his entire family have tailgated before Tigers games together for the last 28 years.
Yarbrough didn’t attend the BCS title game in Glendale, Ariz., last month, instead giving the tickets to one of his sons, who called five minutes after the game’s conclusion.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe you’re sitting on the couch watching this ballgame instead of with us,’ ” Yarbrough said. “I said, ‘I want you to think about one thing: if I was out there watching the ballgame, you would be sitting on the couch.’ ”