Before the Boston Celtics and now the Miami Heat gathered their so-called “Big Three” superstars of professional basketball, a little school (Eastern High) at the intersection of Mack Avenue and East Grand Boulevard in Detroit had already implemented a “Big Three.”
With Bill Yearby, John Rowser and Reggie Harding as the linchpins for the 1959-62 Indians, they won four consecutive Detroit Public School League men’s basketball titles. Eastern High’s nomenclature has since changed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. High School.
Yearby left us recently at age 66 from a myriad of health concerns, but his passing made many sports aficionados revisit his legacy.
Lore has it that U-M head football coach Bump Elliott said that if he could get John Rowser and Bill Yearby from Eastern, he would win a Big Ten championship. The 1964 team did indeed win the 1965 Rose Bowl with a convincing victory over Oregon.
“Yearby was Bubba Smith before he got to Michigan State,” noted former Cass Tech coach Charles Shannon. “There was a sincere outpouring for that man’s life. Yearby was part of that group of young urban men that were hungry for education and athletics and were knocking down the doors of opportunity.”
Added Emanuel Steward, who was Yearby’s classmate at Eastern: “Bill was one of the greatest athletes ever, and he was a gentleman. He and Rowser were never arrogant, they were dedicated to their sports, but another great thing about them is they were both studious.”
Yearby and Rowser graduated from Michigan proving Steward’s assertion. But before Yearby left Ann Arbor he made his mark. He became one of the best defensive tackles in the country his junior and senior years, earning All-American honors in both 1964 and 1965 and was named the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player in 1965. Most importantly, he helped the 1964 Wolverines win the Big Ten Conference and the Rose Bowl.
“I always tell people that Bill was one of the top three athletes at Michigan ever,” said Tom Goss, who played with Yearby and later became UM’s athletic director. “He was powerful, super quick for a big man and could run and jump. Everyone on the team kind of looked up to him. He was quiet and he would give you the shirt off his back; he spoke with his actions.”
Rowser noted that Yearby won the state title as a shot putter, led the PSL in rebounding and he played on the freshman basketball team at UM with Oliver Darden, Cazzie Russell and himself.
“Bill was truly one of the best athletes to come out of Detroit,” Rowser said. “Even at 230 pounds he ran the relay a few times. You talk about strong, he threw the shot over 50 feet without lifting weights. Then when he got to UM he won the Big Ten shot title, too.
“Although when we got to UM there were only 200 Blacks, the teachers at Eastern prepared us well for what was ahead. We both had B averages and were disciplined people, so we did not really get into any trouble nor did we have racial problems.”
A Time magazine article in December of 1965 titled “The Bonus Battle” detailed the bidding war between the NFL and the AFL. Yearby found himself right in the middle of it. The article noted New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin the year before had signed Joe Namath and then came back and signed the 230-pound Yearby to a contract at $1,000 per pound.
Unfortunately, the Jets’ number one draft choice missed valuable training camp practice because of an All-Star game and injury suffered in a preseason game. The Jets never did get to see the extremely quick, agile and very strong Detroiter do his thing. He was never able to negotiate that knee injury and hurt it again in 1976, after which he retired.
“I remember after he hurt his knee he came to my house and we sat there and prayed together,” recalled Robert Royal, a teacher at Eastern at the time. “He did not feel sorry for himself, he was ready to move on with his life and he indeed had a lot more life to live. But that had to be a hard thing, because he was truly one of the best athletes ever from Detroit. The one thing I remember most about Bill is that I never heard him criticize anyone for any reason.”
Added Rowser: “I knew Mose (Bill) all my life and he was just a goodhearted and good natured person, who loved to help others.”
Wrote University of Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon: “Yearby was a one-of-a-kind player. According to his college roommate, teammate and close friend Bill Hardy, Yearby didn’t like the histrionics we see today after touchdowns or big plays. He felt when you were successful on the field, it was simply what was expected of you. All his teammates remember him as a calming influence. He was a leader on and off the field, and he was loved by his teammates.”
Leland Stein III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.