Legends: Trials and tribulations prepared Efird for coaching career
By Mike London
PEMBROKE — There was a time when things looked so bleak at UNC Pembroke that backup quarterback Jonathan Efird requested a jersey number change from 17 to 2.
“That was an extremely tough time for me,” Efird said. “I needed a daily reminder that no matter what was going on in my life, God was first and I was No. 2. That’s been my thought process ever since.”
Efird, who turned 30 a few days ago, has come through some dark days with a smile.
One of the best passers in A.L. Brown’s storied football history, a talented two-sport athlete who threw a varsity TD pass against Concord when he was still a freshman, a guy who wrapped up his high school career in the East-West All-Star Game, Efird never found a starting role in college.
College football humbled him far more than it embraced him, but he grew up. He matured.
He’s been on both sides of the athletic world. He’s been the star signal-caller, but he’s also been that guy who works in practice, carries the clipboard and holds for PATs.
He uses all the things he’s learned to coach young men— and young women — at Purnell Swett, the 4A school that serves the citizens of Pembroke and competes in a league with Richmond, Scotland, Pinecrest, Hole County, two Fayetteville schools and rival Lumberton. Almost 90 percent of Pembroke’s population is Native American, but Efird, who is white, is not an outsider. He fits in.
“I never thought I’d be here, but I’ve made it my home,” Efird said. “I’m blessed to be here. I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.”
It’s no surprise that he’s the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for the Purnell Swett football team, but where he’s really made a name for himself recently is with the school’s girls basketball team. Purnell Swett’s girls made the 4A state playoffs for the first time in many years in 2020. Efird’s top players were freshmen, including conference player of the year Kylie Chavis, so he’s desperately hoping for a normal basketball season, even in the year of COVID-19.
Efird’s girls swept Lumberton last season. For the folks at Purnell Swett that’s as big a deal as A.L. Brown sweeping Concord.
Efird also coaches Purnell Swett’s jayvee baseball team, even though his diamond background is limited.
“My first year playing baseball as a kid, I got hit in the head with the ball, and I knew the sport wasn’t for me,” Efird said with a laugh. “But I finished that season out because my family had paid for it. That may have been it as far as playing baseball, but I know the game and I understand kids. I can relate to them. I can help make baseball fun for them, and we’ve even won jayvee championships.”
Efird is well qualified to coach basketball. A tough rebounder and a streaky shooter, he filled it up, at times, for the Wonders.
His sophomore season, playing for coach Shelwyn Klutz, he enjoyed a 29-point explosion at Porter Ridge.
“I always came to basketball late from football, so I started that season off not making anything, but then that night at Porter Ridge I got hot,” Efird said. “I made three quick 3-pointers and everything clicked.”
That 29 always would be his career high, but he had quite a few big games. He averaged double figures as a junior and senior.
Football, of course, was his thing.
In the fall of 2004, junior Sean Fortson was the primary QB for A.L. Brown, a great athlete who was a better runner than passer. After a 28-0 loss to Eastern Randolph in the third game of the season — the Wonders threw for a meager 80 yards — head coach Ron Massey considered shaking up the offense. The next opponent was bitter rival Concord.
Efird was a 14-year-old freshman, but he got a shot at QB against the Spiders, with Fortson alternating between receiver and quarterback. Four minutes into the game, Efird threw a touchdown pass to give the Wonders a 6-0 lead.
“I was so nervous on my first play, I forgot what the play was as soon as we broke the huddle,” Efird said. “I was out there praying that I could just remember the plays. But then I threw that touchdown pass. Will Preston caught it. I didn’t get to see it. I was on my back, but I heard our crowd roaring.”
That was the only TD the Wonders mustered in a 20-9 defeat. Efird got the start the next week against Lake Norman and threw four interceptions, but the Wonders won with defense. Then Efird got knocked out for the season with a foot injury in the next game, a brutal 14-7 victory at West Rowan.
“Tristan Dorty (a Shrine Bowler headed to Wake Forest) got me,” Efird said.
Fortson was the clear-cut starter as a senior in 2005. Efird threw four TD passes as his backup. One TD would come in one of the more exciting victories of Massey’s coaching tenure, a frigid second-round playoff game against TC Roberson. Efird credits his mother for his place in A.L. Brown gridiron lore.
“It was terribly cold that night and I spent almost the whole game on the sideline freezing and shaking and cheering,” Efird said. “Fortunately, my mother had just bought me some hand-warmers from Wal-Mart. My hands were the only thing that stayed warm.”
TC Roberson kicked a field goal with 16 seconds left in regulation for a 24-all tie.
A.L. Brown had the ball first in OT and Fortson hit tight end Jay Hosack with a scoring pass. The Wonders kicked the PAT.
TC Roberson easily matched that effort for 31-all.
The Rams got the ball first in the second OT, scored quickly and kicked the point. That’s when things got wild.
On a third-down pass, Fortson was literally knocked out of the game by a TC Roberson defensive end, who drew a roughing the passer penalty. Efird had time to take three quick snaps on the sideline, while Fortson was down and receiving aid. Then Efird was in the game for the first time.
He threw a touchdown pass to running back Bobby Ratliff, just as he was clobbered by the same defensive end that got to Fortson.
“That defensive end was tough,” Efird said. “He led with his helmet and just nailed me. It would be an ejection now, I guess, but back then it was just another flag for roughing the passer. They moved the extra point spot half the distance to the goal.”
Massey knew the Wonders probably weren’t ever going to be able to stop TC Roberson from the 10-yard line, so he went for broke. The Wonders would go for two. They’d win or lose on the next play, and the game was in Efird’s hands.
“I faked a handoff to Ratliff and sprinted out on a bootleg,” Efird said. “Hosack got open. He had sure hands and I got the ball to him. As soon as I knew we’d won, I just took off running and screaming.”
That 39-38 victory would be Efird’s single greatest moment, the play for which he is most remembered. He’d gotten the Wonders to the third round. The next week, Fortson had the game of his life— 143 rushing yards — in a 34-10 destruction of previously unbeaten West Rowan in Mount Ulla.
“I was so happy for Sean,” Efird said. “Sean and I were always more than teammates. We were brothers.”
The 2005 season ended the same way the 2006 and 2007 seasons would end for the Wonders — against Charlotte Catholic.
A.L. Brown finally broke through to beat Charlotte Catholic in 2008. Efird had graduated and was a spectator for that one but it was still special.
Efird was all-conference in 2006 and 2007.
He threw for 2,069 yards as a junior. He didn’t throw as much as a senior, but he tossed 23 touchdown passes, including five in one game against Parkwood. His 4,598 career passing yards and 44 TD passes rank among the top totals in school history.
“There was always a lot of talent around me,” Efird said. “The Concord game my junior year, we lost, but I had some success throwing the ball and they had a state championship team with great athletes like Lance Lewis and Dee Bost in the secondary. After that game, I always had a lot of confidence and I kept building on it. Then my senior year, we beat Concord (45-20), and I’ll never forget bringing the bell back from midfield. Losing to Concord was as bad a feeling as you could ever have. As seniors, we were determined not to have to feel that way again.”
Efird had good size (6-foot-2) but wasn’t heavily recruited by colleges.
“There actually was more interest my junior year,” Efird said. “My senior year we had a lot of success running the ball with Ryan Fowler, so we were more run-heavy. I had one scholarship offer — UNC Pembroke — and I knew I didn’t want to go there.”
Western Carolina, a Division I school, wasn’t offering a scholarship, but a new coaching staff was looking for players and was happy to add Efird to the roster as a preferred walk-on.
“When I arrived at Western, I was the sixth-string QB,” Efird said. “I redshirted that first year and went to work. By the spring, I was up to second string. Then I had a pretty decent Spring Game.”
His only pass attempt as a redshirt freshman in 2009 was intercepted by a Vanderbilt Commodore. After that season, getting scholarship money from WCU wasn’t any closer than it had been when he arrived, so Efird was ready to transfer.
“I loved everything about Western, the school and the program, but things weren’t progressing for me on the field,” Efird said.
Efird put in a call to UNCP coach Pete Shinnick. Shinnick had been the lone head coach who believed in him coming out of high school.
Did Shinnick still want him? He did.
Efird was welcomed at UNC Pembroke. The school worked out financial aid for him. He sat out the 2010 season.
Efird served as the backup quarterback for the Braves for three seasons (2011-13). He didn’t start because his time there coincided with the presence on campus of Luke Charles, a two-time All-America pick who still holds most of UNC Pembroke’s career passing records.
“Luke was very good and he was always the guy who said yes to Pembroke, while I was always that guy who turned them down coming out of high school,” Efird said. “When you’re a guy who got to start at A.L. Brown as a freshman, it’s humbling to accept the role of college backup. But I made the best of it. That adversity made me the man I am now.”
When Charles missed a game in 2012, Shinnick (who would guide West Florida to the 2019 D-II national championship) turned to Efird to lead the UNCP Braves at home against the Catawba Indians, the school located 20 miles from A.L. Brown. Efird had a turnover-free outing. The Braves beat the Indians, 28-21.
“It was lot of fun being out there as the starter,” Efird said. “B.J. Sherrill, from West Rowan, was Catawba’s quarterback. I made some good decisions, limited the mistakes and got the ball to our playmakers. It was nice to win against what was basically my hometown team. My first pass was a little 6-yard hitch, but I completed it. After that, everything moved in slow motion. I knew I’d be OK.”
In 2013, UNC Pembroke had a terrific 9-2 season and made the Division II playoffs. Efird was part of it. He completed the occasional pass as the backup and was the holder for PATs and field goals.
“As a senior, by that point, you just want to chase a ring, and that’s all that matters,” Efird said. “By then, I’d learned that you can lead even when you’re not on the field. You can still lead in the classroom and in the weight room. You learn there’s a lot more to it than stats. You learn to be a great teammate. I’m thankful for the experience, thankful for how well it prepared me to coach.”
He excelled in the classroom at UNC Pembroke. He did his student teaching at Purnell Swett. Administrators were impressed by him and wanted to make sure he didn’t get away. High school P.E. jobs can be elusive, but they were offering one.
“They said I would have to coach two sports, so I told them I’d coach three,” Efird said. “I coached track for a year, then switched over to baseball. My first year of basketball was with the jayvee girls, and that was a real learning experience. I remember putting one of our reserves in the game and she asked me which goal we were shooting at.”
Things are going much more smoothly now for the year-round coach.
At least they were before COVID-19 threatened to put a damper on the school year and the sports calendar.
It’s not easy, but Efird is determined to stay positive.
“I love coaching, and all the trials and tribulations I went through were worth it because they brought me here,” Efird said. “There’s nothing like building a relationship with your players. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you help a young person succeed.”