AFTER ALL THESE years, Larry Yarbray still remembers the hands. They were big and thick, though gnarled and coarse from years of work in the steel mill. They were also strong, with a gentle quality, that always had time to pat a 6-year-old boy on the back who hardly had any clothes or even shoes, pointing him in the right direction.
It's over 30 years, and Yarbray, 38, can still recall his maternal grandfather, a sturdy, willful man, the definition of a man's man whom no one told what to do. He's the one who instilled the sound foundation that made Yarbray; created the homespun, work-to-succeed philosophy on life that Yarbray embraces, and now distributes to his players as the new coach of the Chester High basketball team.
After Chester went 33-1 and experiencing a season for the ages last year, when the Clippers won their second PIAA Class AAAA state championship in 4 years, Yarbray steps in to take over for legendary coach Fred Pickett, who retired after last season. It's a daunting task, but nothing Yarbray hasn't faced before - personally or professionally.
The Clippers, a young team that will feature Temple-bound Rahlir Jefferson, are 4-1 this season. They're fast, they play the typical in-your-face Chester defense, and when the ice thaws and the spring comes, figure the Clippers to be formidable again, as their new coach learns more about his players, and his players learn more about him.
Yarbray, a 1988 Chester High grad and Coppin State product, is part of a long line of outstanding Chester guards that includes Jameer Nelson, Darrin Govens and John Linehan.
"Larry is a product of the program, a student of the game," said Pickett, who talks to Yarbray on a daily basis. "Larry loves the game, and he loves seeing kids make it. That's what we live for.
"Coaching at Chester is not like coaching anywhere else. You have to give more of yourself, and you have to be prepared to do that. It's very time-consuming, that's for sure. There is a lot of sacrifice involved; you have to be able to do that, too. Larry will. He's a focused, dedicated person. Larry also knows the community, and knows these kids and what some of them have to deal with."
Yarbray knows being the Chester High coach is more than just about coaching kids, it's about saving lives. He is the son of a 17-year-old father and 16-year-old mother. He had two brothers murdered, Jeremy and Kareem. A very close friend, Michael Johnson, lost his life to violence in Chester, in 2002. Yarbray named his 7-year-old daughter Micha in honor of Johnson, a member of the 1989 Chester state championship team.
Yarbray had close to nothing growing up, but a young mother's love, and enough caring, nurturing people around him to constantly steer him in positive directions. There were days when there was no food. Days when he had to scrounge for clothes, or didn't even have a decent pair of shoes.
"You remember that, you remember all of that," Yarbray said. "I just wanted to be different. Living in Chester, you see so much stuff. I would live with my maternal grandfather and he was one of those hard men who worked double shifts and holidays at Phoenix Steel. He never complained. He never looked for excuses. He just went to work every day. That's what I grew up admiring.
"He always told me, 'Whatever you do, you don't get caught up in those streets; you be different. Never follow anyone.' I have friends who are in jail for the rest of their lives, some who are dead. I wanted to be different. I saw the different things I could do, but I always wanted to do something different. I saw too many good athletes in Chester who couldn't play because of grades start to slip, and before you know it, they lose focus, they're in jail, or you don't see them anymore. I'm not going to let that happen to any of my kids."
Yarbray was the first member of his family to graduate college, starting all 4 years for Fang Mitchell at Coppin State, and finishing with a degree in management science. He worked his way up from making just over $7 an hour, to now program director at Elwyn, a non-profit human services organization, specializing in mental health, and mental retardation.
In many ways, Yarbray carries the same quiet demeanor and coaching style of Pickett. Yarbray is a self-made, man's man - like his grandfather. No one ever handed him anything, he earned it on his own. That's his message.
"I know my grandfather is smiling on me," Yarbray said. "When I was told I got the job at Chester, someone told me my grandfather would be proud. I got a little emotional when I heard that. He steered me toward the good path, now it's my turn."
The top seven Delaware County teams playing in Delco leagues (records through Sunday).
1. Penn Wood (5-0)
2. Chester (4-1)
3. Glen Mills (5-2)
4. Penncrest (6-0)
5. Upper Darby (6-1)
6. Radnor (5-2)
7. Marple Newtown (5-3)