“You gotta have heart,” says the song about a down and out baseball team. John Sudbury isn’t a lyricist, but he could have written those words. He has a heart as big as all outdoors and encouraged those who played football or baseball for him to take heart and give it their whole-hearted effort. He has a father’s heart.
John is a presence. Everywhere he goes, people hail him, hug him, tease him, and lean in for his signature one-liners. This man knows how to work a crowd. However, the secret of his heart is not in his crowd-pleasing antics, but his genuine care and concern for each person who crosses his path. I witnessed him at a concession stand at a recent basketball tournament. Some kids, family members of an opposing team, were there with longing eyes and little cash. He handed the cashier some money and told them to get whatever they wanted. Little scenes such as this reveal a man with a father’s heart.
John missed the opportunity to be a biological father, but it didn’t slow him down in the least as he adopted over 4,000 youth, mostly young men, in years of coaching baseball and football. He’s currently at 47 years and counting.
Apparently, that father’s heart is hereditary. He credits his father’s example as a coach. “My father had a large influence on my willing desire to coach. He organized baseball in Hunter, Granger, Magna, and Garfield (Utah) in 1955 and spent many, many hours with the young men that wanted to learn baseball. Because of that I developed a relationship with working with many kids.” He also credits his college football coach, Tom Kingsford, with teaching him the basics of football and life.
Young men who played on one of John’s teams usually received a new pair of socks with instructions to wash them and wear them to every game. For 4,000 kids, that’s a lot of socks. When asked why a single guy with a modest income would provide all those socks he said, “I was taught, by my dad, that a team played like they LOOKED. I always wanted my teams to look successful, so they felt successful.”
In 1991, he made a perfect pitch for marriage to Jackie Hess. He maintains that she was the only one who ever agreed to go on a second date with him, so he asked her to marry him. Jackie was part of a package deal that included her daughter, 10-year-old Melinda. He said that step in his life turned his heart from “me, to them and others.” After marrying Jackie, John began actively participating in the religion of his youth. He says it has shown him why he is here and where he is going. It has also given him more people to love and serve.
Jackie, a school teacher, took all his adopted kids in stride. She said, “I never really thought about it because of my many years (38+ in her career) of teaching and working with children. So, it was no different except most of these children were athletes. My classroom had four walls and John’s classroom was the football field.”
He took to being a dad in a heartbeat, jumping in and never looking back. Melinda was a dancer. Shortly after marrying Jackie, they drove to California to support Melinda’s team on a dance tour. He immediately adopted all the dancers, along with their teachers and families, as part of his new family. Again, he cheered and teased and loved them all with a father’s heart. Some of the ball players did a bit of this dancing called clogging. He claims those boys had some of the best footwork of his players.
If you don’t know John by name, you might remember seeing him on the jumbotron as an avid Jazz fan who held season tickets for 37 years and over 1,650 games. Here he picked up a few more adopted sons. He says “during the early years, 1979-1980, the Jazz organization made a point for the fans and players to get to know one another. I knew many more players in the past years than the current. Some favorites include Adrian Dantley, Rickey Green, Mark Eaton, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek, Memo Okar, Kent Benson, Derek Favors, and Joe Ingles.”
Even more impressive, he and Jackie are often in their seats at Cyprus High School games. These days, his two grandsons are often his dates. His father’s heart puts family first, and he is proud to be part of the Pirate (Cyprus High School’s mascot) family and continues to cheer for the players, banter with the refs, and wrap all the players’ families and fans in that over-sized heart. Of his love affair with Magna and Cyprus he says, “It’s where I live and the people that I want to love. My older brother and sister were Pirates; therefore, that’s what I wanted to be. I also want the best for Magna and the people who live there.”
This love that embraces family and friends also began with his parents. “My mom and dad always treated all of my friends like family and I have tried to do the same,” he says. Not only does he love all these people, he remembers their names and their stories. When asked the secret of this remarkable ability he says, “Because they’ve all made a difference in my life.”
His parents also prepared him to be a husband and father. “They were totally committed to the family.” Jackie appreciates his commitment to their family and being able to share the joys and frustrations of parenting together. The grandkids, two boys and a girl, are another bonus. “Being a grandpa is the best thing ever. I’m with the kids when I want and can always send them home. Jackie and I … get a chance to spoil and be with our grandkids and their lives.”
John wants to be involved and help in any way he can. He maintains, “The joy that came from coaching (these boys) never came close to the joy I received from them.” Those sound like words spoken from a father’s heart.
Written by Norma Hendrickson