The wizard of Washburn

For the record, John Sylvester thinks the ALS ice bucket challenge is a good idea to raise money and awareness about the disease he was diagnosed with three and a half years ago. The beloved youth soccer coach has no personal experience with the challenge, but a broad smile crossed his face when it was suggested to him that a dream dunk by a group of some of his former and current players might be in order.

“That would be great, that would be great,” he said, sitting in the living room of his parent’s home Monday afternoon, his speech slowed to a slur by ALS, the disease that has rendered his arms and legs limp and which carries a life expectancy of two to five years post-diagnosis.

Sylvester is 41 years old. He’s got a beautiful young family (wife Tessie and two kids, Gus and Freddie), a close-knit faith-based extended family, and an inspired if heartbroken soccer family that was born of his work as girls coaching director at Minneapolis United that has provided a pipeline of players to several area colleges and high schools, including Southwest, South, DeLaSalle, and Sylvester’s alma mater, Washburn, where he coached girls varsity soccer for many years.

“He’s the reason I love soccer, he just could connect with us,” said Greta Goutz, a junior at Washburn. “He’s another father figure for me, because he was my coach for six years. With the team, he created a kind of family that I know is not the same with any other team, and with his illness, we all kind of came together over that and coped together as we coped with him. We saw him at his peak and we saw him [deteriorate] and that made us all become really close, and we know we’re not the only ones he touched.”

In Sylvester’s Christian faith, the Holy Spirit is the embodiment of inspiration and the willful act of spreading love and one’s passions and gifts. Such is the legacy of the man his teammates dubbed “Smiles” during his playing days at Washburn, and if there’s any good to be gleaned from Sylvester’s suffering, it’s that his bright light shines through all who have worked or been coached by him, his soul bursting forth even as his physical body withers away.

“John’s love of the game is contagious,” said Washburn varsity coach Cheryl Urbaniak Peterson, who grew up playing soccer with Sylvester and graduated from Washburn with him in 1991. “He was so much fun to watch. So quick, so fast. He has an energy about him that you can’t help but be a sponge to and pick up on, and that’s what he spreads to people: the skills first and foremost, but also the desire to play and the love of the game and the fun of it. He still texts me about these guys to stay up to date.”

An all-state player and captain at Washburn, Sylvester was introduced to soccer by some cousins who played in Apple Valley. He and his sister and fellow Washburn soccer alum, Regina Jackson, played “in the street sun up to sun down,” which launched Sylvester on a lifelong love affair with the sport. These days, Sylvester is an assistant coach with Hope Academy in Minneapolis, patrolling the sidelines in a wheelchair.

“It’s really tough every day. I still coach,” he said. “That’s good, and I thank God I can do that, because some people have it a lot worse than I do. I try to keep going every day. The transition to wheelchair now was hard. You’ve got to coach a different way, communicate a different way. My boys keep me on my toes. I pray every day. I thank God.”

“We first found out about his diagnosis during a tournament, Schwann’s [USA] Cup, and he just always came to practices and games with that same smile,” said Brook Innes, a junior at Washburn who Sylvester coached for seven years. “When he was feeling tired, he made sure we knew we made him happy when he saw us. He was the main component of our team.”

“He was the person that backed you, no matter what,” said Maya Rajacich, a junior at Washburn. “Everything I’ve learned from him, on or off the field, team and family and just overall what you should be like as a good person, I learned from him and I use in my everyday life.”

On Sept, 4, Washburn plays host to the second annual Sylvester Cup tournament between Washburn and Southwest. A traveling trophy will be awarded, and the great coach himself will be in attendance, soaking up the game and the people who shaped him. If his tongue would allow it, what would he say to his players?

“I would say to them how much they help me,” he said softly, tears welling up in his eyes. “Soccer can make it better to make it through. If I’m having a bad day, I go to soccer and someone makes me laugh and I have a good time. So I would say ‘thank you’ to them because they help me more than they know.”

Bring on the ice buckets.


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected].