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Catching up with ... former City, Morgan State football star John Sykes

Drive through Pikesville and you might see him out and about, stretching the legs that once flashed greatness on the football field. At 68, John Sykes can’t sit idly by; a one-mile walk and 25 push-ups are the norm these days.

“I have to do something; the athlete is still in me,” the former running back said. “Besides, I fear ‘the gut.’ ”

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Has it been 50 years since Sykes starred for both City and Morgan State, scoring touchdowns and leading both teams to championships?

At City, he earned Prep All-America honors, rushing for nearly 10 yards a carry — third in the nation behind the leader, John Riggins, who’d go on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At Morgan State, Sykes made the KODAK Little All-America team and became the first back in the school’s rich history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

The Colts took notice and picked the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Sykes in the seventh round of the 1972 NFL draft. He longed to be the first Morgan State player drafted by his hometown team to make the club. It was a tall order; the Colts had a glut of running backs in Don McCauley, Lydell Mitchell, Don Nottingham, Norm Bulaich, Sam Havrilak and Tom Matte.

“Sometimes I lie in bed and feel the pressure,” Sykes told The Sun in training camp that summer. “There are a lot of people in Baltimore pulling for me and I just can’t disappoint them.”

Just before their opener, the Colts cut Sykes. Picked up by San Diego, he spent a year with the Chargers as a kick returner. Waived in 1973, he was signed by the Colts once more, only to be axed again in their final trim.

That was it. Sykes left the game and began teaching physical education, first at City and then at Highlandtown Middle School. In hindsight, he has no regrets.

“I gave it my best,” he said. “The [football] decisions were in others’ hands.”

There are a passel of plaques and photos in his Pikesville apartment, which trigger stories of having played for two celebrated coaches — George Young at City and Earl Banks at Morgan State.

City didn’t lose a game during Sykes’ stay, capturing two Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference titles under Young, later the general manager of the two-time Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

“Coach Young was no-nonsense and never cursed,” Sykes said. “There was no rah-rah stuff; even in warmups we had to be quiet. And you made sure you did things right or he’d give you that ‘look’ through those big glasses he wore.”

Led by Sykes and quarterback Kurt Schmoke, later mayor of Baltimore, City crushed rivals, including Poly, routing its Thanksgiving Day rival by scores of 52-6 and 42-6 in Sykes’ last two years. As a senior against the Engineers, he scored four touchdowns and two two-point conversions, rushed for 208 yards, caught a 12-yard pass, returned kickoffs and punts and played defense.

“We were a machine,” he said. “People called us a Halloween team because of our colors [orange and black]. We didn’t have many plays but what we had, we could run with our eyes closed.”

His favorite game? A 58-0 rout at Mount Saint Joseph, where Sykes arrived just before kickoff.

“My brother drove me there but got lost on the way,” he said. “Mr. Young was upset and sat me on the bench. After five scoreless minutes, he nodded to me. I went in on defense, intercepted a pass and ran 52 yards for a touchdown. When we got the ball, on the second play, I scored again. In my own way, I’d like to think we won because of that.”

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As a freshman at Morgan State, Sykes rushed for 100 yards one game, three touchdowns in another and helped the Bears go 8-0, win their conference and push their winning streak to 26 games, best in the nation. Academics sidelined him the next year, but he bounced back, made the Dean’s List and — in his final game as a senior — ran for 132 yards against Rutgers, giving him 1,006 for the season. Even Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly (Cleveland Browns) hadn’t done that.

“That’s what I was working toward, and I was blessed that it happened,” he said. “Kelly and I had similar running styles, and he had come back to campus several times to give me tips. I wore his number [44] because of him.”

That the Colts chose Sykes in the draft was the work of Young, then the Colts’ personnel director. But was the move a blessing or curse?

“He knew what I could do,” Sykes said. “But the Colts had a bevy of running backs. People have told me that if I’d gone anywhere else, I could have played. But Mr. Young wanted me to be drafted.

“I had some moves; I could fake you out. I loved running inside and hiding, almost, because I ran low. And I’d put my hand on the back of my blockers and talk to them, giving them directions like a GPS. When most guys run, they just go ‘Arrgh.’ ”

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