As a youngster, Nicholas Sykes recalled going out to dinner with his father and being interrupted, time and again, by folks who had seen John Sykes play football.
"They’d say, ‘You scored four times against us in high school,’ or ‘I was in the stands when you ran that kickoff back all the way in college,’ " Sykes said. “I thought, ‘Dude, why are you talking? I’m here to spend time with my dad.’ But as I got older, it dawned on me that people looked on my father the same way they would [Ravens greats] Ray Lewis or Ed Reed.”
John Sykes, a storied running back at City College and Morgan State University, died Monday at Sinai Hospital following an apparent stroke. The Pikesville resident was 70.
A Prep All-American at City, Sykes rushed for nearly 10 yards a carry (third in the nation) and led the Knights to two undefeated seasons and Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference titles. At Morgan State, as a freshman, he starred on the unbeaten 1967 team that won a third straight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship and ran its winning streak to 26 games, then the longest in college football.
As a senior, Sykes made the KODAK Little All-America team and became the first player in Morgan State’s proud history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (1,006), a feat that had eluded even Leroy Kelly, the Cleveland Browns’ Hall of Famer.
“My biggest strength was avoiding the hits,” Sykes told The Sun in 2017. “I had some moves; I could fake you out. I loved running inside and hiding, going tackle to tackle, because I ran low. I used one arm to cover the ball so you didn’t know if I had it or not. And I’d put my hand on the back of my blocker and talk to him, giving him directions like, ‘Run right, run right.’ When other guys run, they just go ‘arrgh.’ "
A seventh-round draft pick of the Baltimore Colts in 1972, Sykes (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) survived until the team’s final cut in training camp. He played that season for the San Diego Chargers (two kickoff returns for 44 yards) and, the following year, tried out once more for the Colts, hoping to be the first Morgan State player to make his hometown team.
“Sometimes I lie in bed and feel the pressure,” Sykes told The Sun that summer. “There are a lot of people in Baltimore pulling for me and I just can’t disappoint them.”
Again, he was the last man cut.
“I gave it my best,” Sykes told The Sun in 2017. “The [football] decisions were in others’ hands.”
Raised in northwest Baltimore, he was the last of 11 children whose father died soon after. Sports were his ticket out.
“John was the neighborhood kid who made it,” said LaVerne Nicholson Sykes, 69, of Baltimore, who married her childhood sweetheart in 1977. “A lot of people looked up to him. He adored the attention, but it didn’t go to his head.”
At City, Sykes suited up for a juggernaut that trampled even its archrival, Poly, by scores of 52-6 and 42-6 in his last two years. In his last game, he buried the Engineers, rushing for 208 yards and four touchdowns and scoring two 2-point conversions.
“City had so many good players then, but John was at the top of the list,” said Joe Brune, then an assistant coach there. “He was a quiet guy but full of self-confidence, and so unbelievable on game day. He got to the hole quick and, if there wasn’t a hole, he was physical enough to make one. Once in the open field, he was really dangerous.”
Sykes never let up, not even in workouts, teammates said.
“John was our inspirational leader,” said Kurt Schmoke, City’s quarterback who became mayor of Baltimore and is now president of the University of Baltimore. “Our coach, George Young, loved him because John worked as hard in practice as he did in games. All of us were inspired by his work ethic and commitment to success. It was truly an honor to have known him.”
To the end, Nicholas Sykes said, whenever his dad met a fellow high school alumnus, he flashed a big grin, gave a bear hug and declared, “City forever!”
After football, Sykes taught physical education at City and at Highlandtown Middle School. In retirement, he lived surrounded by football keepsakes and his grandchildren. On Saturday, though feeling poorly, he had brunch with his son, John II, his wife and their three daughters.
“We sat at the IHOP in Randallstown and talked about the kids’ summer activities,” said John Sykes II of Baltimore. “He loved them so much. On Sunday, he texted me that he felt better and said, ‘You know, I love U.’ ”
His son’s reply?
“I love U back.”
Besides his wife and sons, Sykes is survived by sisters Zelma Jones of Woodlawn and Rita Gilmore of Pikesville; and three grandchildren.