Long-time coach John Sasser has helped shape Walker County athletics—and athletes— into what they are today
Words by Nick Norris | Images by Blakeney Clouse
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Walker County who has touched more lives than John Sasser. For 40 years, Sasser has taught young people not only the intricacies of anatomy or the fundamentals of football, but also the importance of old-fashioned hard work. Despite retiring from public education in 2013, Sasser continues teaching at Jasper High School because he just can’t stay away.
“It’s always been my goal to influence kids in a positive way and to be a good example,” Sasser says through a humble smile. “I have been able to do what I’m most passionate about, teaching and coaching. Yes, I have been blessed.”
Sasser took those blessings and multiplied them by building multiple sport programs from the ground up for local athletes. In 1979, Sasser accepted a job coaching the defensive line at Walker High School under head coach David Campbell. In his first five years, the defensive line produced three first-team all-state players in Willie Scott, Gary McCray and Tommy Cole.
“I believe we had the best coaching staff in the state during my first years at Walker,” Sasser reminisces, “and we were like brothers.”
But football wasn’t enough for the bright-eyed coach. Soon, Sasser was also serving as the head baseball coach and put up a 55-39 record over four years. Walker High was flowing with potential players, but many didn’t see much playing time due to a limited roster size. Sasser took it upon himself to create a junior varsity team to get more cleats on the field. In the program’s inaugural year, the Vikings defeated extremely talented teams in Vestavia Hills and Hueytown and finished 23-14 overall.
“The ‘81-82 team could really hit with power,” Sasser recalls. “Pitchers Teddy Hall and Ed Casey produced many of the wins. Kevin Fowler and Lan Darty filled those roles on the ’83-84 team. Fowler even eventually signed with the Texas Rangers.”
Shortly after, he wanted to resign as head baseball coach and assistant varsity football coach so he could properly run the freshman football program. He believed the varsity could greatly benefit from a strong freshman program that trained young players in the same manner as the varsity. That way, the varsity would regularly gain new talent which would already be familiar with its playbook and would be typically faster and stronger than prior classes that had come up.
“I approached Coach Campbell with this idea, but my stipulation was that my coaching supplement remain the same,” explains Sasser, who can’t keep from grinning as he retells the story. “He laughed and said, ‘Coach, if you will do this, I’ll give you a raise!’”
Over three years, Sasser had a 16-6-1 record, and, as he predicted, players who moved on to the varsity were bigger, stronger, and faster. After all these years, Sasser can still easily recall the names of players who helped build the foundation of his beloved program. “Shannon Pate, Phillip Davenport, Matt West, Jeremy Brown, Jason Ferguson, Scott Mansell, Louie Millwood.” On and on he goes. When asked how he can recall so many names so easily, Sasser responded, “I owe all my players everything. Without them, I wouldn’t have had a job!”
To produce better talent from within, Sasser started a football program at Maddox Middle School and coached for the next 15 years while engineering numerous undefeated seasons. In 1999, he also started Maddox’s baseball program. In only its second year, the Vikings won the Walker County Tournament.
In the following years, Sasser took back varsity baseball to coach his oldest son, Jonlee. The Vikings finished with winning seasons and a district championship in 2004. In 2009, his youngest son, Taylor, transferred to Sumiton Christian. Sasser followed and assisted coach Lance Blair with baseball. Taylor ended his senior season with a school record 18 doubles, 8 home runs, and a .412 batting average.
During his time at SCS, Sasser also coached middle school football with his good friends Gary Pilling and Ronnie McCarty. Whenever in need of motivation throughout his career, Sasser looked to a quote by Billy Graham that encompassed everything he worked so hard for.
“A coach will impact more young people in a year than the average person does in a lifetime.”
This is especially true for a coach like Sasser. Now, he is back in Jasper, teaching anatomy and still making memories. 78