LAWTON, Okla. (AP) — James "Coach" Suttles, recently named the Oklahoma Education Association Support Professional of the Year, said his life would probably have been entirely different if it hadn't been for the death of his 3-year-old son James Jr. almost 28 years ago.

The award recognizes his 28 years of work as both a custodian and sports coach in the Lawton Public Schools district, the last 10 years at Tomlinson Middle School.

His work year-round coaching helps "the children of Lawton stay off the streets during the summer months and actually throughout the whole year," said Tomlinson Principal Eddie Williams. "He says he does it because he loves the game of basketball, but his primary purpose is keeping our kids safe and teaching them the value of becoming true team players."

Suttles told The Lawton Constitution ( ) he didn't have coaching or working for the district in his plans.

Born in Patterson, New Jersey, he was 10 years old when he and his family moved to Lawton and his father, Clarence Suttles, worked at Goodyear. His father also coached and refereed various sports teams at the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club. Suttles attended Lawton schools including Almor West Elementary, Central Middle School, Eisenhower Junior High School and Eisenhower High and played basketball, baseball and football for the schools before graduating in 1985.

When he graduated from high school, Suttles said his father encouraged him to become a coach, but he didn't take that path, at first.

"I didn't know what I was going to do. My son, James Jr., was born in 1986," Suttles said, explaining that with a family to support he decided to go to Cameron University and join ROTC as a Ranger. "I went through the first semester of Ranger training ... but things change."

Suttles became a single parent and dropout of Cameron and took a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant to be able to spend more time with his son. Suttles' mother, who ran a daycare, took care of her grandson when Suttles had to work.

They were inseparable when Suttles was off of work.

Six hours after James Jr. left with a relative on a long car trip in August 1989, Suttles learned that James Jr. had been killed due to injuries from a car accident in Russellville, Arkansas.

Dealing with his grief, Suttles almost immediately changed his life and started building a legacy for his son.

"This is what I say, just because I lost my child, I want to save as many kids as I can save in my lifetime here out," Suttles said, struggling some to keep his voice steady. "If you never lost a child, you don't know what it's like, it is entirely different from losing" someone else.

He started coaching boys and girls basketball when he started working for the district during the 1989 to 1990 school year, right after his son's death.

"He is currently the TMS varsity boys basketball coach, TMS track coach and has also contributed as an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) coach for girls and boys basketball for 28 years," Williams said.

Suttles' impact has been astonishing, as demonstrated by the number of people who were at a recent Lawton Board of Education meeting, whose sons and daughters have been coached by Suttles over the years, whether through the schools or in the traveling team that he coaches each year beginning in March.

"It is called MAYB, the Mid America Youth Basketball tournaments," Suttles said.

Patty Neuwrith, Lawton Board of Education member, said that many of the students Suttles coached have gone on to earn sports scholarships.

For each of the 28 years, Suttles has coached more than 200 students each year. "And this is all basketball kids. And the time I have been in school and have talked to kids that don't play sports or I just know their mother or father and tell them that I'm going to look after their kids. Because if I can see your child, I'm going to help your child."

He initially worked at Howell Elementary School, which is now Education Engine, part of Crossroads Head Start and Early Head Start program, and then moved to many other schools throughout the district before coming to Tomlinson 10 years ago. Some of the schools did not have any teams, so he coached at the schools that did.

Fifteen years ago, he met his current wife Ann. He has two stepdaughters who are 24 and 19 and a five-year-old grandson. Ann and James Suttles have a 12-year-old daughter who is in sixth-grade.

Ann Suttles, who was coaching a team while her husband was being honored at the board meeting, helps keep the game books and travels with him to most of the games, Williams said.

Clarence Suttles, who encouraged him so many years ago to coach young people, died 15 years ago and Suttles' mother moved in with her son and his family.

My father "encouraged me," Suttles said, explaining that his father was proud of him for coaching the students, but wondered why he didn't do it right after graduating high school. "I just didn't see it then."

Williams said that the purpose of the OEA Support Professional of the Year award is to recognize someone who shows outstanding accomplishments in one or more of four areas including innovation in supporting the daily education process, professional achievements in his or her job, involvement in promoting public education and enhancing the educational support professional's image.

"Mr. Suttles has excelled in each of these areas," Williams said.

Suttles said that his message to students is to work hard and don't give up.

"These kids these days, they would be amazed at how much their talent would come out if they put some work in. Nothing is given ... that is my main thing. You are going to have to work for it if you want something in life," he said. "What I tell the kids right now is don't stop, don't give up. If it is not working out for you, don't give up because it will come back to you in some manner and you are going to know how to deal with it."

Suttles didn't share information about his son at the board meeting, but acknowledged during his interview with the newspaper that the loss of James Jr. definitely changed his life.

James Jr. would have been 31 years old now and if he hadn't died "it would have just been me and him," he said.

Suttles, as the OEA Support Professional of the Year, is now up for the national title. If he wins, he already knows what he'll say when he accepts the award.

"I plan to dedicate the award to my son," Suttles said. "When I lost him, I found something that allows me to always be around other kids, so I don't lose another child."


Information from: The Lawton Constitution,