Santa Cruz football legend John Kirby, 81, dies

Jarrin’ John Kirby, an iconic Santa Cruz High football player in the late 1950s, died in his sleep Saturday at his home in Discovery Bay. He was 81.

Kirby battled multiple ailments in recent years, including diabetes and leukemia. His wife, Pat, said he died of liver failure. Through it all, Kirby never complained, said two former teammates who kept in contact with him while he was in the hospital.

On the football field, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound star running back was built for administering a beating. He also played defense and served as punter.

“John was a tough player, one of the toughest I’d seen in a long, long time,” legendary Cardinals coach Larry Siemering told the Sentinel in ’06. “He was a very smart player, too.”

Kirby was a three-sport athlete for the Cardinals, shining at football, basketball and baseball.

John Kirby, a football legend for Santa Cruz High in the late 1950s, with his wife, Pat, and their dog, Angel, on Nov. 25, 2021. Kirby died on Saturday at age of 81. (Contributed) 

He played football in the final era of flimsy, leather shoulder pads and peanut shell-looking helmets (without face masks). His senior season in ’58, Kirby helped the Cardinals go 9-0 overall, 6-0 in the Coast Counties Athletic League to earn the No. 1 ranking in Northern California. He rushed for 641 yards on 108 carries that year, and scored 20 touchdowns, including four receiving. He garnered all-Coast, all-NorCal, and fifth-team Wigwam Wisemen of America All-American honors that year.

Cardinals teammate John Giraudo, an offensive lineman, remembers a game against Watsonville in ’58. The Cardinals got off to a slow start and faced fourth-and-3 from their own 20-yard line. Quarterback Ken Caldwell, blessed with two stellar backs in Ken Negro and Kirby, decided to hand off to Kirby instead of punting and Kirby barreled his way to the first down.

“He ran right over Wally Hicks and I,” Giraudo said. “I remember thinking, ‘We don’t have to ever punt again, not even on our own 20.’ John was reliable. Ken (Negro) was shifty and flashy, and John ran over people. We would’ve been in trouble without him. John never made mistakes.”

In a game against Berkeley, Giraudo and teammate Angelo Ross chuckled in amazement when they recalled Kirby ripping the ball out of the opponent’s hands on a kickoff return.

“He was very strong,” Ross said.

In his final prep game, he competed in the now defunct North-South Shrine Football Classic played in front of 57,989 fans at Los Angeles Coliseum. He was knocked unconscious early in the game, but later returned to the field and was named MVP.

Running back John Kirby, a football legend for Santa Cruz High in the late 1950s, was voted all-state as well as a fifth-team Wigwam Wisemen of America All-American following his senior season in '58. (Contributed)Running back John Kirby, a football legend for Santa Cruz High in the late 1950s, was voted all-state as well as a fifth-team Wigwam Wisemen of America All-American following his senior season in ’58. (Contributed) 

He was elected to Santa Cruz’s Hall of Fame as part of the school’s centennial celebration in ‘95, and named to the Sentinel’s All-Time All-County Football Team in 2006. For the latter, he was giddy as he tried on a modern-day uniform for the photo shoot.

Kirby married his high school sweetheart nearly a decade after they met. They celebrated their 54th anniversary on Wednesday.

“We had a partnership, not an ownership,” Pat said. “That was the beauty of our marriage. … I could never stay mad at him. I’d say, ‘I’m really upset with you about this’ and we’d both just end up laughing. The bond we had, that stayed.”

Like her husband, Pat also liked sports and being social. They met at a school dance. She was a good dancer, and he, surprisingly, given his athletic prowess, had two left feet.

“He kept stepping on my feet,” she said. “i don’t know what song it was, but it was the longest thing I ever heard.”

Still, when she got home, she told her mother that she “met the cutest boy, and he smells like soap.”

Kirby was recruited by the majority of the nation’s big-name football programs – Cal, Washington, Notre Dame and Oregon to name a few – but elected to play for Cabrillo College’s first football team in ‘59, under Siemering, before transferring to Oregon State. He suffered a career-ending back injury as a sophomore and gave up his scholarship so another player could benefit from it.

Kirby returned home to Scotts Valley, where he commuted to Golden Gate University in San Francisco and earned a degree. He later earned a teaching credential from San Jose State University and got a job at King City High, where he taught business from 1976-2004, when he retired.

During summer and other breaks, the family often took road trips to different parts of the country in their motorhome.

Kirby and his wife moved to Discovery Bay in 2020. He and his wife had two children, Michelle (Cantwell), 49, and Melissa, 47, and four grandchildren.

Giraudo said Kirby prided himself on being a great husband, father and grandfather.

“My children truly loved and adored him,” said Melissa, his daughter. “Everywhere he went he inspired others and made friends with his grandkids’ friends and families.”

Pat said her husband was a caring soul. She fondly remembers her husband teaching migrant workers in King City, so they could get their Amnesty cards and avoid issues with United States Customs and Border Protection agents.

Kirby helped start the Santa Cruz Pop Warner program and Scotts Valley Little League. He coached football, basketball, baseball and softball in King City.

Good natured and fun loving, Kirby was an affable character. Pat and her mom attended a game with Kirby at Cabrillo one time. He planned on making a food run to the concession stands at halftime, but got caught up seeing familiar faces every step of the way. By the time the game ended, Kirby never returned with food. Instead, he reunited with Pat and her mother in the parking lot. They were the last car to leave.

“He was a kind, soft-spoken super athlete,” Ross said. “He could do anything. He never said a bad thing about anybody. He was thoughtful, and cared a lot about his family.”

“Nobody’s perfect, but he was as good as it gets,” Giraudo said. “He made use of all his talents.”

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