November 26, 2020

The Sporting Insider: ‘Goodbye, Grandpa’

My grandpa was a man of many names. Born Edwin John Sellmeyer, he changed his name to John Edward Sellmeyer when he was in high school because, frankly, he couldn’t stand the name Edwin. His wife, Marie, called him Jack. His friends called him Juan. My two brothers and I called him Papa.

My grandpa was a man of many ethnicities. He spoke English, Spanish and Portuguese fluently. He spent nearly his entire life in St. Louis and Florida but loved the Latino culture and longed to live in Mexico. Most people thought he was a native Mexican because of his Spanish-speaking abilities. He was actually part-German, French and English.

My grandpa loved teaching and was the head of Granite City High School’s language department for 18 years. He loved playing dominos and bocce ball with his friends. He loved spending time with his family.

He loved to talk, listen and write. And especially, he loved soccer. He coached the Granite City boy’s team to the first-ever Illinois High School Association state championship in 1973. He taught his son and my father, Chris, how to play the game the right way. Everything I know about soccer can be traced back to my grandpa.

The Sporting Insider is a biweekly column by Journal copy chief & layout editor Josh Sellmeyer.

Hours before my grandpa died at the age of 85 this past August, I was playing in the preseason opener for the Webster University men’s soccer team. Though the Aug. 18 game against Jefferson College didn’t count toward our record, it still meant a lot to me. I’ve been playing soccer since I was 5 years old, and that game signaled the start of my final season. It will be hard for me to let soccer go.

It was harder to let Papa go. Because he and Marie moved to Lady Lake, Fla., when I was still in diapers, he never saw me play the sport we both care so deeply about.

But that didn’t really matter. I’d tell him on the phone about the big goal I scored or the great game my team played. He’d let every word wash over him. He’d tell me about his days coaching at Granite City or refereeing high school and college games, and I’d eat up every word. Soccer was our common bond and language. We didn’t let 950 miles of geographical separation get in the way.

My family didn’t have cable when I was younger, so my grandpa sent us VHS tapes of professional games he recorded. He’d also send handwritten letters describing the games’ highlights. I loved watching the games, but more than that, I loved reading my grandpa’s writing. My favorite part was how he finished each and every letter, “Sincerely, tu Papa en Florida.”

After graduating from CBC High School in St. Louis, my grandpa received a degree in Spanish-American studies from Saint Louis University (SLU). Years later, he earned a master’s degree from Washington University and began teaching at Granite City.

While attending CBC and SLU, my grandpa worked as a freelance sports writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He loved that job but never wrote on a full-time basis.

Teaching became his career, and he was perfectly fine with that. He’d tell me he was so proud I decided to pursue journalism. He’d tell me I would make it, even though the job market was tough. I shipped him copies of The Journal so he could read my work. He let every word wash over him.

I have five more regular-season games left in my collegiate career. I’ll be dedicating the games to my family, my friends and all the coaches and teammates who have impacted my life. And I’ll be dedicating the games to Papa.

He never saw me play soccer while he was alive. But that doesn’t really matter.

He’s watching me now.

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