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CU Legend John Stearns Passes Away

Sep 16, 2022

           BOULDER — John Stearns, a legend on the baseball diamond and football gridiron for the University of Colorado in the early 1970s, passed away Thursday in Denver after a courageous fight against stage IV cancer.  He was 71.
           Born August 21, 1951 in Denver, he starred as a prep at Thomas Jefferson High School in football, baseball and basketball and was recruited to CU by assistant football coach Steve Sidwell.
           Inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 and CU's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008, on the diamond he played in 140 games for the Buffaloes, mostly at catcher, with a career average of .366 with 28 home runs and 101 runs batted in.  He had one of the best single seasons in CU history as a senior in 1973, when he batted .413 with 15 homers and 48 RBI's; he led the NCAA in home runs and slugging percentage (.819) while leading CU to a 32-11 record under the late Irv Brown, the school's best-ever once the schedule expanded to 25 or more games in the mid-1950's.  Those numbers helped him become CU's first All-American in the sport.
           On the gridiron, he remains CU's all-time record holder in interceptions (16) and return yards for both a season (158) and career (339).  He also 194 tackles and 18 pass deflections at the safety position.  Stearns pulled off perhaps the "gutsiest" play in school history, when he ran for a 12-yard game out of the punt formation, from the Buff 10-yard line no less, on a 4th-and-9 play with CU nursing a 23-17 lead over Houston early in the fourth quarter in the '71 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl.  The Buffs went on to win, 29-17, and finished No. 3 in the national rankings.  He earned first-team All-Big Eight honors in 1972 and was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the '73 NFL Draft.
           He was initially drafted out of Thomas Jefferson High School by the Oakland A's in the 13th round of the 1969 Major League Baseball Draft, but chose to enroll at CU.  Following a stellar career in both football and baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies made him the second overall selection in the '73 Draft. 
           After the better part of two seasons in the Phillies' minor league system, he was called up to the majors in September 1974, getting a single in two at bats.  He was then part of a six-player trade that sent him to the New York Mets and Tug McGraw to the Phillies; Queens would become his home as he went on to spend 10 seasons with the Mets.  A four-time All-Star with the Mets (1977, 1979, 1980 and 1982), he owned a career batting average of .260 with 46 home runs and 312 runs batted in; displaying the speed he had as a safety in football, he also stole 91 bases (including 25 in 1978, a record for catchers at the time).  Known for his defensive abilities, he caught 699 games in the majors, owned a .985 fielding percentage and threw out over 37 percent of runners attempting to steal.
           Following his playing days, he went into both scouting and coaching on both the major and minor league levels, including for the Mets, the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners.  He was the Mets' bench coach in 2000 when the Yankees beat them in the Subway Series.
           Stearns recently had attended the Mets' Old Timers Day last month and CU's on-field celebration of teammate Cliff Branch's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sept. 2.
        New York Met's president Sandy Alderson issued the following statement in remembering Stearns Friday:
        "No one played the game with more spirit or determination than John Stearns.  He literally willed himself to attend Old Timers' Day last month so he could visit friends and old teammates.  Despite his illness, he even managed to step into the batting cage to take a few swings.  His nickname, 'Bad Dude' couldn't have been more appropriate.  A four-time All-Star, John was one of the most complete catchers in Mets history.  Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family."
        "John was an amazing person, one of the most talented athletes that came out of Colorado," his brother Rick said.  "He started just like all of us, playing whiffle ball int the backyard and he winds up being a four-time All-Star.  He never felt out of place playing in New York.  He always was a fighter, and through his battle, he never complained, never got depressed and always told everyone he would beat it.
        "In the end, he was just a guy from Denver.  One of the few who made it from the state as a position player in the majors."
        Rick indicated that despite being drafted by both the NFL and NBA, John's favorite sport was basketball and he could swish in a shot from 20 feet with the best of them.
        Services are pending; John is survived by his son Justin and daughter-in-law Christian, two brothers, Bill and Rick (and sister-in-law Rachel), and a sister Carla, eight nieces and nephews and two grandchildren.

Larry Brunson, Teammate (Football, 1970-71)
"John was bigger than life.  He was one of those guys you admired.  He was a sophomore, we were seniors and it was like he was already in the NFL.  But he had that kind of confidence and swagger.  It's hard to see guys go in our era, so I'm appreciative and glad I got to spend some time with him at Cliff Branch's ceremony.  He really wanted to go out there and get on that field one more time.  It was important to do that, being teammates again.  It's a tough thing and he'll be missed, but he will also be remembered.  He made everyone else better.  He's our guy, and always will be."
Dave Engels, Teammate (Baseball, 1971-73)
"One of my favorite athletics memories was playing three years on CU's baseball team with John Stearns, who was also the hero of the 1971 Bluebonnet Bowl when he ran out of punt formation.  That changed the game's momentum, CU won and finished third in the country behind Nebraska and Oklahoma.  John was tough, brash and competitive.  He was the kind of guy that you hated if you played against him – in part due to his brashness, in part because he was such a good player – but loved if you played on the same team with him.
"During my junior year, we were wrapping up a three-game series at Missouri in Columbia.  We were playing well during that stretch, having swept a doubleheader against the Tigers the day before and were in the lead during this third game.  During the game, a small prop started flying overhead, pulling a banner which was apparently advertising something.  No one in the dugout could read what the sign said, so John blurted out, 'I can read it.  It says: BUFFS – TAKE IT EASY ON OUR BOYS!'."
Doug Flynn, Teammate (New York Mets, 1978-81)
"I saw John hit his first major league home run. He was a great teammate, great competitor and later became a dear friend."
Steve Hatchell, CU Assistant to the AD/SID (1970-73); CEO/National Football Foundation:
"John was unbelievably competitive.  There's nobody that you'd ever meet that was more competitive in football and baseball than John.  But that's how he looked at life, in a competitive sense – in everything he did.  He was so strong in everything.  To have that nickname the 'Bad Dude' and to be able to back it up was incredible.  From time to time, I see a guy in New Orleans and he'd come up to me and ask if I speak to Bad Dude.  I'd say yes, and he'd remind me that John broke his shoulder in the Liberty Bowl and we'd laugh about it.  We were all so proud of John when he played with the Mets.  A very special guy, a great friend.  This is just so unbelievably sad."
Dave Logan, Teammate (Football, 1972)
"I only played with John for one year at CU, but remember his leadership and toughness.  John was tough mentally and physically which was so very evident in his athletic career – and he carried that with him through this lifetime.  He was truly a warrior in every sense of the word.  We have lost one of the great all-time Buffs."
Bob Masten, Teammate (Football, 1970-71)
"John will be greatly missed.  A terrific athlete and one of the toughest competitors that I've ever played with.  Larry Brunson and I took him up to Cliff Branch's tribute for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and we stood there on the field again, shoulder-to-shoulder, for the last time.  I just wanted to be able to do that more time."
Lee Mazzilli, Teammate (New York Mets, 1976-81)
"I am heartbroken. John was just a joy to be around. He loved the game so much. I was amazed when he went to the batting cage on Old Timers' Day. That just showed you how much of a competitor he was."
Kimbirly Orr, Executive Director Alumni C- Club (2019-present)
"From the moment I met John at Living Legends in 2021, I knew he was a force to be reckoned with, and a fierce competitor in his day.  When I learned of his illness, I immediately reached out and shared in his wish to fight the good fight against cancer.
Two weeks ago, I had the distinct honor to gather teammates of Cliff Branch to recognize and honor his NFL Hall of Fame induction.  When I talked with John, he told me, "I will be there and I am living to walk onto Folsom Field again."  I'll never forget his words nor the time we shared, and our two walks on Folsom Field in the last year. Godspeed, Bad Dude!"

John Stavely, Teammate (Football, 1970-72)
"John Stearns was one of the greatest and most intense competitors that I had the privilege to play with.  He had complete confidence and was unwavering in what he was going to do to win.  One of the greatest examples was in the 1971 Astro- Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston when he was set to punt with our backs to the end zone, and instead of kicking the ball he saw the opportunity to run, and darn if he didn't make a first down.  He holds the all-time record for interceptions by a Buff, but he was also a fierce tackler.  It was so great to see him and spend time with him last year at the Living Legends festivities, and I was looking forward to see him again at the festivities next weekend.  He was a warrior and a great Buff.  He will be missed."
Joe Torre, Teammate (New York Mets, 1975-77; Mets Manager, 1977-81)
"I'm so glad we had a chance to talk at Citi Field a few weeks ago.  No one played the game harder than John.  He never came to the park in a bad mood.  All he wanted to do was win.  To be a four-time All-Star is something special."
Bobby Valentine, Manager (New York Mets, 2000-01)
"John was such a key part of our staff.  He had a unique way of lighting a fire under the guys. Every time we spoke by phone, he kept telling me he was going to beat this thing. That was John Stearns to a tee."
Neill Woelk, Boulder Camera/ (1980-present)
"According to (sports editor) Can Creedon (and later confirmed by Fred 'The Count' Casotti), an SI writer – Dan Jenkins was in Boulder fall of '69.  He's going through the roster with the Count and he asks if there are any freshmen he should keep in mind for the next season.  Legend has it Casotti said. 'Yeah, this kid Stearns. He's one bad dude.'
"The writer laughed, wrote it down -- and a year later, when the Buffs pounded Penn State in Boulder (the famous SI cover), Jenkins wrote in his story ... 
And there can't be a meaner safety than Bad Dude Stearns, who has his head shaved and openly admits he wants to become known as the most insane hitter in the history of football. Only a sophomore, Bad Dude may not live that long. If he doesn't kill himself running into things, he may get assassinated in the still of the night by an aggrieved opponent. Bad Dude could become the first player to discover how to throw a shoulder at somebody on his way to church.
"I think Count is credited with giving him the nickname.  That's the story I heard and it fits the personality/character of the people involved."