James O. Jeffers Sr., a prominent athlete who became a popular teacher and coach with important life lessons after a car crash left him paralyzed from the neck down, died March 22 after a recent illness, his family said. He was 82.
Mr. Jeffers inspired generations of youngsters as a longtime educator in the Sacramento City Unified School District. He started teaching physical education at Oakridge Elementary School in 1959 and transferred to Will C. Wood Junior High School, where he taught industrial arts and coached the flag football team to local championships.
He made sports headlines on his own as one of the best fast-pitch softball players in Northern California. Pitching in three leagues in 1965, he compiled a 43-4 record and was named to the Sacramento Metropolitan All-Star team. He pitched a total of 14 no-hitters and was inducted into the Sacramento Softball Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, he played basketball in March of Dimes tournaments.
Mr. Jeffers won respect and loyalty for going out of his way to lift up mostly underprivileged students at Fruitridge Manor school. He counseled troubled youths and bought shoes for athletes from low-income families. He opened his wallet to buy and give trophies for the most inspirational player of each game and to pay for the postseason team banquet.
While insisting on work and discipline, he reached out to youngsters as a mentor, father figure and friend. He led an after-school Bible class and volunteered on weekends in local recreation programs. He took basketball players to local elementary schools to show children how to dribble and shoot baskets.
“He made a point of making contact with everybody and uplifted everybody around him,” said former student Rick DiRegalo, a retired head basketball coach at Bella Vista High School. “He inspired you to be your best.”
In 1967, while driving to a weekend job at Ancil Hoffman Golf Course, Mr. Jeffers was critically injured in a traffic collision at 21st Avenue and 65th Street Expressway. A vehicle that ran a red light smashed broadside into his car with a force that ripped open the door and flung him to the pavement. His injuries, including a broken neck and permanent spinal nerve damage, left him a quadriplegic.
After many months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, he returned to Will C. Wood in a wheelchair until he retired in 1999. With a positive outlook and classroom assistance from students, he taught social studies to youngsters who also learned about courage, fortitude and personal character. He coached basketball and led the team to league championships four consecutive years.
The community rallied to help Mr. Jeffers’ family with medical bills. Besides student-sponsored car washes, school and church groups organized entertainment nights and other fundraising events. The Will C. Wood student council and honor society donated money raised for their own activities to a benefit fund for Mr. Jeffers. Individual students gave leftover lunch money.
“He was very impressed” by the community support, said his son Jim Jr. “He felt like he was one of them, and everyone always did stuff for each other.”
Born Aug. 8, 1931, to farmers in Mason, Okla., Mr. Jeffers grew up with an indomitable spirit in the Great Depression. His father died when he was 7, and his mother moved her three children from the Dust Bowl to Pasadena.
He played at various schools as the family moved with migrant harvest workers in California and Washington state. He excelled in basketball, baseball and tennis at St. Helena High School, graduated in 1950 and played multiple sports at Napa Junior College.
He pitched on an Army all-star softball team while deployed in Japan during the Korean War. He married Phyllis Paull in 1953, settled in Sacramento and earned a teaching degree from Sacramento State College in 1959.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Jeffers is survived by a daughter, Jill Clark; two sisters, OraLee Fontana and Linda Hart; and three grandchildren.
A viewing is set for 9 a.m. Saturday, followed by a funeral at 11 a.m., at River Cities Funeral Chapel, 910 Soule St., West Sacramento.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.