Sept. 29, 2016
By John Heisler
For years they called him Coach—or OG (for Old Guy).
In a sad and cruel bit of irony, the man who coached and mentored men’s and women’s boxers for a half-century at the University of Notre Dame as part of its club boxing programs lost his own final health fight.
Tom Suddes died Monday after a two-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 67.
A 1971 Notre Dame graduate, a Bengal Bout captain and two-time welterweight champion and former member of the University development staff, Suddes returned to campus for weeks at a time each year to help coach the Irish boxers—the women in advance of the fall Baraka Bouts and the men in preparation for the winter Bengal Bouts. He also refereed more than 3,000 bouts over the years in Bengal Bout competition.
Suddes most recently returned to campus in February when he was honored at the 2016 Bengal Bout finals and was guest of honor at a pre-event reception.
Since his illness kept him homebound much of the time, there has been a steady stream of visitors to his Ostrander, Ohio, home in suburban Columbus to touch base with Suddes.
Among those were Jennie Phillips, longtime Notre Dame RecSports assistant director, and Linda O’Leary, widow of the late Rich O’Leary who coordinated the Bengal Bouts for years as part of his RecSports role until his death in 2009.
“We spent an hour and a half with him in July,” says Phillips. “He used a wheelchair and a walker, and it was hard for him to talk--but his wife, Trudy, helped interpret. We shared stories and looked at photos from the 40 or 45 years Tom has been involved with the Bengals. We talked about Nappy (Dominic Napolitano, the longtime Bengal Bouts director).
“Tom always had a sparkle in his eye. He went after life and never let this get him down. He was passionate about boxing at Notre Dame and the importance of the contribution to the Holy Cross Missions.
“To be in the shape he was in and come back to campus in February was an amazing thing for him to do.”
Nate Walker, current RecSports club sports coordinator and boxing head coach, worked closely with Suddes in recent years.
“When I think of Tom, I think of pushups—lots and lots of pushups.
“He was known for his endless energy and passion for the boxers and for the Holy Cross Missions. Through the last five decades of boxing and training, he has probably impacted more men and women at Notre Dame than anyone connected with any other sport.
“He displayed a unique love for his family, friends and boxers. He cared more about developing a young man or woman than boxing acumen. Coach often stated, ‘Live. Love. Laugh. Learn. Leave Legacy.’
“Every pushup, every boxing match and every life-changing dollar raised for the Holy Cross Missions will add to his legacy. He was my coach, my mentor, my friend and he will be missed.”
Suddes also served as a tactical officer in the United States Army, led a Notre Dame capital campaign which raised a then-unprecedented total of $180 million, and in 1983 founded The Suddes Group, which has helped organizations worldwide raise over one billion dollars. He founded 19 businesses.
“Coach Suddes was one of the craziest guys I ever met,” said 2003-04 Bengal Bouts captain Pat Dillon.
“Voluntarily, he set aside his own personal and professional life for six weeks every year to coach boxing in the middle of winter in South Bend, Indiana, for no money. He taught thousands of guys over the years not just how to box, but how to commit to something bigger than yourself.”
In a 2015 Notre Dame Magazine piece, Suddes discussed the lessons of the Bengal Bouts:
“Every year 12 guys won, and 238 guys lost. I teach the kids that getting in the ring is the hardest thing in the world. It’s petrifying. Almost to a man, and to a woman, now, anybody who’s participated has said it’s the best experience they’ve ever had at Notre Dame because it’s way more about life and the whole idea of participation and growing. You don’t grow just with success. The failing is really what contributes to growth.”
Suddes received an honorary monogram from the Notre Dame Monogram Club in 2014, just months before the ALS diagnosis.
For more than 40 years, Suddes worked side by side with the boxing clubs with Notre Dame graduate and current Chicago attorney Terry Johnson—with the duo combining to assist with coaching, training and then refereeing the bouts.
“I first met Tom Suddes when I was a freshman at Notre Dame starting with the boxing program, and he was a senior captain,” Johnson told The Observer last March. “So he was kind of our idol. That was 45 years ago. He then came back and became a boxing coach, I went to law school, and we kind of started this avocation of trying to help out with the Bengal Bouts. So for the last 45 years, we’ve been down here together, and he’s just been such an inspiration.”
Notre Dame graduate and current professional boxer Mike Lee, though he never participated in the Bengal Bouts, came to know Suddes well:
“I have never met a man with more positive energy and an incredible way to affect the lives of others, even while he was battling ALS. Tom had a huge impact on my life in and outside the ring. I’m grateful I met this man almost 10 years ago.”
Suddes is survived by his wife of 46 years, Trudy, and their children Tom, Shannon, Kerry, Meghan and Taggart, along with seven grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the Suddes family recommends contributions to two of Tom’s favorite causes—The OSU Star House (it meets the needs of homeless youth in the Columbus area) and Notre Dame boxing.
Suddes’ life will be celebrated the weekend of Oct. 22, 2016. Arrangements are by Schoedinger Funeral Home-Worthington Chapel, 6699 North High Street, Worthington, Ohio 43085 (614-848-6699).
Tom Suddes honored as 2016 Bengal Bouts Award recipient
Tom recalls his journey:
This is 50th year for me (1967-2016). Six different decades. I was last group to fight in the Fieldhouse (with the dirt track and beautiful boxing murals on the wall) … and first to fight in the ACC. Nappy took a liking to me (same size!) and used me to demonstrate his punches. In my senior year, Nappy was out with heart problem. I was President and ended up running the program (including putting the program together and drawing the picture of Nappy on the cover!). It was 40th anniversary and Moose Krause helped me host the dinner before the fights. I fought in Elwood City, PA on undercard for Chuck Landolphi … and again in Terre Haute against Valdez. I started refereeing when I came back from Army in ’73 (Terry was in Ireland!) I figure I have refed over 3,000 matches! Early pictures of us wearing black and white striped ‘ref’ shirts.
Proud to have helped in a small way with Terry and Amy to start women’s program. I think I’ve coached a couple thousand men and women … and they have made my life special. I’ve worked with some of the finest and most dedicated “volunteer” coaches in the world … Terry, Pat, Charlie, Jack, Zimmy, my brother Mike, Kevin, Chad, Sweet, Roland, Lou, Mark, Ryan, and so many more.
I traveled to Bangladesh to visit CSC missions in ’96; and tried to help Mark Weber with documentary SBF. Also proud that we’re sending 5-6 boxers every year to Bangladesh! I’ve had so many groups of officers visit Eagle Creek to do team building and bonding! Some of my most memorable times with the boxers! (Mike Lee handprints still visible on the pole at high ropes course!). I’ve sparred with every group of boxers up until last year … and tried to do as many calisthenics as I could throughout the years. 1,000 push-ups a day was always physical highlight of the year. (44 down … plus 10!) Got to actually box in Ringside World Championship in 2013 and 2014. (At age 64) Reinforced just how hard it is to get in the ring for all our boxers. Most of my closest friends in the world are boxing alums … and I have really enjoyed being around their families! So blessed to have spent my life with these amazing young men and women.