TAMPA — Former Plant High School teacher, football coach and principal Vincent Sussman, who added a new dimension to an inspirational career after a fall that left him a quadriplegic, died early Monday. He was 63.
Mr. Sussman suffered health problems since a fall from the roof of his home 16 years ago broke his neck. He died in his sleep.
"I think his body just had enough," said his wife, Meg Sussman. "He went peacefully."
Monday, news spread among educators, friends and former players who had remained close to Mr. Sussman through his promotion to a district administrative job and his retirement in 2008.
"God just got somebody really good up there," said Karen Clay, an activist for disabled rights whose son attended Plant High because of accommodations arranged by Mr. Sussman. "That just breaks my heart."
Once a defensive tackle at Kansas State Teacher's College, Mr. Sussman was known to players as Coach Suss and later, after they graduated, as Big Suss. Other coaches and friends called him the Big Fella.
As a coach, he was fair, organized and disciplined. His teams had fun, recalled Jimmy Kalamaras, who played inside linebacker at Plant in the late 1970s, but he could be tough. After a loss while Kalamaras was a sophomore, Mr. Sussman called a practice on the team's off day. Kalamaras, who went on to play football at the University of Florida, recalled it as one of the "top two hardest practices I've ever gone through."
As an administrator, Mr. Sussman encouraged teachers not to give up on students and to think ahead. As an assistant principal, he encouraged social studies teacher Frank Perez to go to graduate school for his master's degree so that he could become a department head one day. Later, Mr. Sussman gave Perez that job.
"He had a tough exterior, but it belied the big heart that he had," Perez said. "He loved teaching. He loved working with students and with athletes. … He left a big mark on a lot of people."
Mr. Sussman, a father of two, possessed a deep love of children and a dedication to his work, said Mrs. Sussman, who met him when they were 18.
"He was a good husband and a good friend," she said. "Our kids adored him. He was my best friend, and I was his best friend. He was always there for me."
Mr. Sussman was hired in 1973 at Plant, where he taught driver's education and physical education. He went on to become assistant principal and athletic director, then principal in 1993.
Clay met him when her son, Michael Phillips, wanted to attend Plant, his neighborhood school, even though his severe disabilities made him a candidate for a special education class at Jefferson High School.
As Phillips described the conversation, Mr. Sussman told him that "stupid rules are for stupid people" and he would make sure Phillips had what he needed to succeed at Plant.
Phillips was a rising junior in the summer of 1997 when Mr. Sussman tried to repair the roof of his one-story home. The ladder slipped and he fell.
Mr. Sussman returned to work when school resumed that August, running Plant from a wheelchair and a voice-activated computer. He told the Times, "I'm not going to dwell in self-pity or why it happened. I've never taught anybody to do that. … I've got to start living the lessons that I teach."
"He still commanded respect," Kalamaras said. "You gave it to him because of who he was and the words that came out of his mouth. They were always uplifting."
In 2000, he became the district's director of resource management, overseeing multimillion-dollar construction budgets.
But he suffered a variety of health problems related to his immobility. After choking on a pill, he needed a tracheotomy and started using a ventilator at night. Unable to speak, he would move his lips and his wife would translate. Friends, including Plant alumni, organized yearly golf tournaments to help with Mr. Sussman's medical expenses.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Times staff writer Amy Scherzer contributed to this report.