Star-Bulletin Sports

Thursday, July 8, 1999


Courtesy of John DeSoto
Hall of Fame inductee John DeSoto raced at
Carlsbad (Calif.) Raceway in 1969

John DeSoto
entering Motorcycle
Hall of Fame

The accomplishment is just the
latest of many in the life
of the Councilman

By Ben Henry
Special to the Star-Bulletin


John DeSoto has been many things to many people.

To anyone around in his motocross heyday of the late '60s and early '70s, he's known as the Flyin' Hawaiian.

To the people witnessing his induction into the American Motorcycle Heritage Foundation's Hall of Fame tomorrow in Ohio, he's a living legend.

Still, despite his long list of accomplishments on the dirt track, it is what he has done outside of it that distinguishes him from your other everyday sports legends:

Bullet In high school, he was an all-star football player and was undefeated as a wrestler.

Bullet In his first (and only) year of college football, he was a junior college all-American linebacker.

Bullet In 1983, after picking up a surfboard for the first time just two years prior, he became a world tandem surfing champion.

Bullet He was elected to the City Council (District 9) and is now in his fourth and final term.

John DeSoto has accomplished much in his 52 years. Yet, after what he has lived through, all the accolades in the world would somehow seem empty now to this Oahu native.

"(I'm) not just a person who's successful in racing motorcycles," he said, somehow holding back the pain. "I'm a person who has a giant hole in his heart and soul. I thought I was going to die."

He's got a sense of humor, readily acknowledging that he only became crazy enough to run for office after he "raced a couple times without a helmet."

But his mood quickly sombers when he points out how he got to this point in his life -- by avoiding alcohol and drugs.

"I know how these things are deterrents," he said. "Most kids, young men and women, do what other people do. It's good to listen to those who have succeeded in life. But sometimes you have negative role models. If you take some kind of substance that can deter your goals, life becomes like everyone else's."

But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't stop alcohol from changing his life.

From the beginning, John DeSoto knew what he wanted to do.

"I grew up wanting to ride," he said of his passion that started at the age of 5. "My dad loved it because he was a motorcycle enthusiast, but my mom was a little hesitant, because she was afraid I'd get hurt."

In 1965, after graduating from Waianae High School, he went to Snow Junior College in Utah on a football scholarship.

"As I was growing up, my parents were real supportive, but I knew ... the only way I could afford to go to college was to play football," he said.

It was when he got to the mainland that he realized what his calling was. "I saw some of the motorcycle races and thought, 'This is who John DeSoto is,' " he said. So he quit school and found his way to California in 1967 to pursue a racing career.

He received much support from his parents, but was disappointed in the lack of support from some in his community. DeSoto, about to embark on a risky journey in search of a motocross career, was told by a well-known local businessman that he would "never make it."

"If I would have listened to him and everybody else, I wouldn't be where I am today," DeSoto said.

Indeed, it seemed at first that he wasn't going to make it. DeSoto was homeless his first six months in California, racing with borrowed parts during the day and sleeping in an abandoned car at night.

Eventually, DeSoto's go-for-broke style set him apart from other racers, and sponsors began to take notice. And after six months, he was offered a sponsorship.

His competitive career lasted until 1975, when he moved back to Hawaii and worked in construction and at an oil refinery for over a decade. But he wanted to help those who, in his mind, mattered most -- kids. So he ran for the city council, and was elected in 1986.

In the course of an average lifetime, a person faces something that defines their very identity. For John DeSoto, that proverbial defining moment surprisingly had nothing to do with his life's work.

It came one fateful February day in 1993.

The night before, DeSoto had spoken with his 20-year-old son, and everything seemed to be fine.

But the younger DeSoto was dealing with a tough break-up, and was unconsolable. He started taking heavy alcohol shots.

The next time John DeSoto heard from his son was in his suicide note.

John DeSoto was a broken man.

"I wanted to quit everything. It was so painful," he said.

Six years later, he is still looking for answers. "I go through life (with success), my kids are smart and healthy, and everything is going good. Then, all of the sudden, the rug is pulled up from under you -- you lose your son.

"When he died, I realized it was the alcohol that did it. ... So what do I do? Do I give up? That's not what John DeSoto does."

Instead, he decided to use the incident as a reminder of why he got into politics in the first place: "To give back to the kids."

When John DeSoto is inducted into the Motocross Hall of Fame tomorrow, he will be recognized as a motocross pioneer.

But in his mind, it means more than that.

He is being recognized for not bowing out when it would have been easier to; for trying to carry on a legacy and a cause that, while possibly unpopular with some, was right in his mind; for understanding that to lose sight of one's purpose is a fate worse than death.

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