Casey Sudhoff, a member of the Blue Springs South state champion Jaguar football team, calls a recent experience “a life-changing moment.”

Casey Sudhoff, a member of the Blue Springs South state champion Jaguar football team, calls a recent experience “a life-changing moment.”

The senior linebacker wasn’t talking about the Jaguars’ memorable 40-37 victory over Christian Brothers College High School in the Class 6 state championship game at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

He was talking about his first sleigh ride with Secret Santa’s ELF (Ever Lasting Friend).

Unlike the Secret Santa who visits various spots throughout the metro area to distribute specially marked $100 bills, Sudhoff was joined by fellow South students and alum Jordan Philpott, Kellen Barlett, Robbie Payton and brothers Mowgs and Ross Taylor and their father, Rick.

They didn’t hand out $100 bills.

In some small way, what they delivered may have been more important.

The crew met at 10 a.m. Thursday at Tim’s Pizza in Independence, where owner Tim Pace had 10 large pizzas sliced and boxed in individual servings. The South elves added a bottle of water, a granola bar and a $10 bill to hand out to the needy.

“It was a life-changing moment I will never forget,” said Sudhoff, who is eagerly awaiting another sleigh ride a few days after Christmas. “We were driving down the road and saw a guy with a shopping cart full of empty cans.”

The car carrying Sudhoff and his fellow elves stopped, and they approached the man.

“He didn’t know what was going on,” Sudhoff said, “and when we gave him the box of food and the $10, he just looked at us and started to tear up.”

So did many of the Blue Springs South present-day and former students.

“It had a huge impact on my life – huge!” Payton said. “To think that $10 and a lunch meant that much to someone. As we were driving away he was yelling ‘Thank you! Thank you! God bless you!’ It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. I’ll never forget it, and I hope I can go on some other rides while I’m home from school.”

Rick Taylor and his sons visualized this South sleigh ride a few weeks ago. They have gone on several sleigh rides, including many with the original Secret Santa and longtime Taylor family friend, the late Larry Stewart.

“I don’t know if the guys know what they’re in for,” Rick said as the boys boxed up the pizza and granola bars and grabbed bottles of water. “I told them they’d never forget the experience.”

He was right.

“It was a life-changing experience, and it made you realize how much you have and how special your support group of friends really is,” Philpott said. “Kellen and Robbie and I didn’t really know what to expect, so we just followed Ross and Mowgs’ lead and it was awesome.”

Pace arrived earlier than usual at his restaurant to prepare the pizzas for these first-time elves.

“It’s just so special to be a part of something like this,” said Pace, whose generosity is well known throughout eastern Independence, although, like Stewart, he will not discuss the way he impacts people’s lives. “Here you have guys home from college, a guy who just won a state championship in football and they come up here on a Thursday morning and spend the day going out to help homeless individuals.

“There are days you just don’t feel like coming to work. Then, there are days like today when you can’t wait to show up.”

The sleigh ride started in downtown Kansas City, Kan., and wound its way back to Independence.

“We have received $2,000 from the sale of Secret Santa’s book, ‘Secret Santa, a Story of Hope,’ here at Tim’s,” Rick said. “And all that money will be donated on sleigh rides like this one.”

As Taylor spoke about the books, which can be purchased for any size donation, Pace talked about an experience with a recent customer.

“One of our regular customers asked for a book,” Pace said, “and handed me these bills.”

There appeared to be three $5 bills in his hand. But stuck between the two $5 bills was a $100 bill.

“That’s what this is all about,” Pace said, grinning from ear to ear.

He wasn’t alone, as smiles ruled the day for a group of elves who discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

“I know Jesus is looking down on us smiling,” said Bartlett, a football standout at Utah State, who is rehabbing after breaking his leg last season. “Today, I found out my lows are other people’s highs – that’s how good my life is. Today warmed my heart. I’ve never felt this good or smiled this big. I can’t wait to go out and do it again. What a great Christmas present. I know that all of us experienced something that will change our lives forever.”

To make a donation or pick up a book, “Secret Santa, A Story of Hope,” call Tim or Steve Pace at Tim’s Pizza, 816-478-0777. Please call before attempting to pick up a book to make sure they have plenty on hand.