John with his engraver’s tools.
John with his engraver’s tools.

Like any good athlete preparing for an important game, John Wilhelmus Franciscus Zonneveld takes good care of himself. He works out at the gym, practices with the team twice a week, gets plenty of sleep and eats right.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Zonneveld was to join his teammates to defend the national title they won last summer – winners of the Veterans Cup Soccer League. He’s 74.

Zonneveld calls his teammates the “boys” from North Carolina and Georgia. All of them are at least 65; he is the oldest.

Zonneveld is better known around north Atlanta as John Franciscus, a master hand engraver who carves monograms, dates and initials on silver and pewter gifts for all occasions. One of John’s prestigious commissions for many years was engraving the trophy for the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National.

He works out of LJ Lewis Silver Company on West Wieuca Road, and his own belt buckle with four initials is a shining example of Old English-meets-sterling-silver. Zonneveld, divorced, lives on the Buckhead side of Sandy Springs, has four grown children. As an additional hobby, he paints with oils.

After sitting all day bent over his engraving desk, he unfolds his lanky, 6-foot, 3-inch frame to join the “boys” for afternoon practices. Growing up in Holland, he’s been playing soccer competitively since age 11 in a junior league and then, as a teenager, he worked as an apprentice during the day, went to school at night, and was on the field weekends.

“There was never more than a year or so when I wasn’t playing,” he said.

All told, that would be more than 50 years of soccer.

He left home at 19 with a suitcase and $50 and landed in British Columbia, where he worked as an engraver and jeweler. While taking a gemological course in California, a friend introduced him to Atlanta; he arrived in the city in 1982.

“The first thing I did was look for a soccer club,” he said.

He found one at Chastain Park made up of Germans, Italians and a few Americans, then later joined the Buckhead Blues made up mostly of graduates from The Westminster Schools.

An example of John Franciscus’ work in another of his artistic mediums, oil painting.

“I was by far the oldest member on the team,” he said. “They were in their 20s and 30s, and I was already close to 50, but I always felt welcome … They looked up to me because I was able to run fast and play at their level.”

He’d still be playing with them, he said, but too many of them developed knee problems and hip issues. What’s his secret? Never smoked, not much red meat, lots of fish, a sensible diet, moderate drinking, stay active.

“I’ve been doing sports all my life and am careful,” the former speed skater said. “Soccer doesn’t give you a lot of protection – just shin pads – so you are very much exposed to injury all the time. If you have enough experience, you know when to back off and when to be aggressive.”

Zonneveld next joined an over-50 league in Roswell where some players had played in the Veterans Cup. They invited him to team up with some of the North Carolina “boys,” forming a team known as North Carolina-Georgia United.

Dietmar Dhoring, who came to this area from Germany, is, at 68, the team’s organizer and coach. “John is one of our better players,” he said, “the oldest on the team. I think we have a better than 50 percent chance of winning this year.”

The 10 Georgians on the team also include Cy Strickler, 73, who founded Tophat Soccer Club for girls, and Terence Radford, 72. Both live in the Buckhead area. The rest are from Roswell.

Three years ago, they competed for the first time as a team in Boston and lost in the finals to a California team. Last year, they beat Massachusetts in the finals and became the champs.

The National Veterans Cup – for the 65-and-over category – was established in 1998 by the United States Adult Soccer Association to provide high-level soccer for men. In fact, there is a team of Georgia women players over 55 who call themselves The Betty Whites.

Franciscus’ philosophy is the same whether he’s sitting in his engraver’s chair or playing mid-field. “Quality and longevity is what I strive for. I have no intention to retire,” he said.