I’m going to ask each of you to do something today. Not for me but for you. Sit down and write a note, text, email, letter, etc ... to a coach or teacher who really made an impact on you. All of us have someone or several someones who have.
Saturday morning Estero High School track and cross country coach Jeff Sommer died of unknown causes. The Naples Daily News reported that it happened during his girls 4x800-meter relay squad state title win at the Florida state track meet.
Why am I writing about a guy from Southwest Florida? Because Sommer impacted my life and the lives of several hundred if not thousands of kids.
You may not know Jeff Sommer, but you know someone like him.
In 20 years of sports writing I’ve met plenty of tough-love coaches. Most of them are quite familiar with the tough part and occasionally familiar with the latter.
I remember watching an intense interval track workout in sticky, sweltering August weather. His cross country squad had captured the 1997 state crown by the narrowest of margins and he didn’t think his charges were having a good workout.
After the next to last interval, one of the runners slumped to the ground. Sommer waited, staring intensely, or at least I think so, because he almost always wore sunglasses. As much to shield the sun as to shield his athletes from the withering glare he could deliver.
After about 30 seconds, he tore into his runners. Not because they weren’t hitting their times, but because not one of them had gone over to help their teammate.
While Sommer never actually coached me, I covered Estero High School when I became the Bontia Banner’s Sports Editor. I was young and still had the crazy dream of recapturing some of my former running glory.
I ran some workouts with his teams. It wasn’t easy. I got smoked by most of the boys, at least the good ones. And he didn’t let up on me.
If I was slacking, he let me know it.
But a few months later when I had a softball-sized tumor cut out of my left hip and he saw me watching practice while utilizing a pair of crutches, he made sure to come talk to me.
He asked how I was doing and immediately started talking with me about my rehab plan and wondering how long it would be before I could run with the kids again. In short, he cared.
The man could deliver the most amazing pre-game pep talks.
I got to witness one, but rumor has it I didn’t see some of the best.
In fact, the Estero girls soccer coach asked Sommer to give a pregame speech four times in four years. Each speech came before a game the Wildcats had to win to reach the state playoffs. Each time, they were decided underdogs. Each time, they won.
Let me put it this way. If I had to pick one person to give the perfect pregame or halftime speech to send a team out on the field ready to do anything it took to win, I’d call Sommer.
When I covered Estero, Sommer still ran with the kids. And I’m not talking jogging around in the back of the pack. He ran hard. He didn’t win, but he worked and sweated with his athletes. He didn’t give them the chance to complain, because he did the exact same stuff they were supposed to do only he was about 25 years older.
I was also there in his hospital room a couple of years later after he suffered a heart attack during a 10-mile training run. It scared the heck out him, his family, his athletes and me. How a guy who was running 30- to 40-mile weeks and turning great times could almost die, shocked us all.
The doctors said it was hereditary. He had a blockage and if he hadn’t been in as good of shape, he would’ve died. He changed his eating habits. He got a new lease on life.
In all honesty, I could tell another half dozen stories about him, and I’m sure there are tons of others who could do the same.
In some ways it seems fitting, that if he were to pass on it would come as he implored his athletes to win a state title. What isn’t fitting is so many of us who he influenced didn’t get to say goodbye.
A few years ago, I dropped him a line congratulating him on winning another state title. As usual, he brushed it off talking about how much it meant to the kids. I have no clue how many state rings he has, but he’d never tell you.
It wasn’t about hardware, trophies or titles with him. It was about making kids better and helping them reach their potential.
One last story sticks out in my mind.
Sommer talked about one of his freshman runners getting lapped in the district two mile. An opposing coach had tried to pull the kid off the track. Sommer refused, saying the kid should get to finish the race.
The kid worked hard and by the time he was a senior, he was lapping kids as he won the district two mile and played a key role on that state championship cross country team. That made Sommer happier than any ring ever would.
He closed out his message to me by saying I was the man and he appreciated everything I did for him and his teams.
And I close this out by writing what I wish I could have written to him.
No coach. You are the man. Thank you for all you’ve done for the kids and thank you for all you did for me. Maybe this will get me off my rear and running again, and I know that would put a big smile on your face.
Now it’s your turn. Write that note, now. Because if you don’t do it now, you may not get the chance later.