|Coach Jeff Sommer|
I always called him coach. Calling someone coach is the ultimate sign of respect to me. I met him when I first came to Fort Myers in 2003. Our paths first crossed at one of the local road races where he routinely whipped my ass. Then as fate would have it, I moved into his neighborhood, his house just a block over from mine.
Coach Jeff Sommer had spent years building Estero High School into a distance running powerhouse. I've known a lot of great high school coaches. Coaches you've probably never heard of, Verlyn Schmidt, Van Rose and Joe Schrag. They set the standard in the state of Kansas. But what Coach Sommer did stands out when compared from the trio of greats I mentioned from my home state of Kansas.
Sommer's had no hills to train his runners on. He trained his athletes in the humid, pre-dawn hours during the summer to escape the oppressive heat of Southwest Florida. His 3D approach of discipline, desire and determination, produced some amazing distance runners. Sommer was cheering on his talented squad of 4 X 800 girls to a championship when he collapsed.
I can't explain why I feel such a sense of loss. Coach and I spoke to each other less than 2 dozen times in the 12 years that we knew each other. Our conversations always left me feeling that I was taking to a man in a hurry, a man on a mission, a man touching lives.
And that's where the hurt comes from for me. I know that Coach Sommer touched and changed hundreds upon hundreds of lives. His good work spread across the community and he raised the bar for coaches across Southwest Florida and the entire state of Florida. He did what my late coach did.
It was almost exactly ago, the coach that changed my life, Tom Dowling, died suddenly from a heart related incident. Like Coach Sommer, the works of Coach Dowling lifted high school distance running across the Kansas City metro area. The two men were opposites. Coach Sommer was an intense, rolling bundle of energy. Coach Dowling was a zen figure. But both men trained champions on the track and champions in life.
My heart hurts for Coach Sommer, his family, his athletes, but most of all my heart hurts for our community.
Editors note: The Fort Myers News-Press asked me to share these links: