Mondays and Wednesdays were the worst. They were hell. Dragging yourself out of bed before sunrise was even a rumor. Trudging onto the track at Estero High in virtual darkness, where the Gatorade you slammed on your way did little to ease the knot in your stomach about what awaited you once he signaled it was time to get started.
Jeff Sommer called it “Speed Work.” Pure agony would have been more accurate. A series of 100s, 400s and 800s through the early morning soup at a school basically built on the edge of a swamp. Over and over and over again. Down and back. Down and back. Sommer’s voice a nonstop full-throated rasp _ the one that betrayed his West Virginia twang no matter how long he lived in Southwest Florida _ that doubled as a GPS for your soul.
And now suddenly, tragically it’s gone. His death last weekend at 58 just minutes after the Estero High girls 4×800 team won a state title leaves a hole that will be impossible to fill, perhaps because what he did and who he was seems itself impossible.
Running is a series of eternal battles. Between your quads and your mind, your hamstrings and your heart, your want and your will. It’s not that putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can for as long as you can is difficult. It’s just that stopping is so easy.
Sommer understood the struggle. He embraced it. And for 28 years his passion served as the tie-breaking vote in your head all those mornings when you didn’t feel like going. When you wanted to hit snooze. When you wanted to tell him to find the highest point in the bleachers at Wildcat Stadium and take a head-first dive off it.
Only you didn’t. You couldn’t. Because he believed. He always believed. It didn’t matter if you had talent or not. Lord knows he didn’t attract the best athletes all those years even as his program littered the Estero High gym with state championship banner after state championship banner.
Cross country is often for the leftovers, the kids too skinny for football, too unrefined for soccer, too impatient for golf. And so he’d scour the halls recruiting, looking for kids who were searching for a place of their own. He never said no. Fat. Skinny. Fast. Slow. If you were interested in testing yourself, he was interested in you.
The club was his idea. He didn’t want cross-country to serve as a hobby that happened from August through November before you moved on to whatever came next. He wasn’t engineered that way. Running was no more a hobby to Sommer than breathing. He didn’t want you to commit, he wanted you to Commit _ capital C.
Dedication. Desire. Discipline. The “3Ds.” It wasn’t a club so much as a calling. A way of life for those _ not just the kids on the team at Estero but their parents, friends and family _ brave enough or stubborn enough to handle it. To handle him.
Maybe you arrived with all three of the Ds stashed away somewhere. You probably didn’t. He didn’t care. He would provide the bridge to them _ the tenets of his life _ if you provided the trust that he knew what he was doing.
He wasn’t for everybody. He could be too much. He cursed more than he should have. There were times when the fire that burned so deeply within could singe those closest to him. It could seem like he wasn’t so much as man as an experience. He didn’t coach his teams as much as he lived through them.
Every practice. Every stride. Every morning. Every meet. Six days a week, 12 months a year he set the tone and for a quarter century it never wavered. Not during those unrelenting speed drills. Not during those long Sunday morning runs. Not on the seemingly endless summits of the bridge to Fort Myers Beach, the closest thing that passed to a hill for 200 miles in any direction. Not when a heart attack at 42 nearly killed him. Not when the results would ebb and flow. Not during the first workout of the season or the state meet..
He demanded respect, but he didn’t take the process for granted. Most mornings he would be out there right alongside you, churning out mile after mile in the thick heavy blanket of Southwest Florida air. His own running form _ his face contorted in pain, his thick arms and legs churning rather than elegantly gliding, the hat over his balding head drenched as he fought the perfectionist within _ was a fitting symbol of the bowling ball optimism he brought to each day.
He tried to slow down once. He gained 30 pounds after doctors slit him open and put a stent in his chest, his running and his arteries no match for genetics and a diet heavy on pizza and Mountain Dew. The sabbatical ended quickly. It wasn’t long before he was hitting the road twice a day, once with the team and another in the scorching midday heat during his lunch break.
So what if the doctors told him he was at risk? Better to push your body to the limit doing something that you love _ something that defines you _ than scoot around on a golf cart like some fat old man while you bark orders.
When it came to the concept of family, blood was immaterial. Sweat is what mattered. If you lined up next to him, if you gave him the freedom to mold you, he was yours forever. A father figure to those who grew up without one. A best friend for the friendless. A protector in times of grief. A giver who never once sought credit. It didn’t matter what it was: shoes, food, advice, a ride. The answer was yes. It was always yes.
There were fights, sure. Arguments. He was stubborn and bull-headed. His eyes fixated on the stopwatch during practices, marking the time as you lunged for the finish line. The mistake the newcomers always made was thinking it was about the clock. It was never about the clock. It was about you. He had an innate sense of effort. And if yours dipped for a yard, a second, a footstep, he would let you know, often in a way that you didn’t like.
And yet you kept coming back. You couldn’t stay away. Because you started hearing his voice in your head. The one that screamed “DIG” or “PUSH” with the same passion and at the same volume no matter if you were the first Wildcat heading to the finish line or the last.
That’s the way it was in those final moments. His girls pulling away to victory. His face likely a still undiscovered shade of red and purple, joy bursting through his veins as he watched them break through whatever artificial barriers they had set in their own minds on their potential.
There is comfort for those that knew him that this is how he left us. And as heartbreaking as it is, this is how it was always going to end. It came far too soon and yet, if given the choice it’s hard to imagine him picking any other way.
It speaks to his effect on people that his passing has produced such an outpouring. Of grief. Of sadness. Of shock. The tears, in reality, are for us. Jeff Sommer was a gift. Scratch that. He is a gift. The love he provided so selflessly for so many years will carry on through his children, his grandchildren and the school and running club that was his lifeblood.
The Estero High cross-country team practiced early Sunday, just hours after his passing. They walked arm in arm, seeking comfort at a time of unspeakable pain. And yet they kept moving forward, the memory of a man known to so many as Coach _ there’s really no need for last names when it came to him _ providing one more parting lesson.
Keep going. No matter what. Keep going.
Push. Dig. Run.