Jeff Sommer, the athletic director of Estero High School who coached numerous runners to state championships, collapsed and died at the Florida state track and field championships Saturday.
The girls 4×800 relay team of Daley Cline, Breeana Salcedo, Megan Giovanniello and Megan Slater had just won the FHSAA state championship in Jacksonville and were celebrating when Sommer collapsed, witnesses said. He was taken to St. Vincent’s Medical Center and died there a short time later.
Sommer, 58, died from an apparent heart attack, 16 years after a similar one almost cost him his life.
Sommer influenced countless runners and coaches throughout Southwest Florida and far beyond. He had been coaching in Lee County for 38 years.
Nearly 70 family members, athletes, parents, coaches and friends gathered at the school Sunday to remember the man who taught them how to love running.
“This was the best way to show how much we care,” Estero runner Jordan Paredes said. “We needed to be strong together and keep going.”
Coach Sommer would have wanted this, they said. He wouldn’t have wanted them to do anything else.
So they lined the parking lot. They put his favorite drink, Mountain Dew, on the ground. They signed a blue baton with a black sharpie. They left their cleats at the track, hung their orange singlets with tape. They showered the parking lot with flowers and squeezed their hard earned medals between the wires in the metal fence.
And they cried. They hugged everyone they could find. They prayed. They remembered.
Before long, they needed to run, too. Assistant track and field coach Ben Pignatone insisted they do so, off to the track first, where everyone could do a lap.
Everyone held hands and put their arms over their shoulders. They showed strength and courage, just like Sommer had taught them. In the final straightaway, they ran.
“It’s one team, one family out here,” said Tammy Salcedo, whose daughter, Breeana, was on the 4 x 800 relay team. “We have the biggest support team and family here. And this isn’t even half of them.”
On Saturday, two of the first individuals in the hospital were Evangelical Christian School senior Sarah Candiano and girls’ distance coach Wes Penberthy. They were deeply affected by the loss.
“He was so passionate about what he did,” Penberthy said. “He loved those kids. He put a lot of time and effort into every single one of them. I didn’t even go to Estero, but he put so much time into everyone. He would help anybody that he could.”
“There are no words to express how deeply saddened the Estero family is over the loss of Jeff,” the statement read. “He leaves us a legacy of love, leadership and passion that will endure forever in the many lives he touched.”
Kacy Smith, an outstanding Estero runner who is attending Ole Miss on a rare full scholarship for cross country, won numerous individual state cross country and track titles and was the lead runner on the Wildcats’ three-time reigning cross country state champions.
“He’s definitely the definition of a coach,” Smith said. “He loved all of his runners; he didn’t care if they were fast or slow.”
“He had a great impact on a lot of people,” said Leon, who was able to compete for Sommer’s team in her senior year. “He was like a father figure to us and he was just a really good coach.”
Coaching was his life, Smith said.
“He loved waking up every morning; you’d never see him without a smile on his face,” she added.
Smith knew Sommer for much of her life. She started running young, in elementary school and it seemed, she said, like she’d always run for him.
He was a tough coach, but also knew how hard he could push each of his runners, she said.