When I entered Mercy as the freshest freshman in 2001, Coach Randy Fowler seemed to me like one of those perpetual creatures at a place. His saunter was confident and slow, his speech southern and concise, and his presence reliable and felt. He seemed like he’d been born at whatever age he was then, right there at Mercy High School. And there, he belonged.
I wasn’t a runner. My mom always had been and when basketball didn’t work out, I thought maybe track and field could be my only way to bypass needing to earn PE credits in junior year gym. I ran one afternoon with my mom, tracked my time on a one and three quarters mile route, and came in to school the next day ready to ask Coach if I was fast. I remember being in the hallway with Sarah, approaching him with more confidence than I actually had and saying something like, “Hi, I’m Jamie’s friend. Last night I ran a mile and three quarters in ___. Is that fast?”
He looked at me, side smiled with a face I’d come to know well and said, “No.”
I probably sulked off pledging to myself and to Sarah that’d be “the last time I talked to that man!” Though, for whatever reason, I toughened my skin and tried out for track anyway. Sarah had lacrosse and I couldn’t spend my afternoons eating chocolate muffins from the vending machine all alone.
As I got to know Coach and solidified my place as a distance runner, I came to understand him better. A former marine, born Floridian, comic, Jeep-driver, Coach was the type of person who made you want to work harder and be better, for him, for your team, and definitely for yourself. He had his own set of -isms, probably some are lost in the cobwebs of my brain while others are burned there forever and I say them to myself when I’m running or just trying to be a human.
- Mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it won’t matter.
- Put a little extra butter on your bread tonight.
- I’m gonna go have a steak and a beer.
- Charge those hills.
- Got nothin’ but love for ya.
- It’s a beautiful thing!
- And all of our nicknames–mine was Tank.
In our senior year in cross country, we were floating in the top spots in our league, never top three, but usually ranked within the top ten in The Sun. Cross country is a weird sport for a lot of reasons not just because peeing your pants and chafing and vomiting are normal and also not just because of those weird little shorts we had to wear but also because varsity changed week to week. The top five runners were your scorers and whoever was in the five, would be varsity that day. Slots six and seven were tie breakers and eight and on ran JV. Our slots were often changing as we rounded out our season in October 2004.
We arrived for the championship at Oregon Ridge Park and stretched in a bandshell. Coach usually had a spot he liked at any given course in the Baltimore area and I assume that bandshell was his go-to at Oregon Ridge. We had sat down for our water-chugging and stretching when we noticed that there was a swarm of lady bugs. They were landing on us and on our stuff in that bandshell. Someone said that lady bugs were good luck.
We ran our race, did our thing, and sat in the awards ceremony expecting the usual. Fourth or fifth, maybe third. Aubrey remembers Coach McCoach (actual name) from Maryvale flashing a single skyward-pointed finger at Coach. And there it was. We’d won. By one point, we had won. Not just the first cross country championship for Mercy, maybe ever, but also Mercy’s first championship in any sport in years. At the end of year sports banquet, Coach called us the Navy Seals of the school and quite frankly, we believed that about ourselves too. Not because we were cocky or he’d inflated our egos more than we deserved, but because Coach helped us believe in ourselves. There are so many aspects of that man that I try to emulate as an educator. And I learned them when I was 16. Soon after that year, Coach left to coach at Calvert Hall–the boys school up the street. We’d always complained that the boys got all the attention and all the resources, and they did. But, I think Coach had success there, earned much better pay, and maybe coached a prodigy or two. Though, I’ve always imagined we were home for him.
I can still see Coach’s cadence, how he slammed his heels down first, rolling his feet toward his toes. We didn’t ever get details but he didn’t run anymore. Maybe it involved the Gulf War, maybe Somalia, maybe just life. When we went on runs off campus, he led us in his Jeep, a water cooler in the back. We ran from the man in that Jeep. We ran for the man in that Jeep and for one another. And once we’d been on his team long enough, we just ran.
Coach loved Jimmy Buffet and classic rock, his son Matt, new sneakers, dogs, Forrest Gump, effort, and Florida. He loved telling stories and playing the guitar. He loved people with raw talent and even more so, people with no talent who tried really hard. He loved speed workouts and competition, and when we beat rich schools. He loved his wife Pat whom he met one season because her daughter was in our class at Mercy, and after that he was always in a better mood. Coach loved progress and he loved winning. And I know he loved us, too.
This is one of those times when I say to myself, “Why didn’t I write this when he was alive?” And I think we need these reminders here and there. To tell people how we feel, to share how others matter to us, to do something to honor that person. I will go for a run when I can and I will make a point to have a steak and a beer and toast to Coach. I will watch a movie about Steve Prefontaine and text with my cross country friends, many of whom I am still close with today. I will put a little extra butter on my bread. But I did get to text with coach several months ago and I wrote him a card that said the one thing that I think matters the most, the one I will try to replicate for my girls and for Arlo: You helped me believe in myself.