A longtime and much-loved Fort Worth coach died Tuesday morning during a cross country practice. John Church (59) coached cross country, basketball and taught physical education at Southwest High School for 20 years. He even graduated from the school himself.
Thursday afternoon, NBC5 asked to meet a couple of his students and within an hour nearly the whole team had turned out, showing just how much Coach meant to them.
"Coach Church was more like a dad to all of us. I've never been so close to a coach," said Southwest student Charisma Fernandez.
"It was like he was a father figure," former student Lindsey Rauer added.
"Father figure is an understatement," said another former student Tanja Ivandic.
When is running more than a sport?
"Self-motivation and self-pride,” Ivandic said. “No one is going to do for you but yourself."
"It gets hard, all the time, all the time it's hard,” said incoming junior Richard Smith. “Him there always encouraged me to keep pushing."
Now the young athletes Coach Church taught, and changed, will have to carry on his lessons without him.
"I wish I could have done something," Fernandez said.
She was one of the runners at Foster Park for an early practice Tuesday morning. Coach Church always sat at a picnic bench while the kids run, but when they got back from their warm-up, he was slumped over, from a 'cardiac event.'
"It felt unreal, it still feels unreal," Smith said.
The kids tried performing CPR but their coach didn't make it.
"I wanted to come to the park, I wanted to come see him," said Ivandic.
In no time, the runners who became family had started a memorial at the park bench where Coach still lives in their memories.
To Lindsey Rauer, he was the man who got her through her brother's death, right before she started her freshman year.
"He reached out to me and wanted to make sure I was OK,” Rauer said. “He said if you ever need a break, you just come to me and I would sit in his office every day. I went and visited him and he would just tell me stories about my brother that I didn’t know."
To countless others, he was the smile, the support and the push to just keep going.
"You don't want to miss that opportunity, miss that heartbeat," said Ivandic.
That was one of Coach Church's big catch phrases 'never miss a heartbeat.' His students say they'll miss his heartbeat but keep living in that spirit to appreciate the moment for the rest of their lives.