As Southwest High School sophomore Serenada Sanchez rounded the final bend of her squad’s cross-country practice run early Tuesday at Foster Park, coach John Church wasn’t standing, waiting, timing her and her teammates. Something was not right.
“Coach was just sitting at this bench,” Sanchez said.
On Wednesday evening, many who loved Church laid flowers, crosses and photos on that same bench, after Church, 58, died Tuesday morning.
Church suffered a “cardiac event,” but his brother Jim Church was unsure whether it was a heart attack that killed the teacher and coach, who worked in the Fort Worth school district his whole career after graduating from UT Arlington in 1991. He was a 1975 graduate of Southwest High School as well.
“When we got to him, he couldn’t respond to us. His nose was purple,” Sanchez said. “We set him on his back on one of the mats we brought for our workouts. I started CPR, but it was really, really hard to focus, because this is somebody that you love and you know he’s not doing good.”
One of Sanchez’ teammates assisted with CPR while another called 911. Fort Worth Fire Department officials told Southwest Principal John Engel that Sanchez and her teammates acted heroically in their attempts to save their coach’s life.
“Their actions were heroic no matter what the outcome. They were obviously willing to do anything for their coach,” Engel said.
At least 60 people gathered back at Foster Park on Wednesday to say something about the “absolute educator” who “touched so many lives,” according to Engel.
One of his cross-country stars, Tanja Ivandic, 28, said she remembered the most recent Cowtown marathon she ran — the first that Church got to be there for.
“I get to mile 23, right by Colonial [Country Club] and I am dying,” Ivandic said. “He had organized some friends to chalk up the pavement. It said ‘Go Tanja.’ I finished and I saw Church, my family and my friends waiting to give me a hug. I’ll never forget it. I’m going to do another Cowtown in his memory.”
From 2009 to 2016, Church was also Southwest’s boys basketball coach. He was an assistant on the 2008 team that went to the Class 4A state finals against Dallas South Oak Cliff. One might think that, as a Southwest graduate himself, that run to state would have been his proudest moment in coaching.
“But he was all about the kids,” said Church’s older brother David. “He so rarely thought of himself.”
Milan Rasevic, who played guard on that team, said he could always count on Church to be there for him, even when he cut up or cut corners.
“I remember I was so excited that my dad was going to be able to come to his first game of the season one year,” Rasevic said. Church “asked me why my dad didn’t come to more games. I told him that financially Dad just couldn’t at the time. The next day at school, [Church] gave me a media pass for the rest of the season so that my dad could come to the rest of our games.”
This was the same player who made a habit of hiding under a bridge to shorten his cross-country practices when he ran for Church as a sophomore in 2006.
Most of the members of this year’s boys and girls cross-country teams were present at the memorial Wednesday. They didn’t try to fight back the tears when they came. Neither did anyone else.
“John Church was a big chunk of Southwest High School,” said Alex Banda, Church’s longtime assistant coach, who will now coach the teams along with Victor Boyd. “These kids will have all the motivation in this world to compete hard this season. It will be about pride, and it will be about John Church.”