Cross country coach collapses on run, dies. Day later, his team honors him at championship meet

Rio Vista Middle School is mourning the death of cross country and track coach Donte Johnson, who died after collapsing on a run Wednesday.

He was 41.

With Johnson on their minds, his cross country team participated in the Central Valley Athletic League championships Thursday at Woodward Park. The girls team placed second and the boys placed in the top 10.

Rio Vista runners wore wristbands in memory of their coach. After the meet, team members gathered on a hill where they routinely went to rest. They placed handwritten notes on heart-shaped cards, attaching those and pink and white roses on a chain-link fence.

“He really inspired me,” Rio Vista runner Gaby Gutierrez said. “He was such an amazing person in general, always making people laugh, smile and making people’s day. He really had a big impact on me.”

Parent Ivan Phillips said Johnson had an immediate impact on his son, Christopher, from the moment they first met.

“The time he put in, he didn’t have to,” Phillips said. “My son really appreciated it and I appreciated it. Coach Johnson worked with him. That’s all he talked about the first few weeks of track or cross country what he learned and what Coach was teaching him. I can tell he really looked up to him.”

Track assistant coach Michael Hess described Johnson as a “very passionate” person.

“Anything that he was interested in, he was passionate about,” Hess said. “Very passionate about track and field ... anything outside of track and field he wasn’t that interested in, except for his daughter. He’s very loving to her and took very good care of her. Anything about track and field it was in his blood. He lived and breathed it everyday.

“He wore his emotions on his sleeve and it was no doubt how he was feeling at any point in time. He was passionate about coaching the kids and wanting to make them better. He was a fun guy to be around and very engaging person. Always smiling and always good to see him.”

Fresno County Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said Johnson was jogging at Woodward Park with a friend Wednesday evening when he collapsed. He died at a hospital. The coroner’s office is still investigating the cause of death.

Rio Vista is in Central Unified. School district spokeswoman Sonja Dosti released a statement: “Coach Johnson was a dedicated advocate for kids of all abilities and an aspiring cross country and track coach. He worked in Central Unified since August 2008, specifically at Rio Vista. He will be missed by his students, co-workers and the community.”

Anthony Galaviz writes about sports for The Fresno Bee. He covers the Oakland Raiders, high schools, boxing, MMA and junior colleges. He’s been with The Bee since 1997 and attended Fresno City College before graduating from Fresno State with a major in journalism and a minor in criminology.