The Desales girls team put their heads together prior to an early season meet. photos courtesy of Katie Shelton
With a half mile remaining in the Arrowhead Invitational, St. Francis DeSales High School cross country runner Ian Lawson looked to the spot where Bob Lennon would’ve stood and tried to remember what the veteran coach would’ve told him. Lennon, 64, was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while bicycling on Miller Paul Road in Granville on Sept. 14. “I couldn’t think of anything inspirational he said,” says Lawson, a senior who placed seventh in 17 minutes, 21 seconds in the Arrowhead Invitational on Sept. 18. “I’ll be honest. It’s not like he had the most inspirational words for us. The last race he coached, the two things he said to me were ‘hold that position’ and ‘OK, go now.’” While the words might not exactly match Vince Lombardi’s or Knute Rockne’s inspirational speeches, they’ve become the mission statement for the Stallions boys and girls cross country teams. DeSales is simply holding on to each other as they go forward without their coach. “They’re coping by sticking together,” says Katie Shelton, a DeSales guidance counselor who has been co-coaching the team with 1999 DeSales graduate Emily Rizek. “They’re really drawing strength from being together and remembering all the good things about Coach Lennon.” “(Each practice) you expect him to be already there setting up the cones,” senior Annie Kobermann says. “When we get there, he’s not there. That’s hard on us but we’re just really trying to stay together as a team. Our coaches are helping us and we’re helping our coaches as much as we can.” THE FACE OF A PROGRAM For nearly four decades, Lennon was the face of the DeSales cross country team. He coached the Stallions for 39 years and was an assistant track coach for 35 years. His teams captured three district championships and nine league championships. Lennon used humor and practical jokes as well as persistence to mold teams. “He was grouchy, stubborn and the funniest person you’d ever meet,” Kobermann said. “Sometimes, he’d come to practice, he’d be in a grouchy mood. Then he’d randomly make fun of someone or do some funny thing and it’d make every one of us laugh.” But beneath the gruff exterior, Lawson says Lennon cared deeply for his runners. Shelton says one of her favorite stories about the coach happened several years ago, Lennon won the grand prize of a Corvette at the school’s Casino Royale fundraiser. He drove the car for a little while but then decided to trade it in for a passenger van to carry the cross country team. “I want people to know the amount of care and time he put into (his teams),” Lawson says. “I didn’t realize how much time he put into each runner.” “I could always tell he cared. He loved us so much,” Kobermann said. “He means a lot to so many people.” OVERWHELMING SUPPORT That became obvious at the Arrowhead Invitational where the school community and other teams rallied around DeSales. The boys team took fourth out of 17 teams with 140 points behind champion Bexley (70) and the girls team was eighth (197) out of 16 teams behind Bexley (42). But the finishes were secondary for some members of the DeSales team. Before the national anthem, there was a moment of silence for Lennon. DeSales’ rival Watterson wore purple ribbons in memory of the coach. Eric Acton, the Bexley cross country coach, says his captains presented the Stallions with a collection of condolence cards from the Lions. “We weren’t even sure if DeSales was going to show up but people went out of their way to cheer on the team,” Acton says. “Everyone’s aware of the positive impact (Lennon) had on the sport. He was always there to help other coaches.” “I’ve never seen so many kids at cross country meet,” Lawson says. “Honestly not that many kids come to cross country meets normally. When you’re running and you hear that many people yelling, you know you’re all there for the same reason and that was to honor Mr. Lennon.” The day after the meet, the DeSales gymnasium was packed for Lennon’s memorial service. One familiar refrain kept coming up over and over again at the service. The coach died doing something that he loved. Lennon would frequently spend Sunday afternoons making a 50-mile trek to Granville and back. Investigators are still trying to piece together what happened on Sept. 14. Lennon’s autopsy showed he died from blows to his head and chest after being struck from behind by a driver who didn’t stop. A suspect, who lived less than a mile away from the accident site, has since confessed hitting the rider. “Having someone take responsibility for it brings a little bit of closure to the situation,” Shelton says. “It’s not going to bring him back but we feel better about someone’s being accountable for it.” After the accident, Lawson and a friend drove up to Granville and found a bicycle adorned with flags and flowers marking the spot on Miller Paul Road where the accident occurred. “It’s such a nice country area,” Lawson says. “People say ‘it makes me so mad that it was a hit and run. It’s not fair.’ Life isn’t fair. It stinks that it happened the way it did but there’s definitely some comfort in that (he was doing something he loved.)” THE NEW NORMAL Life at times may not seem fair but it always goes on. Kobermann still finds it difficult to walk by Lennon’s classroom where he taught science. “Every day I’d go by his room and he’d be sitting there with his feet on a podium, reading the newspaper. It’s weird to walk past his classroom and not have him there,” she says. Cross country is often a sport based on routine, running mile after mile to strengthen the body for the meets ahead. Shelton says she and Rizek have strived to keep practices the way Lennon would’ve run them as much as possible. But Lawson doubts things will ever be “back to normal.” “Each individual person would give you a different answer on that,” he says with a sigh. “What’s normal? Is this the new normal? I guess it’s getting back to normal a little bit but it’s never going to be the same.” “It’s a hard thing but we’re still trying to get through it together,” Kobermann adds.