I met John Kappes more than two decades ago.
I was still plugging away at a weekly newspaper when he came to Portage High School, where he was was named boys track and field head coach a couple years later.
His enthusiasm for the sport was brimming, a quality that I, at the time, largely chalked up to his youth. While a few grays have worked their way into his hair since then, that fresh, right out-of-college energy never waned.
Kappes still derived great satisfaction from the success of his athletes, whether it was a state qualifier or a back-of-the-line kid who never competed in a varsity meet. His philosophy was simple: Anybody who gives him their best was going to get his best in return. I respect that professionally, but first and foremost as a parent who had a daughter and son, neither of them stars, come through the program.
Kappes may have been the boys coach and had his areas of expertise (pole vault), but that never stopped him from offering well-timed words of encouragement and/or advice. He knew some kids were out there mainly for the benefit of other sports, as sometimes is the case with track, but he didn't mind, as long as they respected his sport.
"John loves track and field and he loves helping kids," said Portage throws coach Mark Harsha, a kindred spirit who came to Portage in 1992, the same year as Kappes. "Every coach has his passion, but John coached the whole track, not one or two events. He really liked to develop kids who other people didn't think were worth much, which was cool to see. For so many years, we ran combined programs. I trust him so much. I couldn't ask for a better friend and coaching partner."
Success is often cyclical, but Portage never experienced the valleys that much of the athletics program went through in Kappes' time there, largely because he was the one constant in the staff directory. Coaches came and went in every other sport, probably numbering more than 50, while he remained.
Personal and health issues could have prompted Kappes to step away, but he didn't. The sport, and the kids, meant too much to him.
After the sectional, he confided that he thought the 2013 season could be it. I told him I hoped that wouldn't be the case, but to let me know if it was. When time passed and I hadn't heard from him, I assumed it was all just a matter of needing to recharge his battery.
Then came the heads up via text message Tuesday that he had resigned. Kappes remains an industrial technology teacher and hopes to stay involved with track in some capacity, and Portage would be foolish not to oblige.
"Trust me," Harsha said. "It gets in your blood."
In recent years, as desk work began to overtake event coverage, I probably had no more than five conversations with Kappes over the course of the season, and it was always time well spent. The chats routinely extended beyond coach-writer speak, as our association developed from acquaintances to friends. The longer you do something, the more you come to appreciate those relationships, and miss them when they're gone.
Portage will get another boys track coach, but it won't fill the void. You can't, not with one person.
"People like John are irreplaceable," Harsha said. "He's an amazing guy who's done wonderful things at Portage."