Gary Cummings gone, but not forgotten

Piner assistant football coach Gary Cummings, left, talks with his son, Ronnie, during practice last season. AUDRA VON GLAHN

Piner assistant football coach Gary Cummings, left, talks with his son, Ronnie, during practice last season.


The thing is, Semi Komaisavai’s story should have been unusual. It wasn’t because Gary Cummings was in the middle of it. And when Gary Cummings decided to be in the middle of something, he made it his. He was always changing the human landscape around him. And no one would object. They wouldn’t dare. They were watching the best of themselves in him.

Last fall, Semi and his mom had left Fiji just a year earlier for Santa Rosa. Life can be challenging for an island kid relocating to the massive American sprawl. A wide receiver and defensive back for the Piner varsity football team, Semi was beginning to put down roots, his teammates giving him that sense of community.

But that fall, Semi’s mom took a job in Petaluma. He would have to move. He didn’t want to go. He was with his buds. The season was around the corner. OK, so don’t move, said Cummings, a Piner junior varsity coach. Stay with me during the season. Then you can transfer to Casa Grande.

“I was shocked,” Komaisavai said. “We barely knew each other.”

From August through October last fall, each day Cummings made Semi breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cummings drove Semi to school, picked up Semi from school, made sure Semi completed his homework. On weekends, Cummings would drop Semi at parties, pick Semi up from those parties, emphasizing it could only happen in an alcohol- and drug-free environment. Not once did Cummings ask for a dime.

“He even took the time to learn how to pronounce my last name,” Komaisavai said. It has been awhile since he had felt that paternal love, his father having died six years before.

On June 4, Komaisavai felt that chill again.

“I lost my second father,” he said.

Gary Cummings, 59, died in his sleep from pneumonia. It was probably the first time in his life he was quiet, so went the black humor. The people went quiet, too, when they heard the news, the kind of quiet that happens when shock robs speech. People stared into open space. Gary Cummings? Dead? Not this guy. He was human electricity, is what he was.

“We went to a coaches clinic one summer at Cal,” said Piner varsity head coach John Antonio. “About a half hour into it, I see Gary out there on the field. It looked like he is giving orders to the linemen and it looked like the linemen were listening to him.

“When Gary walked into a room, he filled it up. People gravitated toward him. You wanted to be around him.”

Why? His focus was on whomever was in front of him. He was so present. Cummings was involved in the moment as so few people ever are.

“He cared so much more about other people than himself,” said Ronnie Cummings, his son, a junior at Piner who will be a starter this fall for the Prospectors at guard and middle linebacker.

How Cummings came to such compassion, people say, is because of where he came from. His adolescence in the East Bay city of Pleasanton was rough-hewn. Involved with drugs and alcohol, not afraid to rumble, living life sometimes much too close to the edge and hanging with the wrong crowd, Cummings was in danger of ending up on the road to nowhere.

“But people kept coming to his aid, kept helping him and Gary never forgot that,” said Antonio, a Petaluma patrol officer for 13 years.
Cummings took that kindness, that commitment to a better life and multiplied it a hundred-fold. Cummings was a youth football coach for decades before he came to Piner three years ago, and he didn’t limit his input to just the football field.

“I would say 50 people,” said Deb White, Ronnie’s mother who remained close with Cummings even after the couple separated when Ronnie was
7 months old. White estimates that over the years “at least” 50 people have stayed at Cummings’ house in Santa Rosa at one time or another.

That number, White said, would include kids in trouble, mixed martial arts fighters waiting for their break and addicts looking for a mentor. Some people would stay for a couple of days. Some would stay for up to four months. In all cases, Cummings never asked for money.

The stories of his generosity appear apocryphal.

Last year, for example, a Piner football player lost his cellphone; Cummings bought the kid a new one.

Before Christmas, a burglar broke into a house of one of the players and stole all the presents under the tree. Cummings heard about it and gave the single mom some money to replace the gifts.

“I would mention to no one in particular that we needed five new helmets,” Antonio said. “The next day, the helmets would be on the field. Gary told me I could pay him later. When I went up to him with the money, he refused.”

Cummings wanted to give the kind of life to kids he never had: an existence filled with compassion, commitment and stability. For example, Cummings compiled and monitored all the grades of Piner’s junior varsity and varsity players, nudging those who needed to improve, congratulating others who were achieving well.

The players respected him because they knew he walked his talk: A member of Narcotics Anonymous, Cummings had been clean and sober for the past 35 years.

If anyone needed proof of Cummings’ impact on Sonoma County, the June 8 memorial at Piner’s field was the evidence. Crowd estimates vary between 700 and 1,000 people. People brought food.

They ate for free, talked for hours, found that even in his absence, Cummings was still bringing people together.

“He was the greatest friend I’ve had in my life,” White said.

“Nothing can replace him,” Komaisavai said. “He changed my life.”

“You were a brother to my husband, a second father to my son and a dear friend to me,” wrote Shannon Gutierrez in response to the obituary notice in The Press Democrat.

A flag is being made. It will show a picture of Cummings in a favorite pose — flexing his biceps like Hulk Hogan. His initials will be on the flag along with these words: “Get Some,” an expression he used to exhort his players to make plays.

The flag will be carried onto the field before every Piner game this fall and stuck into the ground along the Piner sideline.

Ronnie Cummings will be wearing specially made cleats. On the heel of his left shoe will be the letters “R.I.P.” On the heel of his right shoe will be “BIG G.” Komaisavai’s shoes may carry the same message.

“Treat others the way you would want to be treated, that’s what he always told me,” said Ronnie Cummings, who at 6-foot, 225 pounds is the same size as his dad. “I’m going to make him proud.”

Because Ronnie feels Gary watching him.

“All the time … every day.”

And …

“And for the rest of my life,” he said.

For Ronnie Cummings, it will never feel like a casual connection. Couldn’t be. His father, you see, never did casual very well.

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