More than two months have elapsed since Gardner Howard passed away, and the Toledo high school sports community to which he devoted his life is still learning to cope without him.
Howard, who died in late May because of sudden health complications, was just 40 years old, but had spent nearly his entire adult life within high school sports in the city of Toledo. For much of his career, Howard was a behind-the-scenes presence, yet was almost universally beloved by the coaches and students with whom he crossed paths.
No matter where he went, the same picture of Howard emerged: a selfless educator who entered the profession for the noblest of reasons.
“As a person, he really cared about the kids in the city,” said Start football coach Tyson Harder. “In everything he did, he was always striving to do more for them.”
A former football player at Bowling Green State University, Howard served stints as head football coach at Scott and Waite, and was an assistant at Woodward, St. John's Jesuit, and most recently, Start.
Howard taught junior high life sciences in Toledo Public Schools for eight years, and rose to the dean of students role at Waite, where he also was an assistant girls basketball coach for the Indians' run as one of the top teams in the state.
Waite girls basketball coach Manny May said Howard — as he did before and after his time at Waite — came to the coaching staff and connected right away.
“Instant brotherhood — I can say that for a fact,” May said.
The same went for Howard and the students. He coached in all three athletic seasons for a large chunk of his career, going from football to basketball to track in a single year.
Harder said Howard operated with the students in mind at all times. Whether it was going through the most banal of tasks — from overseeing workouts to waking up at sunrise for team running — or pushing a student to improve in the classroom, Harder said Howard always was there.
Howard was an honors student at Defiance High School, where he graduated in 1994.
He earned his bachelor's degree at BGSU, then followed up with his master's degree from the University of Toledo.
Mike Ward, who is now UT’s linebackers coach, came to know Howard while Ward was the strength coach at Bowling Green. Ward said Howard was a “dynamic personality” who was coaching for the right reasons.
“He wasn’t in it for money or the individual accolades. He was in it to help the kids,” Ward said. “He was tough on them when he needed to be tough, but he was always there as another father figure.”
Given his education level and experience — as a coach and former player — Howard likely could have moved up to college in some capacity, but he stayed in high school, where he believed he was making the biggest difference.
“He was very educated and he could’ve left and went someplace else, but he was here for the kids,” May said. “It wouldn't have been hard for him to go to college, or go elsewhere and fit in as a coach somewhere, or go and been a principal where he had his own building and didn’t coach.
“But he wanted to be part of it every day with the kids. That’s what he loved.”
Howard’s personality is what the people close to him miss most of all. May said he thought many times of the road trips on which the coaching staff was having as much fun as the players and, without realizing it, Harder has gone to his phone with the intention of sending a text message to Howard a few times since his death.
Howard’s Facebook page is filled with friends and family writing messages about how they miss him, and how they wish they could talk to him once more.
In many ways, Howard’s death has only highlighted how many people he impacted.
“Yeah, he could be loud and get after people when he needed to, but he had a presence about him and he was so good-natured, and he had this infectious laugh,” former St. John’s coach Doug Pearson said. “He was really great. I miss him already.”
Though Howard suffered from diabetes, his death came as a shock. He passed away in Georgia while visiting family shortly before he was due to return to Toledo for Start’s graduation, and funeral services where held in Alabama, where some of his family resides.
A memorial service at Start attracted hundreds of well-wishers, which Harder said was a testament to how many people liked and respected Howard.
“He was always there for you,” Harder said. “He always found time.”
The upcoming school year will be the first in nearly 20 years in which Howard is not helping a local football team.
His death was difficult on many — and still is — though they are left with memories of a man who did a tremendous amount of good in Toledo, and always seemed to make a connection, no matter where the students came from or what their backgrounds were.
“He just had a love of people, and it didn’t matter what color or culture you were,” May said. “He drew you in. You couldn’t do anything but have fun around him.”
Gardner Howard played football for Bowling Green State University and was head football coach at Scott and Waite high schools.
Tag(s): High School