Friends mourn death of soccer coach John Werner
ARLINGTON — John Werner made an impact in the lives of thousands as coach, teacher, and mentor, and now those people are mourning his loss.
Werner died on Friday after a long battle with cancer. He was 68.
Werner was beloved in his adopted home town of Arlington as an educator and mentor as well as a winning coach who put soccer in Southern Vermont on the map. As boys' soccer coach at Arlington Memorial High School, his teams compiled a record of 346-108-31 in 31 seasons and won seven Vermont state championships. He also served as athletic director at AMHS and established a popular soccer camp in Arlington, which celebrated its 39th anniversary last summer.
After retiring from his position as a chemistry and math teacher at the high school and as coach, Werner served nine seasons from 2004 to 2012 as head coach of men's soccer at Castleton University, and was inducted into that school's athletic hall of fame last fall. He compiled a record of 105-69-12 (.597), leading the Spartans to three North Atlantic Conference championships, three NCAA tournament appearances and three ECAC postseason appearances. He was named NAC coach of the year three times.
Current Arlington boys soccer coach Todd Wilkins knew Werner for nearly 35 years, first as a young kid playing soccer in the youth levels with Werner as coach and John's son, J.K., as a teammate.
"I can't put it into words. He was a phenomenal coach and it didn't matter if you played soccer or not, he helped bring out the best in every athlete," Wilkins said.
Wilkins took over as the boys coach in 2004 and will enter his 16th season this fall leading the Eagles.
"When I took over for him, he was a mentor to me, helping me through all the trials and tribulations of being a young coach," Wilkins said. "He always had a calming and encouraging word, I would talk to him after almost every game."
His accolades as a soccer coach went well past Vermont. Werner was named National Federation of Interscholastic Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 1995. He was Vermont Soccer Coaches Association Coach of the Year award six times, the last in 2002, the NSCAA New England Coach of the Year award four times, and the Marble Valley League Coach of the Year on five different occasions.
Werner started the area's youth program in 1975 and established a summer camp in 1978, at Fisher Elementary School. He also began a TOPsoccer program a couple of years ago, designed for people with disabilities to get into and enjoy the game of soccer.
"He had this way to mix in life lessons, how to treat people with kindness and respect," Wilkins said. "You don't see that with a lot of people. He showed how to live life a better way."
Dan Wood, an assistant for the girls varsity team at Arlington, played for Werner in the early days of his career.
"I wrote him a letter a couple of months ago and I told him that the biggest compliment I ever received was that if John walked onto a soccer field, he would know just by watching that I was coaching," Wood said.
After graduating from Arlington, Wood returned regularly and would go with Werner and Mike Keough to camps at Oneonta, John's alma mater. Keough was Werner's assistant coach for years, while Wood honed his coaching skills in the youth program that now bears Werner's name.
"I never pictured myself as a coach. He taught me the love of the game," Wood said. "I took 95 percent of what I did as a coach from John."
Being a math teacher, Werner was always good with numbers. In the case of his soccer teams over the years, it was jersey numbers that he remembered best.
"When my [grandchild] was born, John got a little soccer shirt with the number 14 on it. That was my number and Aaron's when we played for John, he never forgot that."
But Werner's legacy was not limited to the soccer field. After being diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer in 2015, he teamed up with Brandon Smith, one of his former players who was also fighting the disease. They came up with "LINAO" — an acronym for "losing is not an option" — as a means of staying mentally strong and raising money to support the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center.
The movement "just took on a life of its own," Werner said last year. "Now that I'm retired, I'm trying to keep doing what I always did, and that's to try and inspire the guys who play for me."
It continued to build momentum, as last fall the Southern Vermont College men's soccer program hosted its first LINAO Mountaineer Invitational to raise funds for the effort. As of last month, the campaign had raised more than $30,000.
"John always said if you gave everything you had and did your best, whether in the game of soccer or life, you could hold your head high, there was no losing," said Keough, who was an assistant to Werner for 27 years. "He battled cancer with courage and did things for people right to the end. He had tremendous courage and dignity throughout."
Friends from all over the world have posted on social media some of their memories of Werner. Jayne Lewicki, the wife of Burr and Burton girls hockey and baseball coach Ed Lewicki, said that when they first moved to Arlington, they didn't know anyone. Their son, Eddie, was five and entering kindergarten and a neighbor suggested contacting John about having Eddie in soccer camp.
"We arrived at soccer camp and John greeted us at the sidewalk, "This must be Eddie Lewicki, welcome, welcome." I will never forget it. He made Eddie feel special and welcome. I recently told him the story and thanked him, I am so glad I shared it with him.
"May you Rest In Peace John, you left such a wonderful family and legacy, job well done," Lewicki's post read.
Keough posted a long memorial as well on his wife's Facebook. It read in part, "...First and foremost, John loved his family and friends. I am so blessed to have this love bestowed upon me. John and his family have been true friends, people that I can count on 24-7. I was so glad to know that John and Judy had each other throughout their personal battles against cancer. Recently, I witnessed the joy that the Werner family felt at Jordan's wedding to Kevin, a wonderful moment that we all shared. At Christmas, J.K. and Navia and their beautiful children came to Vermont. The California kids really enjoyed the snow! It meant a lot to John and his family to have his mother, Anita, live with them. The Werner family enjoyed holidays with extended family in Northern Vermont. It is reassuring to know that this love and support will continue following John's passing."
Keough, a lifelong Red Sox fan, remembered times in Werner's Jeep driving back from Oneonta, listening to Yankee games on the radio.
"...I'm looking forward to sharing memories and stories with many of you over the next few days. Go rest high on that mountain, my friend! May you always have that view from your front porch on Pickering Hill. I would have worn a New York Yankee hat each day for the rest of my life if it could have alleviated some of your pain. Until we meet again! Dino."
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