Rob Fairley was planning a spirited speech to go with a festive meal Thursday afternoon in El Dorado Hills to officially kick start the season.
The longtime Oak Ridge High School cross country and track coach wanted his athletes to vote for team captains, to discuss team goals. But Fairley was brought to his knees by stunning news. His assistant coach and former pupil Josh Ruff was killed moments earlier in a nearby winery accident. Ruff was 23, three weeks shy of his wedding. Ruff wasn't too much older than the runners he had mentored and grown close to this summer.
Ruff was an accomplished runner at Oak Ridge under Fairley, a key cog to the state-meet team of 2006. Ruff competed at Long Beach State, gleefully taking on brutal races such as the 10,000 meters or the 3,000 steeplechase while earning team Most Inspirational Runner honors. He graduated with a degree in history and was planning to pursue a teaching credential. He wanted to return to his Oak Ridge roots to teach and coach.
Fairley met with the runners. He broke the news and tried to comprehend it with them. He suggested a therapy run to heal. Besides, Fairley said, a good hearty workout at dusk is exactly what Ruff would have ordered.
"It's really hit me and I'm drained," an emotional Fairley said. "It's just tragic. Josh was one of those incredibly special kids. We were so lucky as teachers and coaches to have him. It's a big, big loss for our kids. This was their coach, their firend, and here we are getting ramped up for the season and he's gone. It's hit us all very hard.
"We're going to dedicate the season in his honor as we try to pull this all together. I told the kids, 'He loved you guys. We'll celebrate his life with a good season.' I know he's going to be missed by a lot of us."
Ruff was working full time at the winery when a wine press lost a wheel and fell on him. His fiance, Rachel Manasse of Huntington Beach, is a tennis instructor in Folsom. Fairley said his team will reach out to her, invite her to meets, to be a part of the team, even if just in spirit.
Not too far from Oak Ridge High there is a rock that is a popular spot for students or alums to tag. Tag in a good way, in remembrance.
"Some of Josh's best friends were there late (Wednesday night) with flashlights at The Rock, putting down memories and thoughts," Fairley said. "Very emotional."
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