Concord High cross country coach Rusty Cofrin practiced what he preached

Rusty Cofrin waves to family and friends at the 2008 Concord High School graduation as he retires from teaching and coaching.

Rusty Cofrin waves to family and friends at the 2008 Concord High School graduation as he retires from teaching and coaching.

Rusty competes in the 100-mile Philly Challenge bike race, raising support for cancer research.

Rusty competes in the 100-mile Philly Challenge bike race, raising support for cancer research. Courtesy

Rusty crosses the finish line, winning the Chubb Life 10-mile road race in September 1989.

Rusty crosses the finish line, winning the Chubb Life 10-mile road race in September 1989. Courtesy

By RAY DUCKLER

Monitor columnist

Published: 10-31-2023 3:07 PM

Modified: 10-31-2023 6:00 PM


Rusty Cofrin never demanded anything from his runners at Concord High School that he wouldn’t demand of himself.

For 30 years, he told members of his cross country and track teams to reach within, for an element that Cofrin believed many of them didn’t even know they had. He told them to face the pain and refuel on the go, to find a sliver of courage and hold it until the race had ended.

“When he was coaching he would say that you needed to have the desire to win,” said Wayne Cofrin, one of Rusty’s two surviving brothers. “He’d say that you would need to reach down all the way to your toenails to find it.”

Rusty followed his own advice during his 16-year fight against brain cancer. He died on Oct. 26, at the age of 65. He reached down deep and found what he needed, then stood tall, running, biking and coaching until the cancer and radiation had stripped him of his identity and strength.

He had already been forced to reach deeply by then, after losing his brother, Bill, also to brain cancer, in 2012. His wife, Shirrill, died in July, just two weeks after she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

And now, the Granite State has lost one of its athletic leaders. Cofrin, a math teacher, retired in 2008 with plenty of fight left in him.

“I’m still processing it,” said Guor Marial, a South Sudanese native who escaped his country’s violence while in grade school and settled in Concord. “It was tough. A big loss. Coach Cofrin was a mentor and a father figure. I don’t think I would have had the career I had without coach Cofrin.”

Marial was a national star. He ran for Cofrin until graduating in 2005. He competed in the Marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. He finished 47th in a field of more than 100 runners with a time of 2 hours, 19 minutes, 32 seconds.

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“He was very determined and also calm,” said Marial, who’s in the Air Force, stationed in Colorado. “He was a very easy coach to work with and he was tough at the same time.”

Cofrin, friends and family said, had the right mixture to succeed, a blend of a high-octane competitive spirit with a nurturing side that fostered confidence. He pulled no punches, prompting some in the running community to nickname him Crusty.

He was opinionated and held firm to his beliefs, but always apologized when he knew he had hurt someone’s feelings when stating his case.

“He taught my son to reach for goals and persevere when you really wanted something,” said Chris Metcalf, whose son, Tim Metcalf, ran for Cofrin for four years. “To my son, it was a matter of feeling valued and part of a team, and also realizing that you may have more inside you than you initially thought.”

Tim Metcalf recalled Cofrin’s input when he was in middle school, at an event that mixed Cofrin’s varsity runners with 8th graders. Metcalf came around the final turn when he heard Cofrin shouting at him.

“Swing your arms!”

“I had talent and he knew I could do better,” Tim Metcalf said. “His team is there and he’s yelling at me as a middle schooler.”

Cofrin ran and cycled – including a 100 mile bike race in Philadelphia – to raise money for cancer research. He volunteered to help stage the annual High School Track and Field Championships at the University of New Hampshire. And he kept coaching, right through the day he retired in 2008.

He was also a regular member of a fraternity of retired cross country coaches who’d meet twice a month for breakfast in Manchester, cancer be damned.

Larry Martin’s career paralleled Cofrin’s. They ran against each other in high school, coached against one another when Martin was at Londonderry High School, and both were regular members of that breakfast club, a forum for the old guard to gather and reminisce.

“Each time there were 12 or 15 of us there,” Martin said. “We’d talk for 1½ or two hours. He was immersed in the sport his whole life, very dedicated, very responsible. He survived brain cancer and did well for a while.”

Cofrin was diagnosed with brain cancer the first time in 2007. He thumbed his nose at the disease, continuing his active lifestyle and contributions to running while undergoing radiation treatment. He biked 20 to 50 miles per day and kept coaching.

“He was trying to stay athletic so his body could fight on,” said Tim Cofrin, who lives in Bow and is one of Rusty’s three children. “He stopped in 2021.”

That’s when a dime-sized, malignant tumor was discovered in Rusty’s brain. He began to exhibit dementia-like symptoms and disappeared from the public eye at a time when his family endured the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Over a three-day period this past July, Tim Cofrin became a father, Rusty was moved into hospice care, and his wife, Shirrill, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died two weeks later.

By then, Cofrin’s days were numbered. “Most people would not have made it that far,” Martin said. “Then Shimmell died and I think that was it.”

By then, Cofrin had reached down to his toenails for years, fighting, running, biking and coaching. That’s all he ever expected from the kids he coached.

“He was never one to show a lot of emotion, but I thought he was strong with each thing that he went through,” Tim Cofrin said. “Cancer has ravaged his family, but he always used it to be centered and grateful with what he had.”

Calling hours will be held on Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Waters Funeral Home in Concord.

A mass of Christian burial will be held Nov. 11 at 10 a.m. at Christ the King in Concord.