A passionate coach and advisor, Mark Gardner passed away, leaving a great imprint on the school. Physical Education Department Chair Mike Schneider said Gardner’s positive influence was strong and his willingness to help anyone increased the quality of the athletic department and the school as a whole. He worked as a coach for soccer, which was his passion, but also for field hockey, volleyball, lacrosse, softball, baseball and physical education throughout his career at the school, contributing more than any coach the school has seen and impacting the lives of countless student athletes.
On Jan. 20, the community received an email from Head of School David Baad revealing the passing of Gardner at age 58, saddening many. In his time as a coach at the school, he won over 300 games and five Southwest Preparatory Conference championships for varsity men’s soccer. In 27 years of work, he met many students and athletes and had strong relationships with those he coached and those who were in his advisory.
“I think that he really embodies for me what ESD is—he lived and breathed being there,” soccer player and alum Ryan Kneipper ‘99 said. “His purpose was to advise people and help and get to know people and be the best teacher, mentor, advisor and coach for anybody that crossed his path.”
Kneipper, also the president of the Alumni Association and a parent to lower school students Ellie and Max Kneipper, played for Gardner for six years, two years on the middle school volleyball team and four years on the varsity mens soccer team. Gardner came to the school in 1993 which was also the year Kneipper moved from the old St. Michael’s campus to the upper school campus. He was able to experience Gardner’s first seven years firsthand and got to come back and act as his co-coach for the varsity mens soccer team from 2014 to 2019. Kneipper was also a member of the first of five teams that Gardner led to win the SPC championship.
“I played club soccer as well, and high school soccer was a different game, and what he, as a coach, engraved in me was how to become a leader,” Kneipper said. “I think everybody was influenced by his personality and his ability to connect with people and his coaching abilities, and I think that the way he has [inspired me] today, comes down to the leadership thing, how do you become a better person, teammate and leader.”
Gardner was the assistant coach for womens varsity field hockey as well.
“My field hockey career would have been so different if he wasn’t a part of it because although he wasn’t our head coach, he was at practice everyday [and] at all the games,” field hockey player and alumna Story Langston ‘19 said. “He was just super helpful and a super supportive coach—so sweet. There’s not anything he would have never done for any of us.”
Langston had Gardner as a fifth and sixth grade P.E. teacher, seventh and eighth grade assistant field hockey coach and womens varsity field hockey assistant coach throughout high school. The team called him “dad,” a nickname for him by Amelia Danklef ‘18, displaying the strong relationship he had with the team and inspiration he was to his athletes.
“Because he acted as that figure, for practice and games, and when we traveled, we all loved him and were able to mess with him and talk to him,” Langston said. “He inspired me by being a very selfless person because he put the well-being of all of his athletes before his own and he made me feel super valued as not just one of his players but also as a person and athlete overall.”
Gardner continued to have this inspiring effect on his athletes. Sophomore Teddy Sparrow knew Gardner as his sister and senior Ali Sparrow’s field hockey coach and had Gardner as a soccer coach on the varsity mens team for one year. This short time with him was all they needed in order to build a strong relationship.
“I would describe our relationship as very close because he was the only reason I stayed playing soccer, and him giving me a chance to play really made me close to him,” Sparrow said. “He was an inspiration to me because he never quit on me and gave me hope in myself. He saw something in me that other people hadn’t and gave me a chance. As a coach, he was the nicest person on the field, he cared for others, told funny jokes, but when it came to soccer, he was strictly business.”
Now, Sparrow plays as the team goalie, a position he started to play with Gardner. He started off as third goalie at the beginning of the season last year, and by the end of the season, he became the starting goalie with the help of Gardner.
“He impacted the school with his loving heart, funny stories and heartwarming smile,” Sparrow said. “As a P.E. teacher, advisor and coach, he was able to impact the many students and athletes he encountered—all for the better.”
Gardner was an eighth grade advisor for many of the years he worked at the school. Being there during the day allowed him to get closer to the students while also talking to his athletes.
“As an advisor, he was very personable with us and would engage in conversations with us everyday,” junior Kate Elliston said. “Whether it be about school or just everyday life, he wanted to be one with the students. We all created advisory jokes with one another and really bonded, and he was just someone that was so easy to talk to on and off the field.”
Elliston was part of his advisory in the 2017-2018 school year. One of Elliston’s favorite memories with him was the middle school Halloween costume contest. All of the advisees decided to dress up as him in long khaki shorts and ESD collared shirts.
“We all really got in the spirit and everyone participated,” Elliston said. “We all looked identical which was fun, but his reaction when he saw us was probably the best part because he was so surprised and excited that we had gone all out.”
Not only did Gardner influence his students and athletes, but his colleagues and those who worked at the school as well.
“He and I probably shared an office for 10 or 15 years of his time here, and we were within one year of each other, so we grew up watching the same TV shows and the same movies, and so we would always share lines and jokes from our favorite movies,” Schneider said. “We also really saw the world through a very similar looking glass both athletically and non-athletically. We both inspired and supported each other because we were both very dedicated to the school and even when I was his supervisor, he was a really great team player, which I very much appreciated.”
Langston has many fond memories of Gardner, including how he would check in on her to see how her athletic injuries were doing during the school day and at the trainer and how the team liked to dress up as him. Another memory that she cherishes is the team’s pregame ritual with Gardner.
“We would all get in a circle huddle before the game, and he would get in the middle and just stare at all of us, completely quiet,” Langston said. “The first time we were all like ‘What’s going on?’ and then he’d scream and we would get all excited and he would go ‘Who’s house is this?’ and we would all scream back ‘Our house!’ and we would do that three times then he would scream ‘Let’s go win a game today!’ and we would all go out on the field and turn around and he was all happy and excited.”
Langston is currently a sophomore at the University of Miami, yet her memories of Gardner have stuck with her. The same is true for many other alumni who knew and were influenced by Gardner.
“[Coach Gardner’s] record of relationships with players over the years speaks for itself,” Kneipper said. “You can talk to two-and-a-half decades of players who have come through and played on his program and everybody says the same thing. You can see at the alumni games when we have 70 to 80 people there, everybody comes back to see Coach. I think [soccer] is always a well sought after sport and people wanted to play soccer at ESD because of coach Gardner.”
Gardner’s legacy will live on in the school community. He had an immense impact on the lives of many.
“He inspired me by being a very selfless person because he put the well-being of all of his athletes before his own, and he made me feel super valued as not just one of his players but also as a person and athlete overall,” Langston said. “He’s super super dedicated, and it showed to everyone in the school whether they were an athlete or not.”