Will Fulford, who coached cross-country and track at both Biddeford High School and the University of New England, died Sunday of apparent cardiac arrest after running on a treadmill at the UNE fitness center in Biddeford.
A graduate of Kennebunk High and the University of Southern Maine, Fulford also worked in special education at Biddeford High.
“Will was a quiet, kind man and our kids loved working with him,” said Jeremie Sirois, the school principal. “It’s a huge blow to our kids and our athletic program.”
An overnight snowstorm caused the cancellation of school Monday, but Sirois said guidance counselors would be at the high school for any students or staff members who wanted to come in.
Jack McDonald, athletic director at UNE, gathered the women’s rugby and men’s and women’s indoor track teams Monday morning to share the news.
“There were a lot of upset kids there,” said Ron Ouellette, head cross-country coach at UNE since 2000 and a 42-year coach at Biddeford High, where he continues to coach indoor and outdoor track after retiring as a math teacher. “The number of lives (Fulford) has touched, it’s crazy.”
To the coach who has influenced so many, thank you for believing in us, for pushing us, and for making us smile-you will never be forgotten pic.twitter.com/8FwO6O6WWL
— Biddeford Track (@BiddefordTrack) December 12, 2016
Ouellette, 63, described Fulford as a terrific coach with a soft-spoken manner and excellent communication skills.
“The kids knew how sincere and passionate he was,” Ouellette said. “Kids can tell. They can tell someone who has that genuine spirit.”
Fulford and Potvin met at Massabesic Middle School while working together as ed techs in the fall of 2012 with students who have autism. Since then, they have adopted two cats, bought a house and spent a lot of time helping young people.
“They both love to coach,” said Ouellette, who attended the young couple’s wedding with his wife. “They both love kids. They had everything they needed to get started on a great life together. That’s one of the things I’m having trouble coming to grips with: Why, to a nice young couple that has so much to offer, did something like this tragedy occur?”
Potvin-Fulford said her husband was coming off a cold and taking antibiotics for bronchitis but not pushing himself too hard.
“We were just exercising,” she said. “I had a middle school hockey game afterward and we had plans for that evening. It was all very sudden.”
She said Fulford collapsed and lost consciousness. Student workers trained in first aid, then emergency medical technicians, tried without success to revive him.
“He made it to the hospital and still had a heartbeat,” she said, “but after that it was just a grim outlook.”
Ashley’s father, Joel Potvin, died in 2010 after a similar workout in a local gym. He was 51. Ashley’s mother, Marie Potvin, assists her daughter with the high school girls’ ice hockey team after having started the program when Ashley was a freshman at Biddeford.
“A lot of people are concerned about these two women, Ashley and Marie, seeing the same scenario happen,” said Ouellette, who coached Joel Potvin in football at Biddeford, “but they have a good support system. They’ll pull through because of their personalities and the support from their friends.”
George Towle, longtime women’s cross-country and track coach at the University of Southern Maine, said Fulford was a “great young and hugely promising coach.”
George Mendros, longtime track coach at Thornton Academy in Saco, said Fulford rejuvenated Biddeford’s girls’ cross country program, which placed fourth of 17 teams in Class A South this fall to qualify for the state meet for the first time since 1994.
“Just a few years ago, they had trouble fielding a team,” Mendros said. “He’s done an excellent job. It’s a great loss, obviously.”
Potvin-Fulford said she and Ouellette are both vocal, outspoken types who stood in contrast to her husband, making for a nice blend. She has some of his cross-country runners on her hockey team and a few of his college track athletes on her rugby squad.
“They talk about how our general outlook and philosophy is very similar,” she said, “even though the delivery was very different.”
She said she will remember Fulford for his kindness and compassion. After speaking with his family Monday, the quote that came to mind for all of them was from Steve Prefontaine, an Olympic runner who died at 24: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
“I think that’s something he tried to instill in all his athletes and students,” Potvin-Fulford said of her husband. “He was very good at bringing them to their best, whether it was in the classroom or on the track or out on the cross-country course.”
Visiting hours will be 1 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 16 at Hope Memorial Chapel, 480 Elm St., Biddeford. A funeral Mass is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m. at St. Joseph’s Church.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Will Fulford Scholarship Fund, care of Hope Memorial Chapel. The fund will benefit student-athletes at Biddeford and Kennebunk high schools who are part of the running community.
Correction: This story was updated at 9:10 a.m. on Dec. 13, 2016 to correct an error. George Towle did not coach Will Fulford at the University of Southern Maine.