By Mike Kinney
Carl Sumler is both the athletic director and a coach at Kennedy High. But current and former student-athletes often refer to him as “uncle.” The latter title is fitting for a man who has given so much to students that they consider him family.
Case in point: To this day, Takkarist McKinley — the Eagles graduate who was drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft and just signed a one-year deal with the Cleveland Browns — continues to consult with Coach Sumler, sometimes by video. Sumler was McKinley’s track & field coach at Kennedy High.
Sal Morabito, special education teacher at Kennedy High, said Coach Sumler’s dedication to student athletes is not only reserved for future professional athletes. Morabito lauds Sumler for the attention he pays to special needs students who compete in track and football.
“[They] just love Coach Carl, not only because he sometimes buys wonderful pizzas for them, but the way he jokes with them when they are on the way to work in our gardens,” Morabito said.
His dedication to athletes “is reflected in the way his students relate to him and respect him even after they graduate,” Morabito added.
Coach Sumler has been involved with sports education for 25 years and was one of the first track coaches at Hilltop Speed Track Club. He previously coached at Albany High.
“What I enjoy about my job is working with all of the young people here at Kennedy High,” Sumler told the Standard. “A majority of the young people come from troubled homes or have problems in school. I make it a point to mentor them and give them real life experience they never knew before.”
When Sumler first started coaching at Kennedy High, he found the school lacked equipment and uniforms. He reached out to Nike for support. For the last 12 years, Nike has supplied the school with uniforms. Another sponsor provides track shoes.
“A lot of these students have never been out Richmond before, so when we ride in the van going out of town to play a game, they are truly amazed of the world that exists outside of the city limits of Richmond,” Sumler said.
It’s difficult to know how Sumler finds the time to run a high school athletics program while coaching and also consulting with athletes past and present. Whatever his secret, his time and care is a big reason an athlete of McKinley’s caliber, with access to some of the world’s best coaches in the NFL, continues to seek Sumler’s advice.
When Coach Sumler first saw McKinley play football, he was so impressed by his speed he recruited him to run track. Sumler then witnessed the talent, competitiveness and work ethic that would launch an NFL-caliber athlete.
“Once we got him to track, he really got into that sport,” said Sumler. “He would spend hours studying videos and stats of his competitor’s on the track. He was a coaches dream come true.”
To McKinley, trust is everything, and when one gains McKinley’s trust “he will give you the shirt off his back,” Sumler said.
“That’s a big part of being in his inner circle,” Sumler said. “He’s not afraid to ask me questions, even being a professional athlete now…if he has questions about a game he played that day, I tell him send me the video.”
Sumler isn’t afraid to tell hard truths to his athletes, even a world-class football player like McKinley.
“I don’t sugar-coat it, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
And for up-and-coming athletes, that honesty is both refreshing, necessary and appreciated.
“He’s the first person they turn to, and that is why they will head straight to his office in times of need,” Morabito said.