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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

South High football coach John Wren meets with his players at a practice before the 2012 season.

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Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian

South's Head Coach John Wren.

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John Wren

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Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian

John Jay Wren

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John Wren

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John Harte/ The Californian

South High coach John Wren giving a chalk talk to his team before a practice.

John Wren was a football man.

He loved the game, played it, coached it, studied it, and in many ways lived it.

But those close to Wren say the South High football coach and English teacher, who suddenly died Tuesday at 44, was so much more than that.

“We’re losing more than a football coach,” said Jerald Pierucci, a good friend of Wren’s and the coach at Bakersfield Christian. “Talking about it gets me choked up. He’s one of those guys I wish there were more of. ... He was a great man, and I’m not using that in a cliché way the way people do when someone dies. He left his fingerprints on a bunch of kids, and some adults, too — myself included.”

Wren attended South High’s football workout Monday night as usual and left for home around 8:30 without any signs of trouble. He is believed to have died in his sleep; his wife, Marina, found him in bed Tuesday morning. The cause of death was not immediately known.

“It’s mind-boggling, and it’s heart-breaking,” said Ricky Ishida, who coached under Wren at South for two years before becoming the head coach at Shafter. “He just got the most out of every day, out of his players and his coaches. I was only there two years, but he had a pretty big impact on my life.”

Wren is survived by Marina; three children, Gader, Gunner and Natalie; and a sister, Lisa. A public memorial service is tentatively planned for Monday, but place and time had not been determined as of Tuesday evening.

South High spent the day mourning.

Assistant coaches had a tear-filled meeting with players in the morning, and when players gathered for their normal evening weightlifting session, the weightroom was filled with alumni and parents, there to show support for Wren and the program.

“You can see here the impact he had,” said Julio Regla, an All-Area lineman who graduated in 2010. “I don’t think I’m the first to say it, but he really was like a father to me and my brother, especially because we didn’t have a father growing up. Football, weights, sports, that’s all good, but he taught me to be a man. That’s why he’ll always have a special place in my heart.”

Then Regla turned around, looking toward the weightroom door.

“Just being here again, I’m still kind of expecting him to walk in and to hear his voice yelling at us,” he said. “I wish more people could have had a chance to enjoy him. This is one of the saddest days in a long time.”

Wren had a 27-47 record over seven years at South, but again, that doesn't tell the whole story.

Scott Douglas, who took on Wren as an assistant when he coached Foothill and then reversed roles and joined Wren's staff at South in 2006, said Wren gave maximum effort to succeed at anything he did.

"It wasn't just football. It wasn't just athletics," Douglas said. "He was probably one of the best teachers at South High. He was one of the most compassionate people you would ever meet. Anybody who spent any time with him, he has done for things for them. Every person would have a list."

The Rebels were 3-17 in his first two years, and he took a moribund program and turned into a respectable one, going 24-30 with four playoff appearances in the past five years.

"I think of it as respect," said Pierucci, who said Wren was one of the first people to reach out and offer help when Pierucci was fired as East High's coach in 2010. "When you're at a school like South or East, an inner-city school, how well you do is going to ebb and flow with the level of your talent. But when you played a John Wren team, you went in with a respect that he would do his due diligence and that his kids would be prepared. Those kids would die for him. They loved him."

South principal Connie Grumling said Tuesday evening an interim coach hadn't been named but indicated that could happen as early as today.

"There aren't many guys who are irreplaceable," she said, "but John is irreplaceable."

That seems especially true at South, where athletic director Kyle Wylie called Wren "our figurehead." Wren was a 1987 graduate of the school and returned there as an athletic trainer in the mid-1990s while he put himself through school at Cal State Bakersfield. He has been with the Rebels in some form ever since, except for a three-year stint at Foothill from 2004-2006. He returned in 2006 to teach English at South and take over the varsity football position.

"He was the trainer when I coached (at South) in 1995," said Stan Greene, a Kern High School District official, in a prepared statement. "He told me his dream was to go to college and become the head football coach at South High."

Pierucci said Wren lived for football, always asking Pierucci if he'd like to travel with him to this clinic or that camp, but Wren also was a devoted family man. His mother, Polly, had been living with the family after suffering a stroke, and sons Gader and Gunner both played football for their dad.

"Just listening to John talk about his kids or his wife, you could tell how much he cared," Pierucci said. "His wife had an asthma attack when we were in Morro Bay (for a football camp), and I look over and see John sprinting off the field to go be with his wife.

"I know he probably looked at me as a peer, but I always looked up to him because he was doing everything the right way. He gave everything to his craft, but he also gave everything he could as a husband and a father."

Pierucci said Wren had undergone a surgery to lose weight and was down some 60 pounds, but Wren had recently been concerened because he was gaining some weight back.

Wren's father also died suddenly at a young age, several friends said. Still, there was no indication that Wren had any immediate health concerns.

"Nothing," said South assistant coach Joe Maldonado. "(Monday) was a normal day. They had a heat warning, so we couldn't go outside. We came inside, did film and everything, then had a coaches meeting. We brought the kids in this morning as soon as we found out."

Cary Mills, a wrestling coach and football assistant at South for the past 20 years, took the reins Tuesday in Wren's absence, saying Wren would have wanted the team to continue working out. So there they were, while alumni mulled about and pizzas were delievered, pumping iron in the name of their fallen coach.

"He makes us better men," senior Javier Medina said. "He's very inspirational. He's always there to talk to, helping me out. We need to win, win Valley, win everything for him."

If they do, there will be an extra coach looking on. Twice, Douglas recalls, he and Wren attended a Central Section championship game -- once at West High, where Wren ran down on the field to help Vikings coaches tape players' ankles; and once at Ridgeview, when Wren raced to South and back to get replacement equipment that had failed on visiting Porterville.

"That's two prime examples of who John was," Douglas said. "Today, there are a lot of great memories. There's moments of joy thinking about him, followed by moments of deep sadness right afterward."