On May 12, Marcus Wheeler, a senior at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona, took his own life on campus.
His death sent shockwaves around the Valley, but it had a much bigger impact in the tight-knit community of elite runners. These athletes interact almost daily, all the way from pounding the pavement to the medal stand.
“When we both won state, it was always, ‘Oh hey, state champion.’ We had that kind of connection,” Desert Vista High School senior Danielle Jones said of Marcus.
A nominee for the Arizona Sports Character Counts contest presented by Parker & Sons Heating, Cooling and Plumbing, Danielle — Dani, for short — started running in eighth grade because her sister, Baylee, was becoming the talk of a sports-loving family.
“She actually started before me, but she was getting all the extra attention so I thought I’d do it too,” Danielle said with laugh.
That decision would lead Dani to 13 total state titles, with just five coming in team events. It also led her to a close group of friends, including Marcus.
“We would go on runs, stuff like that; go out and get Jamba (Juice) once in a while and I’d see him at races all the time,” she said.
Marcus would pass away before competing for the 2015 state title. As the running world continued on without him, many wondered how to remember him.
A high school rivalry is something every athlete treasures; it adds an extra element of both passion and pride, making them push harder for the finish line.
Dani and Marcus should have been rivals. After all, Corona del Sol and Desert Vista are two powerhouses in many sports. While the two were good friends, Dani made no doubt how she felt about the rivalry in general.
“Normally I wouldn’t even think about touching a Corona shirt,” she said.
But at the annual Meet of Champions, something more important than a rivalry took over the event: a sense of community.
While pacing some friends in a two-mile event, Dani — who was not entered in any competition and had intended on being a spectator — donned a bright orange Corona del Sol tee-shirt as she helped her teammates around the track.
She was joined by a crowd bedecked in the school’s orange and yellow.
“When everyone was wearing the orange and everyone was wearing the yellow, we weren’t rivals anymore. Everyone was just there for Marcus and everyone was running for the same purpose.”
Dani said there was no sense of one runner against another, but each person remembering Marcus as a person, an athlete and a friend.
“It meant a lot more than a normal Meet of Champions,” she said.
Though the track world has said goodbye to Marcus, it takes time to heal. Memories come flashing back and questions still remain. Dani said she uses her faith — a growing presence in her life — when times get tough, along with Ryan Hall’s “Running with Joy,” a book that ties religion to running.
As she moves on to the next chapter of her life at the University of Colorado-Boulder to study kinesiology, Dani will have a lot to look back on, including time working with special needs children as both a member of Best Buddies and a teacher’s assistant in her final year.
“It was my first hour class so it was a good way to start the day,” she said. “Every day is a good day with them.”
She also has all the memories from track, including her first state title.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” she said.
But she can. She did.
And while Marcus’ death is nothing short of a tragedy, Dani may have found her life’s calling when she donned that hated orange shirt.
“I like people who run with a purpose.”