The thing is, Semi Komaisavai’s story should have been unusual. It wasn’t because Gary Cummings was in the middle of it. And when Gary Cummings decided to be in the middle of something, he made it his. He was always changing the human landscape around him. And no one would object. They wouldn’t dare. They were watching the best of themselves in him.
Last fall, Semi and his mom had left Fiji just a year earlier for Santa Rosa. Life can be challenging for an island kid relocating to the massive American sprawl. A wide receiver and defensive back for the Piner varsity football team, Semi was beginning to put down roots, his teammates giving him that sense of community.
But that fall, Semi’s mom took a job in Petaluma. He would have to move. He didn’t want to go. He was with his buds. The season was around the corner. OK, so don’t move, said Cummings, a Piner junior varsity coach. Stay with me during the season. Then you can transfer to Casa Grande.
“I was shocked,” Komaisavai said. “We barely knew each other.”
From August through October last fall, each day Cummings made Semi breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cummings drove Semi to school, picked up Semi from school, made sure Semi completed his homework. On weekends, Cummings would drop Semi at parties, pick Semi up from those parties, emphasizing it could only happen in an alcohol- and drug-free environment. Not once did Cummings ask for a dime.
“He even took the time to learn how to pronounce my last name,” Komaisavai said. It has been awhile since he had felt that paternal love, his father having died six years before.
On June 4, Komaisavai felt that chill again.
“I lost my second father,” he said.
Gary Cummings, 59, died in his sleep from pneumonia. It was probably the first time in his life he was quiet, so went the black humor. The people went quiet, too, when they heard the news, the kind of quiet that happens when shock robs speech. People stared into open space. Gary Cummings? Dead? Not this guy. He was human electricity, is what he was.
“We went to a coaches clinic one summer at Cal,” said Piner varsity head coach John Antonio. “About a half hour into it, I see Gary out there on the field. It looked like he is giving orders to the linemen and it looked like the linemen were listening to him.
“When Gary walked into a room, he filled it up. People gravitated toward him. You wanted to be around him.”
Why? His focus was on whomever was in front of him. He was so present. Cummings was involved in the moment as so few people ever are.
“He cared so much more about other people than himself,” said Ronnie Cummings, his son, a junior at Piner who will be a starter this fall for the Prospectors at guard and middle linebacker.
How Cummings came to such compassion, people say, is because of where he came from. His adolescence in the East Bay city of Pleasanton was rough-hewn. Involved with drugs and alcohol, not afraid to rumble, living life sometimes much too close to the edge and hanging with the wrong crowd, Cummings was in danger of ending up on the road to nowhere.