Nearly 2,000 people filled a Santa Rosa church Sunday to honor the memory of a 14-year-old boy whose accidental death at a racetrack caused a community to reflect on his poise and character.
Marcus Johnson, an eighth-grader at Rincon Valley Middle School, was unabashed in the warmth he showed his younger brother Hayden in school hallways and in the respect he showed his teachers, said Rich Cundall, a pastor from Hessel Church in Sebastopol.
"He'd shake the hands of adults and opened doors for people," said Cundall, who opened Sunday's two-hour service at the Santa Rosa Bible Church on Badger Road.
Johnson was watching a sprint car race in Marysville on March 16 when his cousin's car failed to make a turn on the track, possibly when the steering wheel came off. The car flew about 200 feet into the track's pit area, crashing into Johnson and another bystander, Dale Richard Wondergem Jr., 68, of Grass Valley, who also died.
On Sunday, hundreds of people filled the pews in the main sanctuary at the Rincon Valley church as speakers shared memories of Johnson. Hundreds more watched a live broadcast from auditorium bleachers and folding chairs in the hallways.
Johnson was a competitive basketball player and in the seventh generation of a pioneer Sonoma County family with deep ties to sprint car racing.
The broad-smiled, blue-eyed boy was remembered as having graceful athleticism, boundless enthusiasm and an empathy for others that stood out.
Johnson ran the most laps at Sequoia Elementary School's annual fundraising "walk-a-thon" during six of the seven years he was a student there.
"The sun was fading, the DJ was packing up the booth, and there was Marcus, drenched in sweat. We had to pull him off the track," Principal Matt Reno said.
The school renamed the award for the most laps the "Marcus Johnson Golden Shoe Award."
Patrick Eagle, Rincon Valley Middle School basketball coach and teacher, described Johnson's fastidious matching outfits -- always Los Angeles Lakers' colors -- as well as his tireless effort on the team. Members of the basketball team stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, alongside the coach on the stage.
"You can't coach heart," Eagle said. "Marcus played with a lot of it."
Many who spoke said Marcus Johnson's character was a reflection of his family.
Johnson's parents, Gina and Rob Johnson, tightly held one another as they took to the podium.
Gina Johnson took great lengths to thank all the people who had rallied around her family, bringing food, sending cards and helping them manage the painful decisions and days since his death.
Gina Johnson gestured to several pews filled with members of the Cardinal Newman boys basketball team, fresh from earning second place at the state championship. Johnson was to start high school in the fall.
"Congratulations on an awesome season, I just had to say it, I can't believe you are here," Gina Johnson said.
Then she turned to memories of her son.
She talked about listening from the kitchen to her two sons playing basketball together after school.
She talked about the care Marcus took with his hair and his meticulous display of his beloved basketball shoes.
She talked about the pain she feels each day that she doesn't pick him up from school, knowing how much Marcus looked forward to getting his braces removed, starting high school classes and basketball games.
Coffey Park Chronicles
As part of an ongoing series, The Press Democrat is following the residents and recovery of Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire. Read all of the stories online here.