His legacy won’t just be the trophies, the thrilling come-from-behind victories to win another state championship in track.
What Phil Lonborg, who is retiring as the head track coach at River Ridge High School after 23 years, will treasure most will be the lives he helped changed and the hand-up help he gave to so many students in need of caring, shaping advice.
It’s not that the 49 state champions, the 20 district team championships and the combined 20 coach of the year awards won’t matter to Lonborg. Winning mattered, but those moments of triumphant in Lonborg’s 23 years as the only head track coach in the history of River Ridge High School was always secondary. His focus and driving ambition was always helping a kid fulfill their potential in the classroom and in life.
“I always wanted my kids to know that I had their backs,” said Lonborg, who is affectionately called “Borg” by his athletes. “They need us.”
Whether it was lunch money, a listening ear or help in buying jumping shoes or sprinter spikes, Lonborg was always ready to help.
In that quest for a state championship and to raise that trophy above their heads, Lonborg never lost interest in the kid, the person. In his office desk drawers, Lonborg has a jar of peanut butter for the kid who didn’t have a lunch. He’s bought shoes for kids who couldn’t afford them, paid for out of his own pocket.
“Coach was my second dad,” said Alton Hodges, a 2000 River Ridge graduate and a two-time state champ in the sprints.
Because of troubles at home, Hodges lived at Lonborg’s home for three years while attending high school. Hodges, a two-time state champ in sprints, feels indebted to his high school coach.
“He helped me so much,” Hodges said. “It wasn’t so much about winning. He never cared about that. The lessons he taught was how to be a better man.”
Hodges acknowledges that knowing Lonborg was a life changer.
“If Phil didn’t come into my life, where would I be,” Hodges said, repeating a question he was asked. “I don’t want to put myself down here, but I’m a black male in the environment where the gang thing in the 90s was popular.”
Hodges had been invited to barbecues where gangs “jump in” and recruit.
“I would have a different life for sure,” Hodges said. “How would my life be, I really don’t even want to think about it. Let’s say I wouldn’t have a positive life.”
Every night after school, Lonborg made sure Hodges, a state champ in the 100 and 200 meters, did his homework. Some days, Hodges didn’t go to track practice and worked on his homework instead.
“He taught me how to be a better person and how to help people,” Hodges said. “Forget about winning state. I’d spend an entire workout and I’d come back and help other people and work out again. It was a great feeling.”
Hodges, who lives in Olympia today and works for DirectTV as an IT tech, ended up getting a track scholarship to Spokane Community College.
David Holmon, a state high jump and a 2005 River Ridge graduate, remembers Lonborg being more than a coach who taught technique and training.
“He’s obviously a great coach,” Holmon said. “But he cares more about developing people and getting people to do the right thing and helping them become the person that they actually want to be or their parents want them to be.”
Lonborg has that special gift of connecting with someone, engaging in conversation. It didn’t matter who you were.
“He has an especially unique ability to relate to all walks of life and people in all age groups,” Holmon said. “These are young teenagers who were getting into trouble. There are countless stories. He’d go above and beyond.”
Holmon remembers Lonborg helping people who needed equipment but couldn’t afford it.
“He talked to my mom,” Holmon said. “To help us find ways for us to even pay to play sports and get equipment. He did this all the time for people, not just me.”
Lonborg also helped Holmon get a computer.
“I consider him to be a second father,” said Holmon, who got a track scholarship to the University of Idaho. “He actually helped mold me into the man that I get praised for being today.”
What’s most telling about Lonborg as a coach is that now in his final season as the Hawks’ head track coach, he still cares. He’s not coasting or waiting it out.
“I’m still giving it 100 percent,” Lonborg said. “I’m not a screamer, a barker. But I do hold them accountable.”
Track, from Lonborg’s perspective, was always about work ethic. It was about learning to push yourself.
“It’s about finding your craft and developing it and finding out about yourself,” he said. “What have you got in you? What do you have in your gut? When you come around the final corner of the 400 what have you got? Are you going to fail? Are you going to succeed? What are you going to do?”
Not everybody is champ, but from Longborg’s perspective, everyone can get better.
“It’s not if you don’t win you’re a bum,” Lonborg said. “You add up pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. They equal a buck. You win. We talk about that. You need all those other guys to feel valued.”
Lonborg had his own experience with a coach who made a difference. It was Paul Roberts, Lonborg’s track coach at Elma High School in the early 1970s.
“He changed my life,” Lonborg said. “Turned me into a kid who loved to work.”
And as a payback, Lonborg, with his caring approach to coaching, helped changed the lives of so many kids over the years. It’s a legacy he can cherish.