STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
MARBLE FALLS — With 10 meters to go at the District 26-5A meet April 5, Marble Falls High School’s Gisela Mata was on her way to winning the junior varsity 1600-meter run.
Mata had pulled away from the pack with 300 meters to go and left no doubt she was going home with the gold medal. As she was looking at the finish line, she began to cry.
Waiting for her on the track was Lady Mustangs track-and-field head coach Anthony Torns, who saw her emotion.
“Why are you crying?” he asked after she crossed the line. “You just won the district championship.”
In a broken voice, Mata looked up at him with tears mixed with sweat.
“Because that was the last race I’ll ever run for you,” she said.
Weeks later, Torns, who is also the high school cross country coach, still chokes up as he thinks of that moment and countless others that have helped make him a better coach, family man, friend, and mentor.
After more than a decade of coaching and teaching in the Marble Falls Independent School District, Torns is stepping down.
He is taking his expertise into the business world as the head track coach at G10 Academy, a private athletic development facility in Austin. He will work with David Granson, whom he met in 2012 when Granson brought the Performance Course summer strength-and-conditioning program to Marble Falls.
When Torns first joined MFISD in 2007 as a teacher at EPIC, the district’s alternative campus, coaching wasn’t included in his regular duties. But he knew how sports — particularly track and field — can change a student-athlete’s life. Torns began as a volunteer assistant high school track-and-field coach for then-head track coach Kyle Futrell.
His coaching abilities eventually led to him becoming a regular track-and-field and cross country assistant. In 2009, he joined head cross country coach Carrie Grona as her assistant. But after one year with Torns, Grona realized he was capable of more than assisting. She convinced then-athletics director Cord Woerner to switch their assignments, making Torns head coach and her the assistant.
Futrell also saw what Torns brought to the track, and more important, to the student-athletes. He empowered Torns to coach the Lady Mustangs track team, which eventually led to Torns taking over the girls track program after Futrell retired in 2015.
Torns found ways to get the best out of his students, whether or not they played sports.
In 2012, Torns took then-MFHS junior Cody Schulz to an indoor track meet at the University of Houston, where Schulz was to compete in the 60- and 200-meter events. As Schulz was walking the track, other coaches stopped Torns and indicated they didn’t see why the Mustangs coach was so high on his student. After all, Schulz didn’t look the part, at that time, of an imposing track athlete.
Torns politely nodded and found Schulz.
“I don’t care what anyone looks like,” he recalled telling the youngster. “When you’re on that line, you’re the best.”
Schulz advanced to the finals of both events, and, by the end of the meet, “everyone knew who Cody was,” Torns said. Schultz went on to earn a track scholarship to compete for Angelo State University before transferring to Texas State University in San Marcos.
The 2014 girls track squad, which won the district meet with only 10 athletes earning points toward the title, exemplified Torns’s emphasis on hard work. The team, which included Natalie Schulz (Cody’s sister), Chase Martin, and Blanca Fonseca in the 100-meter hurdles, won five consecutive meets, including the district and area championships.
Those three hurdlers, Torns admitted, weren’t the fastest or the most talented, but they brought strength and fearlessness to the track that propelled them over their competition. Martin earned an individual gold at the 2014 district meet in the 100-meter hurdles, while Schulz captured silver and Fonseca finished fourth.
“They had zero fear, zero doubt,” Torns said. “They believed they were the best. Those days of competition from Blanca, we had worked and worked and worked. Blanca is plowing away and is able to move on to area. Blanca knew she wasn’t the greatest runner. She worked her tail off every single practice. I was still learning at the same time, and she never complained about anything. It was so gratifying when I saw what she did.”
Last year, Torns helped middle-distance runner Kim Boni secure a full athletic scholarship to the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. Though Boni “had enough in her DNA” to earn a scholarship, Torns was the one who traveled to Little Rock with her to make sure the Arkansas school understood what the student-athlete would bring to its track team.
As much as Torns worked with student-athletes and formed relationships with them, it was a student at EPIC with whom he interacted for one day that best illustrates how hard it was for him to resign.
The student wrote him a letter about how that one day impacted her.
As he recounted the contents of the letter, Torns teared up.
“I came to EPIC once,” she wrote. “You became a role model for me. I never got in trouble again. Every time you saw me, you always greeted me with a smile and high-fived me. That’s what’s made the difference. You never forgot about me.”
“That kid never experienced a workout with me,” he said. “That’s the kid everyone would walk by and never see. That’s what I mean when I say track saved my life. If I weren’t coaching in Marble Falls, that kid wouldn’t have the role model she had the last four years. She’d solve every problem with her fists.”
When Torns refers to track saving his life, he’s serious.
Torns knows that for many, track is simply a sport, but it’s never been that way for him. Torns grew up in Flint, Michigan, a city known for its high crime rate. Most of his peers were “recruited” to join gangs when they were teens. But the gang leaders stayed away from Torns because every time they saw him, Torns was running. Torns saw track and cross country as his ticket to a better life, and he was right. Torns, who said he was on the verge of becoming a statistic, signed to run for Grambling State University in the 1990s.
“Track saved my life,” he said. “When you coach from that type of passion, it’s very hard when others can’t see or respect that or understand that the wins and losses don’t mean anything. It’s the lives you touch and change along the way that makes it very hard for me. I’ve poured my heart into these kids. It’s very hard to walk away from here.”
Torns didn’t immediately become a coach after he graduated from college. He worked as an autopsy assistant in death investigations. After he got his master’s degree in criminal justice, he worked as a security officer at a juvenile facility then as a probation officer for the state of Louisiana.
He and his family moved to the Highland Lakes with the Smoking For Jesus church more than a decade ago after Hurricane Katrina devastated the ministry’s hometown of New Orleans. He was on his way to the police academy but turned it down and decided to become a loan officer in the Highland Lakes at the height of the market crash. When he closed only one loan in seven months, he knew he was on the wrong career path.
The correct path led him to MFISD in 2007.
He also extended his coaching beyond high school. In summer 2008, he founded Smoking Wings of Eagles Track Club, a summer track-and-field program for students in elementary through high school. He used that platform to help children see that track and field can lead to a better life.
Even as he moves from coaching at a public school to a private facility, Torns’s love for and commitment to young athletes goes with him. After much prayer and careful consideration, Torns said he simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work at G10 Academy.
At G10 Academy, Torns will serve as the head coach of the Road Runner Run Club, which is a year-round running program. The idea behind G10 Academy isn’t just to create track athletes or athletes for other sports.
“We’re not doing sport-specific drills,” he said. “We’re building the athlete to go compete.”
In addition, Torns will host coaching clinics to pass on what he has learned to help other coaches.
“I want to take the things I’ve done well and pass it on to someone else,” he added.
The move to G10 Academy also means Torns will have more time to spend with his wife, Anitra, and their four children, junior Anthony, sophomore Alexis, seventh-grader Ashton, and third-grader Amir. The couple’s oldest son, Anthony, has his eyes set on attending the U.S. Naval Academy, and Torns wants to be available to help him toward that goal.
No matter where he coaches, the student-athletes with whom he’s worked at Marble Falls High School over the past decade remain part of his life. He referred back to the April 5 meet, where Gisela Mata broke free to win her race, finishing with tears in her eyes when she realized it was the last race she’d run for him.
“You have to understand that she was one of those kids I fought for to get her to run,” he said. “I was happy for her, but I couldn’t have foreseen or foreshadowed what she was going to tell me. That’s what speaks volumes to what this community means to me and, hopefully, what I’ve meant to this community.”