LIBERTY, Mo. -- Terms like "champion" and "icon" are reserved for a select few people.
That's how students and teachers at Liberty High School are describing Tim Nixon, who was the school's boys and girls cross country coach for 39 years. The 63-year-old recently died.
People in Clay County knew Nixon, who also taught science classes at the high school, as a beloved neighbor. As a coach, Nixon led the Blue Jays cross country programs -- boys and girls -- to a combined three Missouri state championships.
Nixon referred to himself as a firefly because he was attracted to the positive light given off by Liberty High School students. On Monday morning, word began to circulate that Nixon had collapsed at his home and died after having a heart attack.
Current student athletes at the high school are beside themselves with grief. Many of them learned of Nixon's passing after receiving late night phone calls from one another.
"I've known him since I was probably six or seven," Nolan Burroughs, a current Blue Jays cross country runner, said Tuesday.
Burroughs and Daryl Gichui said they loved running for Nixon. They're among about 60 runners currently on the teams, and they're sharing their admiration for a coach who was always there for them, delivering lessons about more than sports.
"He taught that being a full-time athlete -- doing anything you want to do -- you have to do it all the time. He practiced what he preached," Burroughs said.
"(Nixon) definitely instilled in us that it's more about the work ethic than it is about trying to be the greatest team or the greatest individual runner," Gichui said.
The home course used by Blue Jay runners sits in Stocksdale Park, and it's named in Nixon's honor.
Loved ones continue to leave memories of the beloved leader they've lost. Some have placed flowers on the sign marking Nixon's significance at the head of the three-mile running trail. Others have left medals and jerseys worn while competing for Liberty High.
"His success wasn't because he wanted to be number one," said Scott Carr, a graduate of Liberty High School and cross country runner under Nixon's watch.
Carr now works as a middle school principal in the Liberty School District and said his methods of handling students was directly influenced by Nixon's warm ways with his athletes.
"The way he coached took every kid into account," Carr said. "He made it personal for each student who ran for him, whether you were a great runner or you were just out there to get in shape and be with friends."
"I've never known running as a sport without Tim Nixon," Michael Kallal, the girls cross country coach at Liberty North High School, told FOX 4 News.
Kallal said it wasn't about getting faster for Nixon.
"It was that you put in the work for it," he said. "He wanted to reward kids. It was a great feeling."
Burroughs said he's received online messages of sympathy from as far away as New York, expressing their support for Blue Jay runners while they grieve their coach's death.
Kallal mentioned that he was anticipating Nixon's appearance at his team's first cross country meet in March, and that it was a sobering feeling knowing he wouldn't be there.
Over four decades, Nixon coaches thousands of Liberty runners, influencing their lives for the better. Many of them will be at his celebration of life, which will be held Dec. 2, at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty. There will be an open house and reception beginning at 10 a.m., followed by a memorial service at 11:30 a.m.
All are invited to come remember and celebrate Nixon's life.