Bemidji's Mark Fodness always valued more than the game
The longtime Bemidji tennis coach and teacher, revered for his influence in both settings, died Wednesday at the age of 61.
BEMIDJI -- Even in retirement, Mark Fodness remained dedicated to sports and the people within them.
After 41 seasons and over 450 wins, the recently retired tennis coach found himself back at the Bemidji High School courts in August. Perched up high in a deer stand, Fodness was a guest analyst for KBUN Sports Radio in what is believed to be the first-ever play-by-play broadcast of high school tennis in Minnesota history.
“The broadcast had been his idea, something he dreamed up,” said Joel Hoover, who Fodness joined on the airwaves. “He provided second-to-none insight on the game, on strategy, even on some of the players and about the program, as well. … It was a celebration of Bemidji tennis as a whole. Mark Fodness was the perfect person for sharing what Bemidji tennis is all about.”
That’s who Fodness was: A gracious man with a mad love for sports, and that made him an ambassador as the undisputed face of the Bemidji tennis community. The longtime coach and teacher died Wednesday, Nov. 25, from a sudden and unexpected heart attack at the age of 61.
“The more athletes, the more students that you can put in front of Mark, I think the better our community is going to be,” BHS activities director Troy Hendricks said. “He has a legacy matched by so few. … He stayed in education and stayed in coaching for so long that his impact was felt for decades.”
Revered for his investment in the game and his personable approach, Fodness finished his coaching career in May 2020 with a 463-205 record and an even higher reputation. More than the statistics, Fodness put a lifetime of work into using sports as an avenue to mold young athletes.
“If anybody looks at his record, it’s really impressive,” said Mark’s son, Kyle. “But it’s even more impressive to have a total like that and it’s still not close to being the thing that he takes away the most.”
Fodness won a section championship with the BHS girls in 1989, their first in program history, and totaled 31 winning seasons. But tennis was never his endgame.
“I don’t know how much he loved tennis versus how much he loved teaching,” Hendricks said. “Honestly, it could have been hopscotch, and he’d have found a passion for it if it involved mentoring kids and teaching them character skills.”
A whale of a run
Fodness landed his first head coaching gig at 26 years old when he took over the Lumberjacks boys tennis program. The New Ulm native and Bemidji State graduate then began coaching the girls team that fall, and he held those posts through the 1992-93 school year.
He returned to coach both programs in the 2010-11 year and did so through the 2018 season for the girls and the 2020 season for the boys. He also coached the BSU women’s tennis team from 2013-19.
“He coached tennis and loved doing it -- and was especially talented at that sport -- but he coached soccer and baseball and basketball and football and speech and debate. Everything,” said Kyle, who played for Mark growing up and now coaches the BHS girls and BSU women. “To really get to the heart of who he was as a coach, that was a really important part of it. Tennis was the sport he was most well known for coaching. But as far as his priority, what he thought was valuable, it was that the sport can change, but the lessons and the people don’t.”
There’s no doubt about it: Mark Fodness was -- and is -- a cornerstone of tennis in the Bemidji community. But to limit his contributions to those courts would also be an injustice to how wide his accomplishments spanned.
“He was the most passionate competitor you could ever meet,” Kyle said. “And that speaks to how deeply he cared about the most important things: the relationships and the good times and the lessons.”
Nobody knew that better than Kyle, one of Mark’s three children who had a front-row seat to witnessing Mark cement his influence. It’s an influence that lives on through healthy tennis programs, through the students and athletes Mark developed, through a community that won’t soon forget one of its pillars.
It’s an influence you can hear through a son who sounds just like his father.
“I was so glad that the joy and the good that he gave me was shared with so many other people,” Kyle said. “That legacy carries on in everybody he interacted with and made such a positive impact on. That’s what happens when you’re a teacher and a coach and a father like he was.”
Honoring Mark’s memory
Mark is survived by his wife, Karen, and their children Kyle, Adam and Halle.
Those he impacted as a coach, teacher or friend are encouraged to share their stories with the Fodness family. Email memories to email@example.com, an account created specifically for this collection, with anecdotes of Mark over the years.
A limited capacity memorial service for family will be held Saturday, Dec. 5, at Cease Family Funeral Home in Bemidji. A celebration of life is planned for June 2021, with a specific date and Bemidji location to be determined later.
As Fodness’ memory is honored now and next summer, the tales people recount will undoubtedly center around his work for others.
That’s who Mark was.
“The biggest thing for me was that (tennis) never felt like a job,” Fodness told the Pioneer in May. “For me, it was just how much fun it was to go to work every day.”