While former Toronto mayor Rob Ford may perhaps be best known for his fiery political style and controversial public image, many Toronto residents say his involvement in the community is an equally important part of his legacy.

During his tenure, Ford spent countless hours with students at Don Bosco Catholic School, spending more than a decade coaching their senior football team.

And as news of his death spread through the city Tuesday, people affiliated with the Etobicoke school spoke publicly about his service and how they plan to remember him.

“His love for the students on the team was second only to his passion for the game of football,” said John Yan, a spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Ford died on Tuesday following an 18-month battle with a rare and deadly form of soft tissue cancer called pleomorphic liposarcoma.

Yan said the school is “deeply saddened” by the news of the 46-year-old councillor’s passing and that students will remember Ford as an inspiring figure.

“A lot of students who were here will remember him as someone who pushed them to be the best they could be,” he said. “To them, he was someone they could call on and count on at any time of the day.”

Ford hadn’t volunteered at Don Bosco in three years and many of the staff and students he engaged with are now gone. But those who did attend the high school during Ford’s time as coach said they are heartbroken by the news.

“He always…instilled hard work and said no one is going to give things to you or give you handouts,” said former quarterback Mahlique Marks, adding that Ford helped his players on and off the field.

“He helped everyone in every way – their family problems, at home problems. When people got in trouble he was there for them.”

Robert Sino, another former player, said he’ll never forget the lessons Ford taught him.

“He was very strict, but he had a very big heart and he always told us to always expect the best of yourself,” he said.

The school is planning a way to acknowledge the work Ford did for the team. Details of what was planned were not immediately provided, however.

Much like his personal and political lives, Ford’s time as a football coach was not without controversy.

Ford allegedly threatened to physically assault a teacher in 2013, according to emails that were released by the Toronto District School Board a year later.

The embattled politician also faced allegations of being inebriated during practice and swearing at students.

Ford was fired as the head coach of the Don Bosco Eagles in May 2013.

But Yan said Ford’s hard work and the “larger-than-life” spirit he brought to the school’s football team remains unmatched.

“At the centre of everything, Ford had probably the biggest heart of any politician this city has ever known.”

Yan said Don Bosco is praying for Ford’s family.

‘He was for the little guy’

It was Ford’s willingness to engage with the public outside of politics that made him so loved in certain parts of the city, earning him a base of support that became known as the “Ford Nation.”

A memorial is growing at Douglas Ford Park, located in an Etobicoke neighbourhood where many residents say Ford touched their lives, even though he may have enjoyed a more privileged lifestyle than theirs.

“He was for the little guy,” said local resident Tom Oberding.

“You could phone him up anytime and Rob Ford would call you back. I’ve had many people I know tell me that…Who else does that?”

Ford would knock on doors and return phone calls even from those in some of the city’s most underprivileged and often under-represented communities.

On Tuesday, news of Ford’s death left many residents visibly shaken and emotional.

“He was a great guy,” said Darryl Welsh, another Ford supporter. “There was nothing wrong with Rob. I feel sorry for his family and my condolences go out to his wife and kids.”

Ford’s family has yet to announce funeral arrangements.

- With files from CTV's Naomi Parness, Tamara Cherry and John Musselman