When Aquinas turns on its new lights for the season opener, a 26-year-old new head coach will pace the sidelines. But the past is never far from the school. It might even be as close as in a pocket.
James Leonard, the man with the pocket keepsake, is not only the new head coach, he’s also the youngest coach on the Aquinas football staff. Inside his pocket is a photo with a quote from Denny Leonard – Aquinas’ first head coach, who was Leonard’s grandfather.
The quote is how Denny Leonard thought starting a seventh and eighth grade program was the best thing Aquinas did.
Denny Leonard later watched James play for Aquinas in seventh grade.
The laminated piece has a home on Leonard’s person every Friday night. It’s even been accidentally washed a couple of times.
But it doesn’t stop there. Leonard’s phone’s background is of his grandfather. His Facebook profile picture was at one point as well. There are more pictures Leonard hung up in his classroom.
For the first time since the 1966 season, a Leonard is in control of the Aquinas football program.
Not that the Leonards have stayed away. Chances are there’s at least one player or cheerleader for Aquinas every season. Next year, Denny Leonard’s first great-grandchild will play for Aquinas.
“It’s stayed in the family. There’s always been some kind of Leonard involved in the team,” Leonard said. “It’s in my blood, I guess.”
Denny Leonard, who passed away when his grandson, James, was an adolescent, coached Boys Catholic and then Aquinas from 1946-1966. He went 66-119-14, but his teams often played bigger schools, including the traditional Thanksgiving game with Richmond Academy. He had nine children, and one played for him. Others, like James’ father, were ball boys for camps or attended games.
Denny Leonard came from Savannah, Ga., where he played football for Benedictine. He then played at the University of Miami (Fla.), and after World War II came to Boys Catholic (later renamed Aquinas), where he coached football, basketball and baseball.
“I can’t do that,” James Leonard said.
No, but Leonard is keeping his duties as girls soccer head coach. This spring, the Lady Irish reached the state semifinals. At the same time, the football team was in the middle of spring practice. Leonard led that too, as former head coach Matt LeZotte accepted an assistant coaching position at Wayne County. Leonard walked between both practices, though he gave all the credit to the other coaches.
Leonard wound up getting the football job, keeping the position in the Fighting Irish family. Assistant Mike Laney, who coached Leonard at Aquinas, said the current coaches wanted someone in house to get the head job.
“It’s like the prodigal son has come home – the return of the native,” Laney said. “I think he’s going to be a hell of a coach.”
Leonard takes over for LeZotte, Leonard’s friend and former youth swim coach. LeZotte went 17-7 his last two years as coach, taking the program to unprecedented heights.
In 2011, the Irish played host to a state playoff game and won a playoff game for the first time on the way to the quarterfinals.
Now it’s time for more.
“It was something he was ready for in his career,” LeZotte said. “He has been the best student of the game that we had on the staff all of the years that I was there. His deep down desire to be a better coach, day in and day out, has paid dividends in the past and it will as a coach. He’s very hungry. He’s not satisfied with the success we had.
“He really is one of the reasons that I got started at Aquinas. We’ve been close. We have a brother relationship. I consider him like that.”
Leonard played football through his sophomore year of high school, but he got sick after that. Leonard is missing a major artery, so his days of playing contact sports were finished. He’s been on blood thinners since.
Jim Connor, then Aquinas’ head coach who is now a Leonard assistant and father figure, told Leonard to play tennis and also put him on staff after he returned from the hospital. Leonard started by filming the games. As a senior, Leonard helped Connor handle the headset – Connor hated wearing one and still does, Leonard said – and relayed information. When Leonard found out he got the gig, he made sure Connor was the first coach to stay with him.
Leonard graduated from Aquinas in 2005 and later graduated from Augusta State.
But he’s been an Irish staffer since he was 16, coaching different positions for the junior varsity, then varsity positions. He became defensive coordinator and then assistant head coach. Now, he’s the head coach.
“It’s all I’ve ever known, really,” Leonard said. “It’s like I never left. Once you get it into your system, you can’t get it out.”
Show of support
Leonard’s grandfather saw him play for Aquinas in seventh grade. He was also always there for Leonard’s soccer games. Leonard was introduced to the sport thanks to his mother, who is from England.
“He would force himself to come watch us play soccer at the Y,” Leonard recalled fondly. “I just remember, it was me, my brother, my cousin. He would tell us after the game what we’d be good at in football. He’d always tell me I’d be a good lineman. David was fast – he’d be a good tailback. Adam would be a good wide receiver.”
Leonard didn’t hear many football stories about his grandfather directly from the source.
His grandfather was a humble man and he didn’t talk about it much. But Leonard’s heard through his family and all the people texting or calling to congratulate him.
The more he’s heard, the more it’s sounding like the same man is back as the leader of the Irish.
“I heard he was pretty tough. And kids say I’m pretty tough, so I guess that’s one,” Leonard said.
This school year, Leonard will teach mostly PE/health, with two history periods included on his schedule. That’s two.
“That’s what he did, teaching the exact same thing,” Leonard said. “It’s almost like a big old circle.”