By S.C. Zuba
Admittedly, I was never any good at football.
At 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 140 pounds, I hardly struck fear in the eyes of my opponent. Still, I joined the Christian Life High School football team my senior year in 2006 — just three years too late.
I had known Head Coach Chuck Leonard since I was just a 10-year-old ball boy for the school’s first-ever football team. I had seen how Coach Leonard interacted with his players — the love, the compassion he felt for them. I knew I needed to play for him before my time there ran out.
You see, Coach Leonard was more than just a high school football coach. He was a friend, a mentor and a man worthy of the title “coach.”
In today’s twisted, money-driven society, where winning is second to nothing, few coaches truly live up to that title. Coach Leonard is a man who earned that title every day.
Now, however, Coach Leonard’s time as Eagles head coach has expired after 14 seasons as the program seeks to move in a new direction.
To understand just what Coach Leonard meant to the Christian Life football program, you’d have to rewind roughly 14 years.
In 1998, Coach Leonard decided to take on the incredible task of starting a football program at Christian Life. Never before had the idea of football at Christian Life been realistically played with.
Football? That involved way more time and money than anyone before had been willing to commit. At the time, the school had no equipment, no pads, no helmets — there wasn’t even a field long enough to be called a football field.
Regardless, Coach Leonard wanted to bring his coaching experience to Christian Life and build a winning football program with the Eagles. After all, he had coached on Belvidere’s back-to-back state title teams in 1993 and 1994.
Under his direction, Christian Life built a field, bought a scoreboard, put up bleachers and constructed stadium lights. From scratch, Coach Leonard created a vehicle that would change the lives of hundreds of high school students during his tenure with the Eagles.
When I was a senior, I was one of those students who was changed by his work.
It was never solely about winning. No, his program was about far, far more than the digits lit up on an old scoreboard on a Friday night in Rockford. Coach Leonard’s program was about teaching. It was about making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. It was about learning, changing and growing.
Coach Leonard’s passion for his players shone through during a regular-season game against Lake Forest Academy late in the 2006 season. As the final seconds of the second quarter ran down, we were locked in a neck-and-neck race with the Caxys. After a last-second touchdown, Coach Leonard elected to go for the 2-point conversion.
The play was designed for me to run an out-route to the back corner of the end zone. When the quarterback snapped the ball, I ran my route and was wide open, just as the play was designed. As the ball came to me, however, I panicked and the ball slipped right through my hands.
I was humiliated. We needed those points. The game, the season, was on the line.
I remember dejectedly walking off the field, my head hung low, waiting to catch the ire of the coaching staff. But that’s when Coach Leonard walked beside me and uttered a phrase I’ll never forget. “Sam,” he said, “I couldn’t care less about football right now. I’m just so thankful you’re here.”
That’s what Coach Leonard was all about. Did he want to win football games? Sure, no question. But would he trade every win for one of his players? Undoubtedly.
I don’t have the column space to adequately describe the effect Coach Leonard had on my life and the lives of the hundreds of players he mentored over the years. There just isn’t enough room — or time — to tell of just how incredible this particular coach is.
Essentially, this column is directed at the rest of the high school football programs in Rockford that don’t know Coach Leonard.
Listen up, because, as you just learned, the greatest football coach in the city just became available.
From the Feb. 22-28, 2012, issue