Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A heavy-hearted goodbye

I got some sad news the other day while I was out walking to enjoy the weather.

My dad called to tell me that Leon Lechner, the former activities director at Sartell High School (my alma mater) and the first basketball coach I ever played for, had passed away at the much-too-young age of 58.

I was completely blown away by this. I saw Leon less than two years ago at my friend's wedding. He was his usual happy-go-lucky self, chatting it up with his former students and showing a complete lack of inhibition on the dance floor (I'm guessing he was never a dancer by occupation). But most of all, he seemed healthy, vibrant and capable of living on for many more years.

I remember having a great conversation with him that day, touching on everything from triathlons (one of his sons is a pretty seasoned triathlete whom I competed against in one of my early races) to fishing, a hobby he loved immensely and cultivated by working in the hunting/fishing department at Scheel's after he stopped working at the high school. As with all of our interactions since the day I met him, Leon was happy to see me and eager to talk.

In many ways, Leon was a hugely influential person in my life. We first crossed paths when I was in 7th grade, essentially the height of teenage awkwardness for me. My mom had just moved to Sartell that year and I was still getting used to a new school and classmates. Not helping the matter was the fact that I was oddly tall (at least for that age), asthmatic, painfully shy and sporting a humorous-in-retrospect bowl haircut.

I didn't play any sports at the time aside from baseball, but baseball didn't start until spring and I was desperate to make friends before that. I needed an activity and I figured my height would probably be useful on the basketball court, so I convinced my mom to sign me up for a travel basketball team (essentially an out-of-school club team). Leon was the head coach of that team and his son Drew was one of the players.

I can only imagine the tough task Leon had with coaching me early on. I showed up to my first practice in wind pants and a t-shirt, as I didn't own any basketball shorts or jerseys at the time. I didn't know how to run a play on offense, couldn't play defense without fouling someone and got my two front teeth knocked out in that first practice. In my first game, I nearly scored two points on the wrong basket (thank God I missed), got called for traveling nearly every time I touched the ball and probably tripped over myself at some point (I'm not sure about the last one, I likely blocked it out). I was basically the basketball version of Scott Smalls from "Sandlot."

However, Leon took all of my growing pains in stride and worked tirelessly to teach me the basics of the game. Everytime I messed up, he would simply say "let's do it again," and we'd keep working at it. I wanted to reach to point of not being an embarrassment on the basketball court and he wanted me to be the best player I could be.

The hard work from both of us paid off. I was never great at basketball, but thanks largely to Leon, I played it for four years in middle school and high school and continue to shoot hoops recreationally in adulthood. Beyond the basketball court, Leon's arduous practices (I still shudder when I think about running killers) steered me toward making healthy living choices, eventually getting over my asthma (I haven't needed an inhaler in seven years), getting into running and pretty much forming the basis of this blog.

Even beyond that, his steadying influence gave me confidence in myself at a crucial point in my life. Being a teenager is never easy; it's awkward, uncertain and full of embarrassment. But thanks to Leon, I found an activity to focus my energy on and grew up as an athlete and a person because of it.

I wouldn't be the person that I am today without Leon's presence in my life. Given his outgoing personality and career in education and guidance, I'm sure there's a lot of people who can say the same.

So wherever you are, on behalf of all the people whose lives you touched, thanks Leon.

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