All of the members of last year’s Seminole County girls varsity team and coaching staff who returned this season after spending the Lady Indians’ 2011-12 campaign under longtime coach Jesse McLeod, returned to find their beloved leader was no longer with them. McLeod, who spent 30-plus years as the Seminole County A.D. and hoops coach in Donalsonville, died shortly after the end of last season from cancer. So as a tribute to McLeod, the girls decided to not only dedicate the season to him, but they also made shirts with his picture on it to wear and remember him by. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DONALSONVILLE --- It was the first night of the new basketball season, but when Seminole boys basketball coach Kevin Godwin walked into the gym this year, it didn’t feel like a new season or a fresh beginning.
It felt empty.
“I really don’t have the words to tell you,” Godwin said. “It just felt surreal, maybe that’s the right word? I don’t know how to describe it. Him not being here … It was emotional, him just not being here. It’s just a hollow feeling.’’
That hollow feeling hovers over Seminole County, because Jesse McLeod, a man who gave his life and heart to a community, a school and the people of Seminole, is no longer there.
McLeod, 61, lost his battle with cancer in July, and the man who coached girls basketball at Seminole County High for more than 30 years left more than a legacy on the court.
“He was one of the most compassionate men I’ve ever known,” Seminole County principal Brinson Register said. “It was unbelievable the way he took care of the students. I don’t believe there was a day that went by that he didn’t take someone home that needed a ride.
“Sometimes just seeing this court, it makes you want to break down and cry. But knowing we have dedicated the season to him, it motivates you to be strong.”
--- Seminole County senior girls basketball player on the loss of longtime coach Jesse McLeod, who died at the end of last season from a short and sudden battle with cancer
“He took care of them. He bought them clothes, shoes, gave them money -- he got them whatever they needed. He was Santa Claus. And he didn’t just do it for his players. He did it for anyone who needed it. He cared for kids. If they needed something, he would just look after them. The number of times I saw him dig into his own pocket and give a kid money is countless. He was just that kind of man.”
McLeod wore several hats at Seminole County High — well, he wore every hat you could wear. He went to the school, grew up in Donalsonville and went on to hold just about every job the school district offered.
Over the years, McLeod was a teacher, an assistant principal, the high school and middle school principal, and he served 17 years as the superintendent of the school district. He was also the school’s athletic director and a legendary coach. He did it all — and he did it with passion and generosity, always giving it all he had and more.
“I don’t know a single person in this community who doesn’t have a Mr. McLeod memory,” Register said. “Everyone has a connection with him in one way or another. He touched everyone.
“I’ve seen him help people in the community. If he knew someone needed something, he would help them. He’s just a different breed. I don’t think they make them like Mr. McLeod any more.”
His kids feel that way, too. They didn’t just like their coach — they loved him.
“Everyone loved him. Everyone respected him,’’ said Candice Barber, a senior on this year’s girls basketball team. “Everyone who came in contact with him, he changed their lives. He loved us like he loves his son and daughter and grandchildren, and he would do anything for us. You could go to him for anything.’’
Barber said you couldn’t find a better man or a better coach.
“Coach McLeod is the epitome of what it is to be a great coach,” she said. “When you come here as a freshman and you are so nervous because you know you are playing for this great, legendary coach, but he showed you how much he cared and treated everyone the same. And he found ways to make you better, so he could be proud of you, on and off the court. He was always active in our lives, and he never let us doubt ourselves.’’
There are countless stories about how McLeod stepped in — and went above his job duties — to help students at Seminole.
“It wasn’t just the players on the team,” said Alexus Watson, a senior on this year’s team. “He helped everybody. One year, he found out about a girl at the school and how her family didn’t have anything, and he gave her food, clothes, shoes and money to help her family. If he knew someone needed help, he would be there for them.’’
He loved his kids, and they knew it.
“You could go to him for anything,’’ Watson said. “One time, there was a rumor about me going around the school, and I went to him and told him about it. He ended it. Just like that, he took care of it.’’
Patrice Barnes, another senior, said there was no limit to McLeod’s influence.
“He always told us he would be there for us no matter what,” Barnes said. “If your boyfriend left you somewhere and you were stranded, you could call him and he would come get you. He lived what he preached. He was like a father to all of us. He taught us on and off the court.”
And if you played for McLeod, that meant you had to excel in the classroom.
“Every one of the seniors on this team are on the honor role,” said Wes Williams, who took over as the girls coach this year when McLeod passed away. “He made sure they were all good students.’’
Watson said McLeod knew everything.
“If you took a test on a Wednesday, he knew your grade before you got to practice that day,” she said. “He cared about our grades, because he cared about us.”
McLeod touched generations of kids, on and off the court, and he had tremendous success as a coach.
“He cared for his players,” said Angela Smith, who played for McLeod’s 1984 state championship team. “He always cared for us and we knew it. He was such a sweet man. He was always concerned about your school work and made you a better student. He loved his kids. He loved everybody. And he was a great coach. He hated to lose.’’
Smith, who was at Seminole from 1981 through 1985, played for some of McLeod’s greatest teams. During a five-year stretch from 1984 through 1989, McLeod’s team played in the state title game every year. Seminole won the title in 1984, 1987 and 1989 and was the state runner-up in 1985 and 1986.
In 1996, they named the gym, “The Jesse McLeod Gymnasium,” where he compiled a career coaching record of 585 wins and 244 losses. The Lady Indians, who were off to a 4-1 start this season entering Saturday, went 11-10 last year. Shortly after the season ended, McLeod was diagnosed with cancer, and within a few months, he was gone.
His name lingers throughout Seminole.
McLeod grew up there. He was a star player for Seminole County’s basketball team, and his high school sweetheart, Norma Mims — who later became his wife — was a point guard for the girls team.
“They were both star players for their teams,’’ said Seminole County Schools Superintendent Monroe Bonner, who knew McLeod and his family for decades. “He was a star point guard (for the boys), and his wife was a star point guard for her team as well. He had a lot of skills. He was small and quick, and he had a great jump shot.’’
McLeod left Seminole and graduated from Georgia Southwestern. He went on to get his Masters degree at Valdosta State, then came back home and took a job as a physical education teacher and assistant girls basketball coach in 1976.
He never left.
He became the girls head coach in 1979 and coached until 2000. He tried to retire then, but he came back to the court to coach the girls two years later. He became the assistant principal of the high school and middle school in 1977 and held that position until 1979 when he became the superintendent of the school district. He held that title until he stepped down in 1995. He took over as the school’s athletic director that year and never left the job.
“He’s done it all,” said Register, who has taken over as the school’s athletic director, as well as continuing to serve as principal. “His presence was profound. He was everywhere. You didn’t have to look hard for Mr. McLeod. He was there.’’
Now the void is everywhere.
“For him to leave us that quick ... it happened so sudden. It is such a sad time for all of us,” said Godwin, who was McLeod’s assistant coach for 15 years before taking over as the boys head coaching job seven years ago. “He was such a great man and a great coach. He was a fierce competitor. If it was a close game, he would find a way to beat you. He’d beat you, no doubt about it. But in all his years as a coach he got only two technical fouls. He got one last year and didn’t deserve it. He just asked the referee something and got hit with a tech.
Godwin then added with a laugh: “He deserved the first one. But that was more than 20 years ago. He was such a professional, such a leader and teacher. He did things with class, and did it the right way. And he expected his players to be the same. He would be proud of what’s going on here this year. Wes is doing a great job.’’
Williams grew up knowing all about McLeod.
“My father was the girls basketball coach at Calhoun County for 25 years and went up against him for years,’’ said Williams, who is also an assistant football coach and assistant baseball coach at Seminole. “Jesse McLeod’s name has been in my house my entire life. He was a great man and a great coach.
“He was a winner. He wasn’t just a great basketball coach, but he was a winner in life. I think winning championships is great, but being a winner in life is so much more (important). I know how many lives he touched. It’s been tough for the school. He is so missed.’’
When McLeod did leave the basketball team from 2000 through 2002, he just couldn’t stay away.
“He came back to coaching after two years,’’ Bonner said. “Coaching was in his blood.’’
But there was always so much more.
“Mr. McLeod was an outstanding man of character and an icon of education in the community who was honored, respected and admired for dedicating his career to Seminole County and dedicating his life to his Lord, his family and friends,” Bonner said. “While I will miss his friendship, he will live on in the lives that he touched in a remarkable manner. He dedicated his life to the children of Seminole County.”
And he did it in a simple, humble manner with a big heart and tiny ego, an unpretentious and generous man who loved his community and showed it almost every day of his life.
“You knew who he was,’’ said Seminole County football coach Alan Ingram, who went to Seminole County Elementary School with McLeod. “We were buddies, walked to school together, went fishing together. He loves to fish and hunt. It‘s just so hard to believe he isn’t here. You just expected him to live forever. It’s just so sad.’’
The girls on this year’s team are wearing T-shirts to honor their coach. The shirts have a picture of McLeod and the words, “In Loving Memory of Jesse McLeod.”
“He was one of the most memorable people I will ever know,’’ said Marrisa Mike, another Lady Indians senior. “He was a father figure to a lot of people. I called him my father. He was that person to me. I still can’t believe he is gone. It feels so different, so sad. He believed in us. We are trying to go all the way for him this year.”
The kids met before the season began and dedicated this year to their coach.
“He was a great man, a great coach,” said senior and four-year starter Katrese Brown. “He was very inspirational and very uplifting, and so caring. He was always there when you needed him, and we have dedicated the season to him. We want to win it all for him.”
At times, however, it’s difficult to walk in the gym.
“Sometimes just seeing this court, it makes you want to break down and cry,’’ Barnes said. “But knowing we have dedicated the season to him, it motivates you to be strong.”
They have bonded together in McLeod’s absence. After all, that’s what he would’ve wanted.
“We miss him so much,’’ Barber said. “I miss his laugh, his smile. He was a jokester. He loved us so much. We want to win it all for him. When we are together, we say, ‘We have to do it for coach McLeod.’
“We want him to be proud of us. He’s not here physically, but we know he is here spiritually. We just want to win for him.”