Coach: 'It isn't work, it's joy'
In my way-too-many years of sports and coaching involvement in the Chicago suburbs, I don't think I have ever come across a coach more dedicated, more entrenched into the love of coaching, and one who connects with his players and draws their undying love and support than Terry Leske.
The longtime Highwood native has spanned his coaching influence from Deerfield, to Highwood, to Highland Park, as well as Winnetka, Glenview, Northbrook and beyond. Almost all of it has been as a volunteer. His regular job for most of those years was as maintenance supervisor for Covenant Living in Northbrook.
But besides his family (6 children and wife Julie) it was coaching kids that has Leske's real passion for close to 40 years.
The list of programs he has influenced and been involved in is almost endless. You can start with the Deerfield Warriors Junior football program, and then add in a multitude of coaching gigs: North Shore Express, Highland Park High School, North Shore Country Day in Winnetka, the Highwood Rec Center, Joy of the Game, All in Athletics, the Glenview Park District, Road Warriors Travel Basketball, Deerfield and Highland Park feeder teams, and finally, not to forget where it all started some four decades ago, St. James Catholic School in Highwood.
"That is where my kids went to school," Leske said. "And at that point I had never really thought of coaching, but I got a letter in the mail saying they were looking for coaches for their school teams. I had just experienced the end of my own athletic career, trying out for the Chicago Blitz football team and then having an ACL injury, and was looking for a way to continue on in sports."
"So I responded to the letter and, without really knowing much about basketball, right away they had me coaching my daughter's sixth-grade school basketball team. I thoroughly enjoyed it! Just like meeting my wife. It was instant love at first sight." (I'll get to his wife in a moment)
Leske quickly became hooked on coaching, and eventually took over many of St. James school coaching programs, working his way up to athletic director.
This led to even more community involvement, working with kids at the Highwood Rec Center and North Shore Express Travel teams
"As I said, at the time I didn't know that much about basketball," Leske explains, "but I submerged myself in as much reading and learning on the sport as I could. I would go the library and read books, attend clinics, and even spent some of my vacation time from work trying to educate myself any way I could so I could improve as a coach."
Mission accomplished. He has gone on to successful basketball coaching stints with all the previously mentioned club teams.
But it is football that was always a first love for the Notre Dame of Niles class of 1972 graduate.
The volunteer football coaching career has been a 31 year labor of love for Leske, starting with a program called the Highwood Tigers. When that program ended, he became involved with Deerfield's Junior Warriors Football, and with them it has been an amazing (and continuing) 28 year run.
Over the years, has served as their offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and head coach; now he is vice president of football operations for the entire organization. In much of that time he has worked closely with Deerfield High School's own longtime Coach Steve Winiecki.
"Terry has always been one to put the kids first, making sure the kids have a great experience while still competing at a high level," Winiecki said. "Most important, Terry is in it for the kids, making sure they learn from the game and grow, first and foremost, as people."
Through all the different coaching stops, one thing about Coach Leske has always stood out: The unique connection he develops with the athletes. It is as if the kids can recognize the true joy he finds coaching and his pure dedication to them and, in return, they give him their undying love and support.
"I don't coach to just win games," coach says. "I do it to help the kids become their best. I learned this philosophy early on in my coaching career when working with kids at the Highwood Rec center. One boy in particular I remember, a 6-year-old at the time, who was struggling in the gym and was ready to quit playing. I sat down and talked to him and told him to not worry what others were saying and just to try and have fun playing. He decided he would stay in the program, and that same, then-discouraged little kid, went on to become a successful varsity basketball player at Deerfield High School."
"Before that moment, I thought coaching was all about winning, but that incident taught me early on that, much more important than wins and losses is staying positive, making the experience enjoyable, and trying to get the best out of each kid."
Leske hearkens back to last year in football with the Jr. Warriors as an example of why he loves coaching.
"It was a playoff game, and I went out for the coin toss and looked back at our players on the sidelines. Without any plan or any provocation, they had all lined up in unison with arms locked in a show of team cohesion. Then after the game, a heartbreaking triple overtime loss, the players who were 7th and 8th graders, were all huddled together in tears and consoling each other. As painful as the loss was, I will always remember those two moments because it showed to me how much the team and their teammates had meant to them, and how much they cared. That ultimately is the greatest goal for any youth coach."
Leske also recalled when his mother passed away in the middle of a Highland Park girls basketball season, and the players whom he had coached for many years and had become so close to him, wanted to cancel their game against Glenbrook North and go to the wake for his mom instead, all in support of coach. The following day, the entire team attended the funeral.
"It was a really tough time for me," recalls coach. "And them being there really meant a lot to me. I remember giving the eulogy for my mom, and I saw all the girls standing there, and I got all emotional and almost couldn't continue."
Through all the years, through all the many ups and the downs, through all the many coaching stints, Leske's No. 1 team has always been his family at home. His wife Julie, whom he met while he was in high school, and kids Matt, Nicole, TJ, Joseph, Angela, and Kayla.
"It wasn't easy with all the time away from home," says Leske, "but Julie has always been supportive of my coaching, and I have truly appreciated that."
Four decades of coaching, and the 68-year-old Leske is still going strong. Who knows how many more years he will continue? But after talking to him, the end seems nowhere in sight.
"I still enjoy it," coach says. "It's not work for me. When you do something you love, it isn't work, it is joy."
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email email@example.com.