Championing a Legacy

Championing a Legacy
Margaret Barrett and former Lee High school player and Green Bay Packer LeRoy Butler with Leon Barrett in 2022, around the time Butler was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. | Photo/Facebook-Leon Barrett

How one man’s impact inspired a timeless tribute

Leon Barrett studied, played football and graduated from then-named Robert E. Lee High School in 1961. Just five years later, upon graduating from University of Georgia – with a little help from his former Lee football coach – he, his wife and one-month-old baby returned to his alma mater to teach and coach…and he never left. Now, a group of individuals have worked to ensure that his 60-year legacy never will.

On Saturday, March 9, at 10 a.m., the stadium at Riverside High School will officially be renamed the Coach Leon Barrett Stadium during a special dedication ceremony at the field.

“I always knew Lee High School was home to me,” said Barrett. “To me, God had a purpose in my life to come back here and do what I’ve done with it.”

What he’s done with that life is leave in indelible mark on generations of students, strengthen and inspire those around him for decades, and even become family to those who needed it most.

“He’s really a builder of men. He’s just such a Christian. There are so many people that are indebted to him for his continued friendship, and the way he handled himself in high school as a mentor to other students and the ball players, whether it was girls or boys,” said Norman Abraham, who went to school with Barrett and served on the committee to have the field renamed. “He’s the perfect guy to look up to.”

Abraham, along with Greg Carter, Pat Geer, Doug Milne, John Wannamaker and Gary Warner, formed a committee to petition the Duval County School Board to name the field – which Barrett had previously dubbed “The Backyard” – Coach Leon Barrett Stadium.

A rendering of the new signage for Coach Leon Barrett Stadium.
A rendering of the new signage for Coach Leon Barrett Stadium.

Barrett spent 38 years teaching and coaching at what is now called Riverside High School. Though he claims he was better at being an assistant, Barrett was the head coach of seven different sports at different times, and only had one losing season as a head coach, oddly enough in football. He started the school’s first athletic booster club, served as the school’s Athletic Director from 1977-1992, was instrumental in having the press box, lights and bleachers installed, and even used maintained the field back when it was grass.

He and his wife, Margaret, have owned a home adjacent to the school for 52 years.

“You can’t sit in my den or my dining room, or walk out my door, or drive up my driveway without looking at Lee High School,” he said.

But Barrett said his greatest accomplishments aren’t necessarily the victories won on the field.

“I came off the street, and when I had the opportunity to go to college, it seemed like everything just pointed me back here. I wanted to come back here and see if I could help some kids. That’s been the whole purpose of my life,” he said. “If I can help one kid move on and be as lucky as I was…that’s been the whole thing.”

Stories abound about the positive impact Barrett has had on individuals that have passed through the school halls: The kid he “led to Jesus” in 1972 who now has a church in Portland, Oregon. The Green Bay Packers’ defensive safety LeRoy Butler, who for years told Barrett that if he ever got in to the Football Hall of Fame – which he did in 2022 – that “you and mama [Margaret] are coming.” And the everyday players who found inspiration in his words.

“The thing about Coach Barrett is that he could encourage or motivate you to do things you didn’t think you could do,” said committee member Carter, who graduated Lee High in 1975 and played for Coach Barrett. “For instance, 1973, the first game of the season. We played Fletcher High School. Fletcher was ranked No. 1 in the state preseason. We had not had a winning record in nine years, so were picked last in Jacksonville; but, we went out there and beat them 15-14. We only had a few boys over 200 pounds, but Coach Barrett would motivate you and get you so fired up, you thought you were the New England Patriots.”

Leon next to a television gifted to him by four appreciative former Generals: Greg Carter, Phil Miller, Joe Joe Browder and Steve Hyers | Photo/Facebook-Leon Barrett
Leon next to a television gifted to him by four appreciative former Generals: Greg Carter, Phil Miller, Joe Joe Browder and Steve Hyers | Photo/Facebook-Leon Barrett

The committee that petitioned the school board also raised the funds to cover the costs and signage for the naming of the stadium. In the future, Abraham said the committee would also like to start a scholarship at Riverside High School in honor of Barrett and his longtime friend, playing and coaching partner, Corky Rogers. They have also requested that all athletes who have played for coach Barrett in the past be in attendance at the dedication ceremony on March 9.

“I’m blessed. I’m still shocked a little bit. I never thought anything like this would ever happen,” said Barrett.

Barrett will be 82 in February and still substitute teaches at Riverside High to this day. When asked about former players coming to the dedication, Barrett’s humble nature showed through again as his only concern was for the feelings of the potentially hundreds of people that might come out in support of it.

“I don’t know what to say to everybody. I won’t recognize everybody’s name anymore. At 82, you forget a lot of names.”

While he may not remember all their names, he is sure to feel their presence. There’s no doubt they’ve all felt his.

By Lindsey Gast Pessia
Resident Community News

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