As Washington Husky fans in Eugene, Ore., go, there might not be a better-liked “Dawg” fanatic than Sheldon Center behavioral specialist Kevin Leonard.
Although he grew up in Eugene and has spent the majority of his life here, since his high school years he has associated himself with the Oregon Ducks’ hated rival in Seattle. As a four-sport athlete at Churchill High School, Leonard dreamed of playing running back for his hometown football team. But as a senior, then-Oregon head coach Rich Brooks did not offer him a scholarship.
“I was a ball boy for the Oregon football program and I was a ball boy for the Oregon basketball program. Growing up I wanted to be a Duck, hands down,” Leonard said. “But Rich Brooks shunned me. He said he wanted me to walk-on.”
Leonard still had scholarship offers from a few Pac-10 schools, including Washington. When Leonard made his recruiting visit to Seattle, he caught passes from then-UW quarterback Warren Moon, who would go on to stardom in the NFL.
“He threw me passes for two days and I dropped two balls in two days. I was thinking to myself ‘this is wonderful,’” Leonard said.
That weekend, Leonard also watched Washington play USC; the game was so violent that Leonard had second thoughts about going to Seattle. Since that recruiting trip, he has found himself committing an ultimate Eugenian sin and rooting for the Huskies over the Ducks.
“I never got over the fact that Oregon would not recruit me,” Leonard said.
Leonard, now 48, was voted the Oregon high school athlete of the year during his senior year, after leading the Lancers to the state championship game in both football and basketball (they lost both games). Leonard played in the East-West Shrine football game, as well as the State Metro basketball game, all-star games that have showcased the abilities of thousands of prep athletes. Leonard, however, is one of only a handful of players that have done both.
After graduating from Churchill in 1980, Leonard took his talents to Portland State University, where he played football. While he had primarily played running back in high school, loss of personnel to graduation forced him to play defensive back. Although he was starting, Leonard never got along with the coach and he became homesick.
“Everything fell apart from there. I didn’t go to class, so I had to drop out of school and get a job,” Leonard said.
But Leonard wouldn’t let that stretch of bad luck stop him from succeeding. From his experiences, he learned what not to do and devoted his life to helping kids in similar situations make the right decisions.
“That’s one of the reasons I love what I do now. I get to teach kids how not to go that route,” Leonard said.
For the past 20 years, Leonard has coached high school football, basketball, baseball and track at Churchill, Pleasant Hill and South Eugene. He is currently the defensive coordinator for the football team, the J.V. basketball coach and an assistant track coach at Churchill. Leonard’s work at his alma mater has not gone unappreciated. He was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.
At the Sheldon Center, it is Leonard’s personality that makes him so successful. The center operates as a daycare and kindergarten school for children ages 3-6 and Leonard takes his time with each child. His lovability is put on display every morning, when each child who walks through the door greets him with a big hug. Leonard’s ability to deal with parents and children has made him a key part of the center.
“Kevin is dynamic. From the moment you meet him, he engages you,” said Kim McManus, the senior program supervisor at the Sheldon Center. “It’s not a trainable skill; it’s a talent and a gift, that he can connect with kids on an individual level and make them feel welcome and part of the group.”
Leonard’s personality draws people to him and makes them want to get to know him better. Adults and children alike can’t get enough of him and the number of people who swear by him grows daily.
“Wherever we go, it seems like he knows someone in that space,” McManus said. “The instant you meet him, you feel like you’ve known him for a long time.”
As Husky fans in Eugene, Ore., go, Kevin Leonard is, by all accounts, forgiven for his sin.