TAMPA, Fla. – As the Jesuit Tigers practiced for their upcoming game against Miami Northwestern, there was a special pair of eyes watching every move.
“I see this is a team on the way to do something that hasn’t been in a long time,” Leonard George said.
This man would know. Leonard George starred on the Tigers 1968 state championship team. Jesuit’s only state title.
Dr. Steve Krist was the quarterback on that title team. He and George have a good feeling about this year’s squad.
“I really think something special is going to happen this year,” Krist said.
Jesuit’s leading receiver Junior Vandeross took time out from practice to introduce himself to George. It’s not often you get to meet a legend. And not just a legend, a barrier breaker. George was the only African American on that state championship team. He marvels at the diversity on the Tigers current roster and his role in helping pave its way.
“We were a big family,” he said. “We weren’t interested in anything than trying to win and and trying to please Coach Bill Minahan.”
George pleased more than his coach when he took his talents to the University of Florida where he continued to break barriers as one of the first African Americans to earn a football scholarship and the first black player to score a touchdown for the Gators. When Florida kicked off the season this year, they honored George.
What he did at the University of Florida would not have been possible without the foundation he built at Jesuit. The support he had from his teammates and especially Coach Minahan set him up for life. Wild Bill’s widow, Martha, recalled how George had special place in her husband’s heart.
“You take care of your best player,” Martha Minahan said. “And obviously, Leonard was the best player. I think he told you when he first met you, “Leonard, you’re black.” Didn’t he say that?”
“Yeah, he did and I was surprised to hear that,” George said with a laugh.
The color of Geoge’s skin, unfortunately, came up often that state championship season. On a road trip during their playoff run, the team stopped at a restaurant to get dinner. The owner said George was not allowed to eat in the restaurant. Coach Minahan told the team, “if Leonard can’t eat here, none of us will eat here.” And they left.
“I think all of us were there to look after Leonard,” Krist said. “There’s no question about it. Leonard was family. He was our brother. It would be like any family or anything like that. We took care of Leonard.”
Men for others. Its not just the Jesuit High School motto, it’s way of life for these Tigers. They built a lifetime of memories together and they’re excited about the special moments this year’s team is building.
“When you think about people you’ve played with 53 years ago, and they’re still friends, we still do things together, It’s very special,” George said.
“A high school championship can affect the rest of your life,” Krist said. “So, they don’t know it but it’s going to have a huge impact on the rest of their lives if they can pull it off.”
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