More Than a Track Team. Coaches of Portland: Leon McKenzie

(Top) Leon McKenzie embraces an athlete after winning the men’s 1998 State title. McKenzie has coached a total of 11 track State championship teams. (Bottom Left) McKenzie smiles with two hurdlers after a practice. McKenzie’s coaching philosophy emphasizes genuine connection between coach and athlete. (Bottom Right) The Benson coach of 35 years poses with 2001 triple jump State champion Wiley King. Since Coach McKenzie was hired as Benson’s Head Track and Field Coach in 1985, he and his coaching staff have helped individuals on the men’s side to State championships in 13 out of the 17 currently held state track and field events, and nine out of 17 on the women’s side. Photos courtesy of Leon McKenzie.

Leon McKenzie has coached Benson Track for a total of 35 years and has given his life to the team. His success is incredible: 11 track State Titles, 15-time Coach of the Year in Oregon, seven all-time Oregon track records, and a 95% college graduation rate of those who participate in the program. There is an expression: “The numbers speak for themselves.” They do to an extent— and Coach McKenzie is proud of them, but they only reflect one dimension of the lasting legacy he’s created at Benson and in the community. Behind the numbers is the genuine care McKenzie showed his athletes, and the now countless professionals who can credit him with being better human beings. Through his experiences as a child, his college education, and, of course, dedication, Coach McKenzie has been able to produce one of the most meaningful and successful track programs in the nation despite persistent inequities and challenges.

Leon McKenzie was born in Talladega, Alabama, a small town about 40 miles east of Birmingham and the home of the Talladega 500. At the age of seven, McKenzie moved to Bakersfield, California before moving to Oregon at age nine with his family in search of a fresh start. Without electronics, McKenzie grew up in a neighborhood where almost all the kids were outside playing sports for as long as they could. “I would get up in the morning and play till dusk. I would play stickball, and then I’d play football, then I’d play baseball, then I’d go to the all-comer track meets and compete in those,” recalls McKenzie. His enthusiasm for sports continued well into high school as McKenzie became a four-sport athlete at Benson High School. McKenzie became a Portland athletics icon. He made the Portland Interscholastic League all-city team in baseball, won the 1971 basketball state title, and made the all-city and all-state teams in football as a running back. In addition, on days when rainouts occurred in baseball, he would run with the track team. 

Growing up, McKenzie naturally learned to be very competitive and work hard from a young age. “In my neighborhood almost everybody was a star by the time they got to high school. I would be in the park in a football game, and everybody there was either all-city the year before or was going to be all-city.” McKenzie fought hard to just get chosen to be on a pickup team at the park. He recalls playing against “thugs” who he describes as tremendous athletes who were always in trouble. “I’d come home all bloodied up, or a knot on my head and my dad would say, ‘I told you about playing with those damn thugs at the park,’ and I’d say ‘I like playing with them.’” This natural competitiveness and drive to confront challenges through sports would serve McKenzie in amazing ways throughout his future endeavors.

Upon graduating from Benson, McKenzie was given two choices to continue athletics: a scholarship to Oregon State University for football or a small contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates to continue baseball. With encouragement from his father, McKenzie chose to attend OSU to continue football and pursue an education. McKenzie entered college with high hopes, but through injuries and life outside of athletics, McKenzie lost sight of the enthusiasm that sports once encaptured in him. “By the time I got to the end of junior year, I realized all the things that I had planned weren’t coming to fruition.” McKenzie made the choice to take a step back from athletics and focus on graduating from college. 

School was one of the biggest challenges McKenzie had faced in his young life. “For me school was hard. I was a dyslexic kid from Alabama and I hadn’t had much schooling.” To hit his stride, McKenzie utilized the work ethic he had gained in sports and altered his perspective on school to make learning an area where he could channel his competitive drive. “Some people would go in the library for an hour and they’re done, I would go in for three hours and I’m still grinding.” School proved to be an incredible challenge, but through diligent, tireless work, and perseverance McKenzie prevailed. Graduating was one of the greatest triumphs of his long list of successes. “You take this dull child who’s having trouble learning, and to be able to get a degree from Oregon State University, and to be able to walk across the stage and hear your name introduced and knowing how much labor and hard work you put in to make that happen, I can’t tell you the feeling. I was elated.”

Out of college, McKenzie was offered a position as the assistant track coach and part-time worker at Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis. McKenzie had competed in track as a high school student, but his knowledge at the time was limited, as track was just one of four sports he participated in. Through attending clinics and consulting with other track coaches, McKenzie was able to pick up a lot of knowledge and advance his understanding to a much higher level. After about three years at Crescent Valley, McKenzie applied for a full-time teaching position at the school and narrowly missed out. With the missed opportunity, McKenzie decided it was time to move on to bigger and better things. At the time the OSU president was giving scholarships to students of color to attain their master’s degree, an opportunity McKenzie pounced on. He was admitted into the Counseling and Psychology program at Oregon State to pursue a graduate degree. “Now enters the greatest thing I ever did,” McKenzie recalls.

In the Counseling and Psychology program, McKenzie was able to deeply study human behavior and examine his own self and character. “It was scary, but I wasn’t going to quit… In the end, it was the greatest thing I ever did, because it freed me up from all my childhood insecurities. Especially being a person of color, you’re already feeling— especially when I came up being born in the early fifties— you already feel like you don’t match up, that you are a second class citizen.” In addition to bringing him a clearer sense of self, McKenzie’s Counseling and Psychology degree has been an incredibly useful tool in coaching. Straight out of college, McKenzie was offered a job as an Integration Specialist at Jackson High School in Portland, Oregon and a role as the Assistant Track Coach. As an Integration Specialist, McKenzie helped students being bussed to schools from distant neighborhoods, specifically children of color. His goal was to help these students fit in and feel a sense of belonging and community at school. After a few years at various schools, McKenzie returned to his alma mater, Benson High School, as an Integration Specialist. He also picked up the role as Head Track Coach where he would coach for 35 years and bring prosperity to what is now considered one of the most historically successful and outstanding high school track teams in the entire country. 

Coach McKenzie describes what he’s created at Benson in a unique and thought provoking way: “This is a human development program disguised as Track and Field.” It’s something that makes us realize that youth sports have an incredible impact on us and have the potential to shape us into the adults we will become. McKenzie hopes to send athletes away with medals, but also with the tools to thrive as an adult. He recalls the conversations he has with his athletes years after they pass through his program: “Some of these kids are in their mid-forties and fifties and they tell me, ‘Man, you know you was doing more than coaching track. If it had not been for you, I would’ve never even stayed in school… and learned to love myself.” 

One of Coach McKenzie’s “kids,” and track stars, was Jay Miles. Miles ran in four State winning relay teams between 1988 and 1990, and is now the Head Track Coach of Benson following McKenzie’s retirement. “Leon was a huge influence on my life… he was another parent type figure in my life that helped steer me in the right direction. Somebody who outside of the house I could go to, talk to, bounce ideas off of, share problems… and that was all on top of being a phenomenal coach.” Miles is one of many whose lives have been shaped for the better thanks to the powerful influence of Coach McKenzie.

Understanding human behavior and the need to feel belonging has always played a huge role in the mission and success McKenzie brings to the team. “One of the biggest things I did and learned from counseling is that I wanted to establish relationships. In our program, relationships always come before content. Now I’ll say that again, because it’s the most important thing: relationships come before content.” Trust and connection have always been priorities for McKenzie. They help him understand the athlete, their limits and wishes. Most importantly, the connection helps the athlete trust Coach McKenzie to guide them through their training and put their best foot forward in the process. Miles says, “He works you harder than other coaches do, but he’s able to get more out of you because you trust him. 100%, wholeheartedly, you trust him. You’re going to do anything he asks of you, and so it’s easy for him to put those grueling workouts in front of you and for you to complete them and complete them with your best effort, because you don’t want to let him down.” 

A vital piece of forming relationships is authenticity. McKenzie says, “I want the kids to know I’m totally transparent. Who you see is who I am… People think that if you are really human in what you do that you can’t be successful. I totally disagree with that, and the proof is in the pudding.” Part of authenticity is making sure no one feels like the coaches aren’t accessible because of the ascendancy they hold. Miles, who has been coaching for twenty years says, “I’ve seen so many times—I’ve been guilty of this myself—where the coach, we feel like we have to keep a wall of separation between our athletes that we consider underneath us. He doesn’t consider athletes underneath him, everybody is on the same level.” Trust, genuine connections, and receptiveness are key and allow Coach McKenzie and his staff to help athletes work on the psychological aspect of their game to build both a stellar athlete and human being. 

One of Coach McKenzie’s aims is to give his athletes the chance to let go of any emotional baggage in the same way he did during his time in the Counseling and Psychological program at Oregon State. “Here’s the deal: if you got the talent, that’s the easy part. When a kid’s got some talent and he’s already got some stuff, I see that right away. That’s the easy part, because now I can develop that. The harder part is to deal with the emotional, psychological things. Many of the kids I work with come from one-parent homes… A lot of it has to do with their childhood experiences…  You know, have they been beaten down emotionally and psychologically?” Often McKenzie sees his athletes dealing with a lot of the same fears and blockages that he experienced as a child. “I recognize it right away when they’re scared to go for it because of this or that.” McKenzie always makes an effort to dig into these worries and insecurities to help the athlete and the human. “He totally opens himself up to things that he’s struggled with personally to times where he’s been frustrated… He wears things on his sleeve,” says Miles. Helping someone release these emotional weights is also important in creating an athlete that is ready to compete at their highest ability. McKenzie stated, “If you have talent and the kid is freed up emotionally and psychologically, they finna set records, I’m serious… they finna do damage.” 

A strategy Coach McKenzie employs to help his athletes is offering them his unconditional love and support. Nurturing the emotional growth of his athletes is a pillar of his coaching philosophy. Coach McKenzie truly believes and communicates to his athletes that they  have everything they need to be great: “Ain’t nothing stopping you but you.” Coach McKenzie loved to throw out little “nuggets” of encouragement or learning to his student athletes. “I would tell them I wasn’t a good high school student, and they’d say, ‘You got two degrees and your GPA was only this?’ I’d say, ‘Yea!’… I let them know, ‘You smart as hell!’ I say, ‘You can do anything,’ I say, ‘You talented, you bright,’ I tell them all of that. I tell them that for four years, and they start believing me.” All this love and encouragement combined with hard work has empowered his athletes to perform for years on a level that very few could match. 

Benson quickly became a force to be reckoned with. “Once we had success, I wanted to keep building on that… The other people who ran for me, they expecting it. They showing up to the State Meet, all sitting in one section with orange and blue on, waiting for the show.” Benson won six consecutive men’s 4x400s from 1987-1992, six consecutive women’s 4x400s from 1998-2003, and seven consecutive 4x100s from 1998-2004. This was the direct result of not only psychological clearance, but also of hard work and persistent dedication. “This the first thing I say, ‘I ain’t got time to waste. Do you want to be a championship team, or do you want to be a recreational team?’ And guess what they always say? ‘I wanna be a championship team.’ And I say, ‘Are you sure? Cause if you say you wanna be a championship team, that means you gonna do what others won’t and don’t dare to do.’” And that’s what they did, whether it was running hills on weekends or doing weight training early before school, they did what others wouldn’t and they won what others couldn’t. 

A lot has shifted since McKenzie became a coach at Benson and even more so since he was an athlete. Through neighborhood gentrification, the redistricting of high schools, the rise of private schools, and the fall of free play, McKenzie has watched it all. Benson High School, among others, has always been tasked with challenges due to inequities within the Portland Public Schools and modern day education in general. 

McKenzie and his staff have always worked extremely hard to get kids to buy into the program he’s created, but it has never been easy. “When you at a poverty designated school that has no junior high [sports] programs, with the exception of basketball—especially for kids of color because basketball is such a big thing—but almost everything else, it becomes really, really hard in a poverty designated school to get big turnouts.” As a public school, Benson has struggled to compete with schools like Grant, Lincoln or Wilson who have, as Coach McKenzie describes it, “a different clientele.” Schools like Grant or Lincoln are able to not only attract more students into their various sports programs, but they’re also able to utilize their higher income family base to take their student athletes on trips or renovate facilities—opportunities that Benson rarely has. McKenzie gives an example saying, “Like, Lincoln—it’s ridiculous. Any time they need something, they go in their parent fund, make sure they not going to get short changed on anything. You know when they needed to put that new track on, they raised that money in no time flat. Then here I am at Benson, do you realize we got a four lane track that’s all season… I don’t think there is equity going on right now in Portland Public Schools. I really don’t, and I don’t care who reads this… it’s the have and the have nots.” “We just have to find ways to make good and grind through with less,” adds Miles.

 Despite challenges, Coach McKenzie and his staff worked tirelessly to create avenues to grow and compete with high profile schools. Coach McKenzie has coached at the Albina Track Club, a local youth summer team, where he has helped nurture the growth of young track stars such as Oregon 100m and 200m record holder Micah Williams and Oregon 400m record holder Nate Anderson. He has always strived to help as many kids as possible while creating a winning legacy, and he had hit his stride in the eighties, nineties and early two-thousands. Towards the end of that period, PPS decided to slash Benson’s enrollment. It was a time when Coach McKenzie was one of many successful Benson coaches: Benson mens’ teams won the football, basketball, and track State titles. McKenzie recalls the following events saying, “As a result [of winning], some of the Athletic Directors at other schools went to the Board and said, ‘It’s unfair what they’re doing,’ and so they made us drop our enrollment from 1800 to 1500. And then it was a slow onslaught.” In 2005 Benson housed 1501 students; by 2014 enrollment was only 830. It was a huge blow to a program that was already balancing so many challenges. It sabotaged much of Benson’s athletic success, and Coach McKenzie’s hard work. It’s something that still bothers him today when he thinks of the lost opportunities for the program. “My attitude was, you know what, that ocean right there is too big for me to control. It’s not all about that. I’ve had great success. I’ve been able to impact a lot of kids, but I can’t really fight this.”

Coach McKenzie originally retired seven years ago, but after about a year he returned to Benson to temporarily fill the still open position until someone else could come in and take the reins. One year turned into six, and Coach McKenzie just stepped down for the second time this past year. “I probably stayed a little longer than I should’ve,” remarks McKenzie. It’s always been a struggle for McKenzie to take a step back from what he’s created at Benson. It’s a huge part of his legacy; he’s always wanted to break more records, win more State titles, and touch more lives, but now he feels that maybe it’s finally time to appreciate the other joys of life. “If I had to start over again, I would be more balanced, because I think I cheated myself. When I say ‘cheated myself,’ I ain’t talking about the relationships and the richness of all the stuff that was great. I’m saying I cheated myself in terms of being able to enjoy some of the fruits of life, cause I was so inundated in the coaching.” Coach McKenzie prided himself on always being a hard, determined worker. If he was expecting his athletes to put in the work, you best believe he was going to be putting it in too. This made his role consuming to a point where there was very little time to enjoy alternate passions, like golf and traveling. 

McKenzie remembers an interaction with his dad after the women won their fifth consecutive State title. “I noticed he wasn’t really grinning or laughing. He said, ‘Man, don’t lose your life with that little schoolhouse… I see you grinding, I see you giving your very life to these kids… You gotta take some time off to smell the roses, don’t lose your life at this little schoolhouse.” Seventeen years later, McKenzie has just stepped back. The 15-time Oregon Coach of the Year might mention wishing things had been more balanced, but he does not say that he ‘lost his life.’ McKenzie builds lives. He takes pleasure in the victories and accomplishments that sit in the trophy case at Benson. However the real pride comes from the human lives where he’s made a difference, the relationships he’s formed, and the incredible people his athletes have become. Just as we were about to end the interview, he interjected with one last point: “If there’s one thing I definitely want to have out there, it’s that many of these kids came from one-parent homes or indigent situations. Many, many are professionals in the community and college graduates.” Need I say anything more about who Leon McKenzie is as a coach and as a person? Well done, Coach McKenzie. Well done.

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