When Jim Leonard graduated from Rockland High in 1980, he wasn’t sure what his future held. So his father, an ex-serviceman, suggested the military.

“I actually enlisted early decision on my 18th birthday in March of my senior year,” said Leonard, now the athletic director at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield.

Leonard served four years in the 82nd Airborne Division from 1980-1984, seeing action in the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. The lessons he learned in the military helped this summer when Leonard had to navigate the uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down Maine’s high school sports in March.

Throughout the summer, schools waited for direction from the Maine Principals’ Association about what they could do and whether they would have a fall season.

“In the service, you have to be flexible and adaptable and have to have a Plan C and a Plan D,” said Leonard,  58. “As an athletic director, that’s par for the course; you have to have backup plans in place. In the military, when you’re standing around not doing anything, you need to do something.

“I’ll be honest with you, I worked harder this summer than any other summer – Zoom meetings, workshops, plans, rescinding them, preparing for what’s to come, getting ready for Phases I, II, III … The summer went in a blink for me. It was that quick … I just kept trying to keep moving forward, be positive, do the best we can for kids. That’s all you can do.”

Leonard said his time in the military prepared him for everything he has faced in life.

“In the service, you learn about organization, setting goals, working to achieve them, achieving them and setting new ones, or falling short of your goal and trying to adjust,” he said. “Everything I learned in the military is useful in any walk of life.”

And Leonard walked many lives. After the military, he returned home to Rockland where he was a firefighter for the next 14 years. Then he attended the University of Maine, graduating in 2002 with a degree in communications. Leonard actually worked as a stringer for the Portland Press Herald while at UMaine, covering Black Bears sports among other topics. He even credits the military with helping him become a writer.

Veteran Jim Leonard, second from left, at Fort Bragg in 1982. Photo from Jim Leonard

“I was a pretty good writer in high school and became a better writer in the military because you have to write reports about everything,” he said.

He worked as an assistant football coach at Rockland and eventually became the school’s athletic director in 2007, continuing that position when Rockland combined with Georges Valley to form Oceanside High. He moved to MCI in 2014.

He said his time in the military was both exciting and sobering. “It’s exciting because you’re 18 and you feel like you’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” he said. “It’s sobering because you realize quickly no one is 10 feet tall and bulletproof. I was excited to serve my country but glad it was over.”

Especially after seeing combat in Grenada. The U.S. invaded the island nation off the coast of Venezuela to put down a military coup and install a democratic government. Leonard said he was in a couple of firefights. “It was the most unique feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “And I’d prefer not to have it again.”

Leonard isn’t the only high school athletic director in Maine who relied on military training to help him navigate the contentious summer.

Todd Sampson at Edward Little High in Auburn served in the Maine Air National Guard 265th division for six years, beginning in 1990. He said it gave him responsibility and self-discipline as well as perspective.

“Over the summer, I was talking to one of our former assistant coaches at EL,” said Sampson, an athletic director for 19 years at four schools. “He had served in Korea, and I asked him how he was getting through the pandemic and the isolation and the lockdown. He said, ‘When you’ve laid in a foxhole for 16 hours in the mud, I think I can sit on my couch and watch TV.’

“Through the Guard and the military, I learned just to stay positive. Yes, this isn’t a lot of fun, but we’re going to get through it and you need to stay positive.”

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