Student Athlete Discovers the Power of a Nurturing Community

University of Toronto graduate student Kaleb Leach attributes his academic success and scholarship-winning football prowess to those who supported him.

Kaleb_Leach_student_athleteYou can’t talk about Kaleb Leach without talking about the others he credits with getting him where he is today.

Kaleb’s story is that of endlessly supportive parents, who not just once, but twice helped their son move far from home to pursue his passion for football. It’s the story of a grandfather who loves his grandson so much, he calls him his hero. It’s the story of a mentor who welcomed Kaleb into his family, and of teammates who welcomed Kaleb into their home. When you ask him about his accomplishments, he comes back to the same place: how much he owes to the people around him.

But things weren’t always this way for the University of Toronto graduate student and football standout. After breezing through high school competition in Kentucky, Kaleb earned a scholarship to play football at Florida Tech, only to find himself falling unexpectedly to fourth string. When he reflects on his past now, he has a sense of what happened: “That self-made image–it’s fake,” he says. “When I was at Florida Tech, I tried to do the lone wolf thing. I’d just stay to myself. But you need a community of people to do whatever it is you want to do in this world. You need to be around people so you can grow, so you can learn new things, so you can be happy. It’s hard to be happy when you’re alone.”

Although Kaleb’s warmth and positivity make him a hero to many, he never spares an opportunity to share the credit for his countless strengths and accolades.

We spoke with Kaleb about some of the people who nurtured him along the way.

. . .

You’re incredibly close with your family, so how did your parents take it when you decided to head to Canada for grad school?
When I first told them about Toronto, their reaction was, “You want to go where?” I was already far away from home when I was in Florida, and Canada is even further. But they took a deep breath and said, “Let’s check it out.” They were hesitant, but they were never resistant. When we went on our first visit, my mom was the first one to say it: “He’s at peace here. He’s happy here.” Like any other mother, of course she didn’t want me to go far. But she realized how happy I was in Toronto. And once my dad realized the opportunities that existed here, both in the academic and professional sense, he pushed it one hundred percent. He said, “You don’t have this opportunity in Kentucky. You don’t have it in Florida. You might not have it anywhere else. So go. It’s cold there, but I’ll buy you a coat. Go for it.” They had no idea how things would end up. They had no idea that I’d be safe. They’d never been to Toronto, and they knew I’d never been there. But they told me not to worry about the financial constraints, or anything else. They said things would work out, and they told me to go.

You talk a lot about your grandfather, too. What is your relationship with him?
Sometimes my grandfather jokes and calls me his hero, but really he’s one of my heroes. He’s taught me the importance of keeping your family unified. He’s always building everybody else up, making sure they have the confidence to attack anything in this world. And when you need a helping hand, he’s always there. I remember when we were living in California, he would drive from Detroit all the way to San Francisco just for Christmas or a birthday. Every year of my life, he’s made either my birthday, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. He always makes at least one. And when I first started considering Toronto, he was one of the first people I told about it, because he actually moved to Mexico after his undergrad. He understood what it felt like to leave the country on your own. So when I had the chance to play football at Toronto, he told me regardless of what anybody thinks, you need to do what’s best for you. If you feel good about it, listen to yourself and run with it.

When you first got to Toronto it must have been a big transition. Did you have anyone to lean on?
I remember early on Mary Beth Challoner, the Marketing Director at Toronto, saw I was walking around the city and didn’t really know anybody. She heard that I was studying Theology, and she knew Herbie Kuhn, who’s a chaplain for the major sports teams in the area. So she arranged coffee for the two of us, and ever since then we’ve been great friends. He isn’t just a professional mentor. He’s helped me adjust to the city and the culture, helped me navigate through different environments and people. He’s introduced me to so many people in the city and he’s emphasized the importance of community. He laughs and calls it a blessing by association. Whenever I’ve been homesick, I don’t know if he can tell somehow, but he’ll call me up and invite me to dinner with his family, and I’ll stay out there for two or three hours talking with him and his wife and his son. One big thing he helped me with, too, since he’s a chaplain: in Canada, being religious in a sports sense is a little taboo. When I got here, doing team prayer was not a thing, even though in the states a lot of teams say a team prayer. It’s what you do, regardless of your religious background. And Herbie kind of encouraged me to try that here. Herbie was a big inspiration in that. I just really admire his wisdom. He doesn’t speak as if he’s a know-it-all, but he’s experienced some things in this world that I haven’t. And he knows how to navigate through it all, and he shares that with me.

You’ve talked about growing your support system when you arrived in Toronto. Outside of your family and mentor, who else have you relied on?
Toronto’s a big city. If you know enough people it’s an amazing place, but if you don’t it can be very, very lonely. And I was lonely for the first month or so. Luckily, playing football you meet a lot of people, and over time you build legitimate friendships with them. Keith and Matt were two of the first people I became friends with, because when I first got here and didn’t have a place to stay, they both said, “Hey, you can come live at our place. You can pay a discounted rate on the rent and live here, because you’re our teammate.” To me, that meant a lot. I know a lot of people don’t value the word “teammate” the way I do. But if you’re my teammate, you’re automatically my friend. When you struggle, I struggle. And that’s how their minds work as well. When I didn’t have, they had, and they shared it with me. They took me in because they knew how it felt to be away from home and not have anybody else. They know about my journey here to pursue football. Keith even jokes all the time, anytime I say, “If I’m lucky enough to play pro ball,” he cuts me off and says, “When you play pro ball.” They just support my dream. That’s what good friends do.

. . .

Kaleb’s journey has taken him across states and now countries. His path has both been unexpected and, remarkably, exactly what he needed. He’s had to adapt, discover new strengths, and work to find his way. And he’s learned that he’s more than just a passionate football player; he’s a brilliant student, a compassionate community member, and a ceaselessly reliable friend. He knows his life is a patchwork quilt of people he loves and the gifts they’ve given him. And so he gives generously to those around him, as a quiet thank you to those who have contributed to his life, and as a show of his lifelong commitment never to accept more than he offers himself.

About the author

Alex Witkowski

Alex is a former high school English teacher and non-profit Community Manager who's now living the dream building Community with Course Hero. Beyond the walls of the office you can find him listening to music, seeing live music, seeking out new music, writing about music, composing music, and defending his obsession with music.

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