Benicia High School has had many fine athletes move on past their playing days to successful careers. The foundation for many of those careers is based on remembering their roots and applying that learning time to helping others. It is passing the torch. I am very proud of all those written of here and all of their “brothers and sisters'” who have done so much to help society. The narratives below are in the words of some athletes themselves.
Reynard Rutherford, Benicia High School Class of 1991
“I started football at an early age given it was socially correct in my neighborhood. In the early 1980s I played all sports for a park & rec called Youngblood Colman Park. During that particular time I was a huge baseball fan (SF Giants) and truthfully at the time I was a much better baseball player. I believe if I would have kept playing I would have made it to the majors. Either way, the neighborhood I grew up in was flooded with the new drug, ‘crack cocaine.’ You either were a seller, user, or being recruited/urged on either end. For the most part 95 percent of my friends became sellers and the others users.
I was tempted to enter into the drug fraternity but I had an older brother, who at the time was a major drug supplier in our community. He too was a good athlete and had a chance to obtain a D1 scholarship, but the extended years of selling drugs caused his arrest and long term incarceration. My brother would never allow me to hang out on street corners and by this I ‘lived’ at the local park and played sports literally all day. This is where I learned competition, hard work, and a love for athletics. I was always a taller kid and pretty fast. Given my size I couldn’t play Pop Warner because first I was big enough but not old enough. Therefore, my 1st year of tackle football did not start until my 8th grade year. My 1st year of tackle football I probably had 20-30 rushing touchdowns. It became obvious that I had a natural talent. I eventually went on to high school and my freshman year was a bust given I fractured my shoulder during the second game of the season and never returned. However, as a sophomore they moved me up to varsity and I had a break out season and led our team to a SF city championship game, in which we lost. That day of the championship game changed my life. Following the game a recruiter, Terry Shea from UC Berkeley walked up to me and said he believed I had D1 talent. He eventually walked away and said he would be watching me in the future. Without saying, neither me nor my family members had any blueprint/knowledge of family members or friends going to college. Therefore, when he told me that I had D1 talent I immediately set a goal to obtain such. Leaping forward to the following summer of my up and coming junior year my mom insisted that I attend the Cal summer football camp. We didn’t have a lot of money during the time and some how she scrounged up enough to pay for the camp. I was so excited and anxious to go to the camp to see the other talent around Northern California. However, as I mentioned earlier I had a brother who was knee deep in the drug game and unfortunately right before I was to attend camp he experienced his first arrest. This figuratively killed my mom and hence made her second guess us living in SF. Without my knowledge she made contact with Ed Lazerek, Benicia High football coach and told him about me. Coincidentally, he came to the Cal camp and watched me.
Long story short he welcomed me to Benicia and said I would be a great fit in his offense. I never thought I would transfer to Benicia. In fact, I never heard of Benicia. Little did I know my mom was in the process of buying a home in that town. Somehow, luck of God, the company she worked for (Genetic) stocks exploded and gave her the financial resources to purchase a home. I was shocked that she wanted to leave our beloved SF. She eventually purchased a home and she gave me the choice to move with her or stay with my grandmother in my familiar neighborhood, Bayview Hunters Point. I did not want to leave SF given I was starting to make a name for myself with college scouts. However, I got a call from Ed over the summer and he requested that I visit so I could tour the town with other student athletes. I agreed and he introduced me to Lamont Calhoun. I had come to Benicia during summer to help my mom move, but I never left the house. I was so nervous because I felt like I was the only black person in town. My knowledge of Benicia was that it was a racist town. During my 16 years alive I only had extended contact with Blacks, Hispanics, and Samoans. However, after meeting Lamont my perspective changed given he introduced me to other people of color. He gave me in-depth tours of the town, and once I met other individuals who were not black I became more comfortable. With this, I made the decision to stay long term. The decision was pivotal given I came into an environment in which I learned to adapt to diversity and it taught me study habits that I eventually used when I got to college.
My two years in Benicia flew by. I excelled athletically and eventually earned local and state accolades. I was recruited by the majority of the PAC 10 schools and narrowed my final five schools to Cal, Oregon, Washington St., UCLA, and Arizona St. I eventually choose Cal. I red-shirted as a freshmen and then played all four years for the Bears. I was a top six rusher in the history of their program and eventually went to the NFL. I was on several teams including, Kansas City Chiefs, 49ers, Raiders, New York Giants, and spent one season overseas in NFL Europe with the Frankfurt Galaxy. I was one of five players allocated by the 49ers to play in that particular league. I eventually stopped playing football in 1999-2000 and now I am an investigative social worker for Solano County Adult Protective Services. I have a BA in sociology. I am married (been with my wife for 24 years) with three kids and live in Sacramento.”
Lee Leslie, Benicia High School Class of 1978
“Football has been my father for 56 years! It has taught me respect, integrity, character and to never quit.
It has also taught me to have the courage to stand out in a crowd and lead by example. I played football for 17 years and coached it for 33 years. I stand in respect during the national Anthem and I respect the opportunity to compete each day.
All of my coaches had their own style. Coach Garrett spent unrelenting time with his players, and cared about each one of us. Building relationships is a great thing to learn! Coach Clemons brought in his Raider-like personality and inspired me to get in the weight room. Coach Grim and Coach Bishop were my college coaches, and they were more business-like but still inspired through their example of dedication to the game.
As I played Arena Football and later coached it, I saw the negative side. People were dishonest and really hard to like. The one positive was the players. I loved them all! The passion and the survival instincts were an amazing thing to witness.
I am grateful to be a coach! We have enjoyed 18 championships and have learned as much from a loss as a win. It is a privilege to be a part of football and to share it with others!”
Craig Rigsbee, Benicia High School Class of 1977
“Football has been a very important part of my life. I have really made it my life’s work. Everything I have is because of football. The most influential people I have had in my life have been my football coaches (particularly Jim Garrett). I have had the opportunity to help thousands of kids turn in to young men. A guy once asked me why I try so hard to help all of my players. I said because when I see a kid struggling with no family or no financial means I really do see myself in every kid like that. I was fortunate that my football coaches helped me understand the importance of doing the right thing, in getting an education (that took a while). They taught me there is no substitution for hard work, and short cuts don’t last. They taught me to never give in and never give up (even if you’re down 48-0 at halftime versus Rio Vista in a JV game). They taught me that if I had confidence in myself I could do anything and it did not matter if I was poor or didn’t have parents. They were role models for me on how to be a good father and to take care of your family. They were role models to show me that kids do need guidance and it was up to the coach to do it. That’s probably why I have taken so many young people into my home that has needed help.
I was asked, ‘Why do you always try to save every kid?’ My answer was my coaches did it for me and if not me then who? Football has been a great sport to me, but all my life lessons have really come from my coaches not football. I was so fortunate to have many great coaches who have helped and shaped me to be a pretty successful person who has been married 30 years and raised two great boys (both played football at Cal and graduated from there in four years). One is a very successful financial adviser and one plays for the Carolina Panthers. I have coached football at the college level for 27 years (16 as the head coach) and have been a college dean and athletic director for 13 years. My coaching record was 156-16-2 with 10 championships and 15 bowl games. I was selected as Coach of the Year 10 times and State Coach of the Year three times. I was fortunate enough to be selected into six halls of fame including the California State Coaches Association which is as high as you can go in community college football in California. But the wins and losses are not that important now (they were then LOL). The most important thing to me is the relationship I have with many former players and coaches. That’s what education and coaching is all about in my opinion.”
Addendum from Jim Garrett:
Craig and I exchanged several emails on this subject and I’d like to share parts of them.
“You took me to my first College game, Chico State versus San Francisco State in Cox Stadium. Little did I know I would raise my family in Chico. I am good friends with Vic Rowan’s daughter and got to spend a lot of time with him as he spent his last years in Chico.
“You took me to my first Major College game Cal vs. UCLA. Little did I know I would go to every Cal game home and away for eight straight years watching my boys play. My youngest started 49 straight games (every game possible).
“We didn’t win very many games in 1975, but that was such an influential year for me. I learned more about life and football and how to start being a man than in any time in my life. Thank you so much for being the man to teach me and the rest of the guys so much. For that_we really did win that year. (We did tie Dixon 0-0. I had ten tackles and three sacks. I also got 5 stars for my helmet even though it was the last game). Who says_no one remembers!!
Addendum from Jim Garrett:
After a reply I sent to Craig following his submission he responded:
“Thanks Coach. It doesn’t matter if you ever write about my email. I really just wanted you to know that all of the things you taught me when I was 15 have been taught time and time again. So I believe that is a man’s/coach’s greatest legacy. To know you truly made a difference. (You did) That is more important than money, recognition, wins, or status.
“That’s why we coach!!”
I exchanged emails with these former students to compile the above material. I have a few personal memories I’d like to share.
On a final note:
I never coached Rey. I had him in a history class one year. He was soon referred to as the “Map King.” He would go to the pull-down map and search out such rivers as the Irrawaddy. I think it was fun for all of us. There were times during the first half of the junior varsity football games when Rey would join Roberta and me in the bleachers and he would eat one of the sandwiches she made. He always praised those sandwiches.
I coached Lee one season. He was one of the two recipients of the “Golden Helmet Award” that year. He is a highly successful football coach.
I only coached Craig one season. As with many others, he shared time at our home, “broke bread,” went to the mountains and talked. His record as a coach speaks for itself.
James M. Garrett has lived in Benicia his entire life, having graduated from Benicia High School in 1961. He retired after a 27-year career of teaching at BHS in 2000. He is the author of “One Great Season 9-0!,” “Benicia and Letters of Love,” “The Mansion Stories,” and the compiler of “The Golden Era,” a history of Benicia High School football from the 1948 through 1960 seasons. Contact him at Jgstoriesnpoetry@aol.com.