Duo laid foundation for team, themselves
By ERNEST HOOPER
Published December 12, 2006
Plant High football coach Bob Weiner gathered his team on the final day of practice two years ago and allowed each senior to speak.
Two of the seniors, Walner Leandre and Donte Spires, spoke of team and gratitude, and thanked the players for helping them move forward.
"I remember trying to be a leader and give motivation to the team," Spires said. "We tried to set a path for the next generation."
Today, Weiner says Leandre and Spires set that path. Although the Panthers posted a losing record of 3-7 in 2004, Weiner said those speeches and the duo helped catapult Plant to this year's Class 4A state title.
"I always told them we were building on the shoulders of giants," Weiner said. "They helped put this thing together."
They also put their own lives together.
As Plant knocked off Ponte Vedra Beach Nease in Miami for the state title Saturday, Leandre and Spires capped off junior college careers playing against each other in a national championship game in Mount Pleasant, Texas.
Leandre suited up at safety for Blinn College of Brenham, Texas. Spires started at linebacker for Pearl River Community College of Poplarville, Miss.
Both former Panthers entered the game as junior college All-Americans and did little to hurt their reputations. Blinn came out on top 19-6, but when you consider how far Leandre and Spires had come, both walked off as winners.
Leandre's name was synonymous with trouble when he started at Plant. In his junior year, he was suspended from the team. Weiner took over the program the next year and offered Leandre a clean slate. Underneath all the discipline problems, Weiner discovered, was a young man still troubled by the death of his mother when he was 11.
"Whenever I needed to talk about it, his office was open," Leandre said. "Coach Weiner put me on the right path. I started going to class, and I wasn't getting in trouble anymore."
Not only did Leandre shine on the football field, but Plant honored him as the turnaround student of the year.
Spires never gave his teachers headaches, but still endured a life of challenges. His mother died when he was 4, and the grandmother who was raising him died while he was in middle school. He eventually settled with an aunt.
Still, Spires had to balance schoolwork with football and a job as an assistant manager at McDonald's. He stayed on the right path. Now, like Leandre, he is looking forward to playing at a four-year university.
Susan Gray, an intervention specialist at Plant, took an interest in both students. Spires has become like family to her and her husband, Stanley, and they still keep in contact with Leandre. On Saturday, the Grays flew to see the two friends play each other.
"Walner is the ultimate 'before and after' story," said Susan Gray, who has two pictures in her office of Leandre, one of him receiving the turnaround award. "Donte is more a story of perseverance and not letting your circumstances get you down."
The Grays have played a role in boosting Leandre and Spires, and Susan Gray is quick to credit Weiner for opening up a path to college for the two players. What these two don't realize, however, is they've done more for the people who helped them by doing one thing: succeeding.
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.