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Elmer "Coach Chief" Leak has led a resurgence at Lakeside Park off Highway 58.

In some climates, Groundhog Day is a harbinger of spring. Here, spring is heralded by youth league baseball sign-ups.

Elmer Leak, president of the Lakeside Youth Association, can feel spring coming in his bones — like an emerging shoot of grass that can feel a shaft of late-winter sunshine.

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Elmer "Coach Chief" Leak has led a resurgence at Lakeside Park off Highway 58.

Leak, a 64-year-old retired Norfolk Southern Railway worker, is known around Lakeside Park as "Coach Chief." Basically, Coach Chief runs the place. He is a physical and emotional force at the property.

This week, his internal clock is telling him that it's time for the Dizzy Dean League yard signs to go up, alerting all the little Cardinals and Red Sox and Cubs and Pirates that the league's sign-up season has arrived.

By the time baseball and softball games begin in March, perhaps 200 children will be spread across a dozen or more teams at Lakeside Park, a city of Chattanooga facility comprised of a constellation of five diamonds near Highway 58.

The people around the Lakeside Youth Association say "Coach Chief" is the heart and soul of a thriving recreational program that is lifting children, most of whom are black and from single-family homes.

Besides baseball and softball, the association also has basketball and football teams. There are twice as many kids participating at all levels as there were a few years ago, Leak says.

"I'd rather the kids be out here chasing balls than being chased by the police," Leak says. "I say to my coaches: 'We don't know what kind of environment these kids come from. When they put their feet on these fields, let's treat them with love and respect and kindness.'"

Serving the Lakeside Youth Association population often means picking up the kids before practice — and sometimes buying them fast food (out of pocket) — before delivering them back home later, volunteers say.

Leak explains, "A kid might get in my car and say, 'Coach Chief can you take me to McDonald's?' It would hurt my heart if a kid was hungry and I didn't stop and get him something to eat."

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Mark Kennedy

Many of the children don't have the $70 fee to play a team sport so the coaches beat the bushes for donations for "scholarships." Quietly, people across the city pull out their wallets to help so that no children are turned away, the coaches say.

A generation ago, Lakeside Park was in decline. Participation in the baseball program was down to a just a few teams, Leak remembers, and the park suffered from petty thefts and a parental culture that sometimes seemed marinated in drugs and alcohol. Once, someone just "helped-themselves" to the park's trusty four-wheeler, Leak says.

Lakeside Park booster, Will Alas, owns an insurance business nearby, and he has seen Leak's influence in the community first hand.

"This is not a park that you can see from any (main) street," Alas says. "This man has done great work, and it goes unrecognized."

People say the park has changed. Drugs and alcohol are out, while the energy and enthusiasm are "in".

People say it's not only "Coach Chief" but also his wife, Cassandra Leak, who provide the inspiration for Lakeside Park.

"His sweet wife is out here more than he is," says Willie Mosley Jr. — aka "Coach Mosley" — who has developed generations of Lakeside athletes.

Coach Mosley and others in the Lakeside coaching fraternity wear rings from past championship football seasons. Young athletes trained in the Lakeside Youth Association have gone on to play college and professional football, he says.

Last year, about half the 11-to-12-year-old baseball all stars went on to play on middle school teams around the city.

There aren't many days in the year when "Coach Chief" isn't at the ball park.

The city of Chattanooga owns the property and cuts the grass, but Leak and his helpers do all the upkeep. They also organize fundraisers to pay for capital needs. They have purchased an ice-making machine for the concession stand, a batting cage and a John Deere lawn tractor to drag the infields. The volunteers published a coupon book for local merchants and sponsor barbecue and catfish nights at the ball park.

When the fields were in disrepair years ago, Leak and the other men used pitchforks and rakes to fill in holes and comb out rocks. Now, they host post-season tournaments hosting visiting teams from suburban areas throughout the region.

"We've changed the environment," Leak says. "We're trying to raise these kids with love and respect. Hopefully, they'll come back one day and do what we do, and won't ask for nothing."

To suggest a human interest story contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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