Throughout the 25 years he spent as head coach of Malverne High School’s varsity football team, Ron James helped establish the program’s focus on developing well-rounded student-athletes. Whether it was through his volunteer work with the Lakeview Youth Federation, his years as a phys. ed. teacher at the high school or through his coaching, James made it his mission to reach out to young people in any way possible.
“He not only coached us in football, but in life,” said Kito Lockwood, who played for James from 1987 to 1991. “At that time in our lives, a lot of us had our own struggles, but he’d step up to the plate and make sure that whatever was needed, he would do the best he could to provide that.”
James, 65, died suddenly in South Carolina on Feb. 15. The cause was not disclosed.
Born in South Carolina, James spent part of his childhood in New York City before he moved to Freeport during his teenage years. He attended Roosevelt High School in the late 1960s, and went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Morgan State University and a master’s from Rhode Island University. Shortly after graduation, he began his coaching career at Malverne, where he remained from 1977 to 1996 and returned from 2001 to 2005. He led one of Malverne’s most successful football teams in 1990, when the squad went undefeated and won the Nassau Conference IV championship and the Rutgers Cup as the best team in Nassau County. Its defense allowed no touchdowns in the regular season.
“We had some phenomenal juniors and seniors, but most of all, we had a dream team coaching staff that was led by Coach James,” Lockwood said. “We watched how well Coach [Fred] Brewington, [Charlie] Nanton and James worked together as a unit, so we, as players, were forced to match that. They were great examples for us.”
Nanton, co-founder of the Lakeview Youth Federation — which organizes community sports organizations for local youth — said that James’s involvement in youth programs only added to their initiatives.
“The main thing we were all focused on was helping young people,” Nanton said. “We’ve all dedicated our lives to that, but Ron helped a lot of young kids become productive citizens of society.”
Dr. Ken Leistner, a chiropractor who was on James’s coaching staff from 1984 to 1991, said that he was determined to teach life lessons off the field as well. Leistner, who is also a member of the Lakeview Youth Federation, said that everyone was on the same page when it came to shaping young people.
“Wins and losses were important to Ron, but there was nothing more important to him than preparing kids for life after football,” Leistner said. “I know this may sound redundant, but anybody that knew Ron would tell you that he always put the kids first. He was dedicated to the kids, dedicated to the community, and he did it all by example.”
The 1990 team was special, Leistner explained, because the players were not only talented, but also responsive to the coaching staff’s instructions. That responsiveness, he said, grew out of the close relationships James established with his players.
“He helped to create a family atmosphere and a family outlook to the point where they were doing it for each other,” Leistner said. “He really set the tone for the program.”
James spent his offseasons getting to know players during their years at Howard T. Herber Middle School. He allowed them to get involved in the high school team’s workouts in the spring and summer.
“Coach Colbert Britt” — James’s predecessor — “was a physical education teacher at the junior high school, so we were able to build relationships with those guys before we ever put on a high school uniform,” Lockwood said.
Lockwood, who has coached the varsity football team for the past decade, said that people like James, Britt and Nanton paved the way for Malverne’s program.
“They made it real easy for me to do this job,” Lockwood said. “Based on what they gave me, it’s only right for me to give that back to the next generation. I’m just grateful and thankful that he passed on the things to my peers and I [that] allow us to live vicariously through his legacy.”
James was a phys. ed. teacher at Malverne High for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2006. He moved back to South Carolina shortly after his retirement, coaching tennis at Wilson High School and the Dr. Eddie Floyd Florence Tennis Center.
“I was shocked to hear about his passing, because he was the pinnacle of health,” Nanton said. “But Ron will always be remembered as being one hell of a coach who gave back to the community.”
James is survived by his parents, Helen and Andrew; his wife, Janet; and his sister, Andrea James.