Willard T. “Big Will” Leach, considered one of the greatest athletes in the history of City College, where he was an outstanding football and basketball player and a track and field star, and who became a city police officer, died Dec. 3 of a blood infection at his home in Murphy, North Carolina. The former Northeast Baltimore resident was 89.
“He was tall, and watching him on the field with his tremendous stride was like that of Ted Hendricks of the old Baltimore Colts,” said Ellsworth Boyd, a retired Towson University education professor who graduated from City in 1950 and competed against Mr. Leach in track and field events.
“Will could cover more ground than anyone else on the football field, basketball court and in track and field, and despite ... his athletic accomplishments, he was a very humble and nice fellow to be around,” said Mr. Boyd, a White Hall resident. “Will graduated a half-year ahead of me — also in 1950 — at Baltimore City College and in my opinion, was one of the greatest athletes ever to attend City. He was real strong, weight 190 pounds, which give him a big advantage over the other kids.”
Willard Thomas Leach, son of Kenneth Wilson Leach Sr., a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad locomotive engineer, and his wife, Marie Fahrenbach Leach, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised in Waverly, near City College, which would become the scene of his greatest athletic triumphs.
During his four years at City — 1946 to 1950 — Mr. Leach compiled an impressive athletic record.
He was the leader of three consecutive wins over archrival Poly in the Thanksgiving Day matchup. He kicked the extra point in a 7-6 win in 1947; kicked one again in a 13-12 win in 1948; and in 1949 faked a field goal and threw a touchdown pass in a 26-6 victory. In the 1949 game, he also caught a 10-yard pass and ran 40 yards for a touchdown.
As a little-known substitute in 1947, Mr. Leach “stepped off the bench and calmly booted the extra point which sent Tech into a 7-6 defeat,” The Sun reported.
“And as for extra points,” he told the newspaper, “if everybody doesn’t do his job no kicker in the world is worth anything.”
“Possibly the quickest way to send Polytechnic football followers into an acute state of shock is to mention Willard Leach,” The Sun observed in 1949. “If thought of the tall City College end doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of Techmen everywhere, very likely nothing will. ... There must be something about Poly that inspires Willard Thomas Leach to the heights.”
He became an All-Maryland high school pick by both The Sun and the News American.
Mr. Leach’s track and field accomplishments and his play as the center on City’s basketball team were equally impressive.
In City’s 52-46 basketball win against Poly in 1950, he scored 18 points.
Poly led 14-13, “then Leach, who got more than his share of rebounds at both ends of the court, was good on a short, two-handed jump shot and City was in front to stay,” The Sun reported.
In the 1950 Maryland Scholastic Association track and field championships, he won four gold medals and one silver medal while competing in three field events and two races, and as a result of his domination in the sport, MSA officials ruled that participants could enter a maximum of four events in future meets.
“I taught him hurdles and then he beat me,” Mr. Boyd said with a laugh. “I told him I was responsible for his success.”
At his graduation in 1950, Mr. Leach was offered 18 college athletic scholarships, and he chose to attend Wake Forest University.
“He stayed and came home after one semester. I think he was homesick for his girlfriend, Patricia, and came back to Baltimore and married her and started a family,” Mr. Boyd said. “Had he stayed in college, he would have no doubt been an athletic leader.”
In 1955, he had a tryout with the Baltimore Colts at what was then Western Maryland College and was one of the last to be cut after training camp.
The Sun reported that Weeb Ewbank, the Colts coach, deeply regretted having to cut Mr. Leach.
“He had the size and the desire. His qualifications outweighed all his shortcomings except his speed,” Coach Ewbank told the newspaper. “I hated to let him go. He gave us his very best from the time camp opened. But in the final analysis Willard could not have made the team. His long layoff from the game affected his speed and he probably never would have regained it.”
Mr. Leach told Mr. Boyd that rubbing shoulders with such future Colts greats as Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti and others had been “one of the greatest experiences of his life.”
Mr. Leach became a Baltimore police officer assigned to the Central District while attending the old Eastern College of Commerce and Law, now the University of Baltimore School of Law.
On his day off, he was on his way to school when he noticed a man carrying a coat he had stolen from a parked car in Mount Vernon Place. Further, he noticed that the coat belonged to a classmate and arrested the miscreant, who later pleaded guilty to larceny.
In court, Mr. Leach explained that his return to being a police officer caused him to miss a class in law and another in Shakespeare, The Sun reported.
Mr. Leach moved to Tampa, Florida, and Naples, Florida, where he joined their police departments. He retired in 1968 after being injured while working for a stevedoring company. He lived in Naples for 33 years before settling in Murphy in 2003.
In 2016, his friend nominated Mr. Leach to the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame, which rejected the nomination on the grounds that Mr. Leach was only a high school and not a college athlete, which made him ineligible for the honor, an official explained to Mr. Boyd.
“I protested on the grounds that Michael Phelps and duckpin bowling champion Toots Barger didn’t go to college, but my protest fell on deaf ears,” he said.
Mr. Leach was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Murphy.
No services are planned at this time.
In addition to his wife of 70 years, Patricia Lee Leach, a retired dental assistant, he is survived by two sons, Willard T. Leach Jr. and Scott L. Leach, both of Murphy; a daughter, Linda Leach Dolan of Baltimore; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.