ARLINGTON – Ren Leach is losing his eyesight.
He first noticed when he was 10. He was with family looking up at the stars. He couldn’t see them.
He was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare, inherited degenerative eye disease.
About every five years he would notice a decline in his peripheral vision. But about a year ago it rapidly started changing. “I bought a new truck and only got to drive it twice,” he said this week.
After coaching football and teaching PE at high schools for decades, Leach is now a grade school PE teacher and a youth football coach in Arlington. He is leading the eighth-graders in what could be his last game Nov. 11. The team has won championships the past two years.
There is no cure for his sight loss. He was told by University of Washington experts that he only has 3 percent of his retina left. He can see in only well-lit areas and then only straight ahead.
“Knowing it’s the beginning of the end is a tough one,” he said. “It always seemed to be in the future – not at 46.”
What’s been especially hard is not playing ball with his son, Cameron, a left guard on his team.
“I can’t play catch with my son anymore,” he said emotionally. They played as long as they could. It got to the point where dad would line up Cameron so the shadow of the ball coming at him could be seen on the white house next door.
Leach said his wife, Dani, keeps him optimistic. There are studies being done, that could lead to testing, that could become a cure, she said.
“Despite the challenges of going blind he continues to coach at a high level and challenges players to learn and grow,” she said. She won’t rule out coaching again.
“His knowledge is so great that he could be a great addition to a staff, so we will not rule out things in the future,” she added.
Leach said, “My wife is the first to believe” that I can do something.
“I have a hard time envisioning myself coaching,” he said, adding, “not that it can’t be done.”
He said when a play is happening, he can’t necessarily see it all, but he knows where everybody is supposed to be. He can no longer pick up details, such as if a quarterback is telegraphing his passes. Leach said he relies on his assistant coaches. When he was younger, he would watch the opposing coach across the field to “pick up what he was doing. I can’t do that anymore.”
Leach played football at North Thurston High School as a running back and linebacker. He went to college, but took time off and did some coaching at his alma mater. He developed a passion for coaching and went back to Washington State University to become a teacher. He coached in Southern California at a school that won five titles.
He came north in 2002, first to Granite Falls and then Arlington, where he was an assistant with now-head coach Greg Dailer. One of the things he is proud of in high school coaching was helping players go on to college. Former players include Mike Sellers, who played running back in the NFL for 13 years. He had other players go to Brigham Young, WSU and San Diego State. He keeps in touch with all of them via social media.
Leach said this year’s youth team is as special as any he has coached.
“After 20-odd years of coaching other kids I’ve been able to coach my son,” he said. He added it’s a special group of 43 boys. “They care about each other. They want to leave their mark. It hasn’t ever been done before,” he said of winning three-straight Arlington Youth Football Association titles. “They’ve already been in other sports together and have good relationships and are good teammates.”
His team is a feeder program for Arlington High School, so they pass the ball a lot. While he started his career as an offensive coach, on this team he is focused more on defense.
When he took over he tried to simplify things for the boys. Every minute of practices was planned.
“We don’t waste any time. Organization, preparation, dedication – I don’t know any different way to coach,” he said. By keeping things simple, the players were able to take ownership and now even help in the process of analyzing what other teams are doing. He admitted he is surprised how smoothly it all went.
“Young men these days are very aware of things. I don’t know if it’s the video games or what but they are immersed in sports,” he said.
The coaches also are immersed in learning. Sharing instructional videos has helped take their coaching to the next level.
“The coaches are so motivated to do their best, and that rubs off on the kids,” Leach said.
Aside from football, Leach’s declining eyesight has affected him in other ways.
He used to read a lot – coaching books and author Tom Clancy, for example. He listens to audio books, but “it’s not the same.”
He misses driving – the independence of just going to the store.
“Not being able to drive takes some adjustments, but it’s an obstacle, not an impediment,” Dani said. “He’s still the same person we all love.”
His and his wife’s parents drive him to work. He said he does appreciate that bonding opportunity most people don’t get.
Things also have changed at work. He is in his eighth year teaching at a Camano Island elementary school. “It’s no big deal to them,” he said of the kids. “They introduce themselves first, then ask their question. They just received vests with numbers on them so I can tell who is who during an activity.”
The school district installed LED lights in the gym. Everyone has been so supportive, he said.
“It’s a tough situation, but I know I’m not alone,” Leach said.
During one tough stretch a few years ago Leach was laid off because of budget cuts. For two years he became a voice actor. “On a whim” he took an evening course at a community college. Then he hired a voice-over coach. He ended up doing Taco Bell and car commercials and even some training modules for law firms. He also became the character voice of a golf ball for an Australian shop.
“But I couldn’t wait to get back into the gym at school,” he said.
The eternal optimist, Dani tells Ren that losing his eyesight will mean he won’t have to carry that burden around anymore.
“There is something freeing about that,” he said. “I won’t have to think about it every second of every day.”
So while there are a lot of unknowns about the future, one thing is for sure. After Saturday’s game, win or lose, Cameron will walk his father to their truck because it’s already too dark for him to see.