Running through the past
Track athlete Leon Atkins’ unusual path to success
Leon Atkins remembers getting accepted to UB as one of the greatest moments of his life.
The junior track athlete is the first person in his family to get accepted to college, but he never set his sights on continuing his education or his running career.
Atkins grew up in Auburn, New York with parents who never finished high school. His parents never pushed him toward college and his mom, Tanya Daniels, thought her son would get his associate’s degree and then find a job.
Atkins said this was typical for most Auburn residents. But Atkins, who was working at Planet Fitness to pay his bills, wasn’t satisfied.
He was a star high school runner who stunned UB associate track and field coach Todd Witzleben at his meets. Witzleben said Atkins ran one of the best 400 meters he has seen at the New York State Championships, as he led the pack by around four or five seconds.
The only problem: it was a 600-meter race.
Atkins was gassed during the last 200 meters and ended up losing the race, and his breakfast in the process.
Witzleben was impressed, but Atkins didn’t have the grades to enroll in Buffalo.
So he stopped running.
Now, Atkins will compete at the Mid-American Conference indoor championships this weekend. He rediscovered his passion for the sport and leads a competitive group of middle-distance runners as he looks to take home the gold.
Atkins started running to beat his friends and cousins. He admits they were faster than him, but he wanted to be better than anyone else in the neighborhood. In seventh grade he had his first opportunity to join track where he began as a sprinter.
Atkins worked his way through middle school and high school eventually becoming The Citizen’s 2015 boys outdoor track athlete of the year. Atkins held five school records when he graduated, three in indoor track and two in outdoor. Atkins would qualify to compete at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Championships.
“I’m running a really good time for college right now,” Atkins told The Citizen in 2015. “But if I want to compete against the best, I need to bring my time down. I’m willing to put the time and effort into that.”
Atkins ran into trouble afterward and found out that his academics would prevent him from going to a large university despite his athletic ability.
“I just took a road less travelled from high school,” Atkins said. “I didn’t know I was going to get back into running when I went to community college. I actually got more into power lifting.”
Atkins struggled to find his home, whether it was on or off the track. He moved away from his mom and stepdad to live with his dad in Medina. His father had his “downfalls” and it forced him to move back to Auburn with his aunt and uncle before finally returning home to his mom in Syracuse.
Atkins knew as a child that athletics would push him to get out of his situation. He grew up impoverished in an area where many didn’t finish high school.
He would go on runs by himself around the block and do crunches and sit ups until his mom got mad at him for listening to the same playlist of 50 Cent and Lil Wayne over and over again.
Atkins was never pushed into being an athlete, but his parents wanted him to be better off than they were. His stepdad ingrained in him that nothing in life was unachievable.
“My stepdad and grandfather played a big role in motivating me to push myself because I was never the smartest kid in the classroom,” Atkins said. “I was always a standout athlete.”
“It’s like nothing else matters when you’re racing,” Atkins said. “The only thing on your mind is racing, and how you want to take on that race. When the gun is shot, I forget everything else about my background and how I grew up”
Taking the lead
“I didn’t want to be in the situation I was in,” Atkins said.
Atkins, in community college, was finishing classes at 3 p.m. and starting work at Planet Fitness immediately after. He wasn’t running and just trying to earn money to pay the bills. Al Wilson, his high school coach called him at work one day.
Atkins called him back thinking it was a university and was about to get his big break. But it was only the start.
Wilson promised Atkins he would get him into a university, but he had to make a promise to be determined and motivated.
Atkins thought he was still talking to a college coach.
Wilson told Atkins that he would be running for a club team -- his first running action since high school. The team was made up of kids ranging from 8-14.
Atkins was 19.
Atkins went to a few practices before Sunday –– the traditional distance day for all runners. Wilson drove into the country, dropped the track kids off and had them all run back to a house.
Keegan Brady, an 11 year old, beat Atkins.
Atkins developed a relationship with the entire Brady family. Karen Brady was a former runner for Penn State. Karen started the race a mile back from Atkins and beat him by a mile.
Atkins considers the Brady family as part of his own. They supported him and always provided someone that he could go and talk to. Between them and Wilson, they turned Atkins’ life around.
“Without them I definitely wouldn’t be running today,” Atkins said. “I don’t even know if I would have graduated from community college. They came into my life when I was at a real low and I didn’t know what to do at that point. I was just failing at life in general.”
Atkins received the support and grades he needed to get accepted into UB. Once Witzleben saw he would be able to succeed at the collegiate level, the athlete he recruited for three years would finally join the team.
Atkins leads the middle-distance runners, a group that the Bulls have had success with in the past, including Brian Crimmins and Tyler Scheving who are training for the Olympic Trials, a goal for Atkins.
Atkins will have tough competition this weekend like Owen Day from Eastern Michigan who has run a 1:51 in the 800m. Atkins will be competing against other UB runners as he tries to attain his goal of making the Bulls a powerhouse for track.
“I don't see jerseys,” Atkins said. “I don't see what school they're coming from. I just see somebody that's out there and that's lining up that wants to beat me. I want to beat them. I don't care what school they're coming from, I don't care what school they go to, I don't care how much scholarship they’re on or whether they're from overseas or not. My main focus is on getting to that line before they do.”
Atkins wants to leave a legacy before he graduates. He wants to have his name in the record books and leave an impact. Atkins said he feels that he is in a position where he can make a long-term change within the program.
“I’m just going to give the university as much as I can because they gave me a lot in return,” Atkins said. “When I’m through here, I know that I will still have those records and be a part of it in some way.”
Nathaniel Mendelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @NateMendelson.