East Rockaway resident Dr. Ken Leistner, a former Malverne High School varsity football coach and special education teacher, spent most of his life making others the best they could be.
When Leistner spoke to the Herald in the past, he said that pushing people to exceed their limits, both physically and mentally, was one of his main goals. Leistner, who was also a chiropractor and personal trainer for 39 years, said he believed that everyone should strive to be the optimal version of themselves.
Leistner, 71, died suddenly on April 6. The cause was not disclosed.
“He helped so many people in so many ways, and he was a saint who believed in doing the right thing,” said Gregory Roman, his adopted son, who is the offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. “Only the people that knew him understand how special he was.”
James O’Hagan, who is the nephew of former longtime East Rockaway girls’ basketball assistant coach Tim O’Hagan, said Leistner had a profound impact on his life. After he learned that Leistner lived in his grandparents’ neighborhood of East Rockaway, O’Hagan trained with him for nearly a decade. He described Leistner as a mentor who not only helped him get in shape physically, but also was there for him when he dealt with personal problems.
O’Hagan also described Leistner as a “beast,” noting that he once saw him squat 407 pounds for 23 reps.
“He just had no idea how to quit,” O’Hagan said. “As a person, I can say that he is without a doubt one of the greatest people I have ever met . . . I’m glad that he was able to be a part of my life, and that I was fortunate enough to have been part of his.”
Leistner grew up in Point Lookout and attended Long Beach High School, but transferred to Lawrence High, graduating in 1965. He starred in football and track at both schools, and played baseball at Long Beach. He attended the University of Cincinnati, where he continued his football career as a fullback. Later he went to Hofstra University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1970. He also received a master’s from Hofstra in 1972. He became a chiropractor in 1980.
Leistner began his teaching and coaching career at Malverne High in the late 1960s. He became an assistant coach of the football team in 1970, and was on the coaching staff for 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.
Leistner was known for his intense physical training. In 1992 he founded Iron Island Gym, in Oceanside, and operated it until 1998. Then he ran a chiropractic business from his home, and set up fitness rehabilitation equipment in his house and garage.
Lakeview native Derrick Adkins, the 1995 world champion in the 400-meter hurdles and the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the event, met Leistner during his sophomore year at Malverne High in 1985. Adkins said that since many of the top track stars had muscular physiques, his coaches urged him to develop his body with Leistner.
“You really think you’re doing your absolute best until you train with him,” Adkins recalled. “He was very hard-core, but he pushed you to be the best that you can be. If you don’t know him, you might think he’s too harsh, but all he wanted to do was push you to another level.”
Adkins added that personal training wasn’t popular among athletes at the time. “He was before his time in that regard,” he said of Leistner, “and because of that, I gained an advantage at an early age.” By his senior year, Adkins was the No. 1-ranked high school 400-meter hurdler in the nation.
Wheelchair racer Peter Hawkins, of Malverne, who won the Long Island Marathon 25 times, trained with Leistner for more than 30 years to strengthen his shoulders, back and arms. Hawkins learned about Leistner through a mutual friend at Valley Stream Central High School, Tom Cahill, who mentioned Leistner’s expertise as a chiropractor and strength trainer.
“Whenever I trained with him, it was all about the intensity of the workout,” said Hawkins, who last worked with Leistner on April 2. “It didn’t matter how light the weights were, but he pushed all of his clients to get the most out of their workout. He was also big on developing and maintaining relationships, and that’s why I trained with him all these years. He’ll never be replaced.”
Leistner didn’t only train with those who were natural athletes. Lynbrook resident Philip Giordano, 58, recounted a chance encounter with Leistner at a Starbucks in the village in 2002. Giordano said he was wearing an NFL shirt and Leistner commented on it, and the two began meeting there for coffee. Though Giordano wasn’t into fitness, he said, Leistner offered to train him, and he took him up on it. “That just shows you how big his heart was,” he said.
Giordano added that Leistner would give school-age children advice on how to be better people, and refused to train them unless their grades were good.
Giving back to the community
Even though Leistner’s home was damaged in Hurricane Sandy, Giordano recalled, he still gave back to the community. Giordano said that he and Leistner collected boxes of supplies and delivered them to Little Pebbles Nursery School in East Rockaway. Even during that time, Giordano said, Leistner took advantage of every opportunity to turn work into training.
“I remember we would be loading up the trucks and he would just be yelling at me about how to lift,” Giordano said with a laugh. “He would yell at me, ‘Bend you knees!’ It was a great, great feeling.”
Charlie Nanton, co-founder of the Lakeview Youth Federation, which organizes community sports organizations for local youth, said that Leistner, who was also a member, often spoke of the importance of being a complete student-athlete.
“In essence, Dr. Ken was one of our great mentors for children that came through the Lakeview Youth Federation,” Nanton said. “He was truly a giant in this community.”
Leistner is survived by his wife, Kathy; his four children, Kevin Tolbert, Gregory Roman, Sol E. Leistner and Bariann Leistner; his brother, Barry; and six grandchildren.