Former Malverne High School varsity football coach and special education teacher Dr. Ken Leistner 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 Baltimore Ravens. “Only the people that knew him understand how special he was.”
Current Malverne High varsity football coach Kito Lockwood, who played for Leistner from 1987 to 1991, said that his mentor demanded excellence and hard work from all of his student-athletes. “When it was time to work out, you had to bust your hump,” Lockwood recalled. “Dr. Ken, along with the rest of the coaching staff, used football to teach aspects of life at the highest level.”
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 and teaching career at Malverne High in the late 1960s. He became an assistant coach for 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.
“He was definitely a vital component to that dream-team coaching staff with everything he brought to the table,” said Lockwood, whose father, Casper, also played for him from 1970 to 1974. “These guys gelled for years leading up to that season. I’m sure they had their ups and downs, but for the most part, they were pretty productive.”
Leistner, who lived in East Rockaway, 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, regularly 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.”
Six-time national weightlifting champion Dr. Richard Seibert, of Merrick, sought treatment from Leistner in 1979 after he suffered two herniated discs in his spine. Seibert said he learned training techniques from Leistner that helped him recover, and he competed in the national championships two years later. Seibert, who already had plans to become a chiropractor, said that Leistner’s treatment further inspired him to pursue the career.
“He was a humble guy, and he would not lay claim to what’s known as high-intensity training,” Seibert said. “If he didn’t invent it, he certainly finished it off.”
Giving back to the community
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. Through the organization, Leistner helped several student-athletes find college scholarships.
“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’s efforts to support children were noted by people throughout the fitness community, including professional strongman Patrick Povilaitis, who met him in 2004 at a fundraiser for the federation. Povilaitis, of New Jersey, said he read about Leistner in fitness magazines, and learned about the group. “He was a wonderful human being who genuinely cared about everybody,” Povilaitis said. “His network and outreach is worldwide, so we’ll do whatever we can to keep it going.”
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.