By Louis Hillary Park
This is the story of the Griesemer family that put Pennsylvania in the rearview mirror in the “I Like Ike” days of the 1950s and put down new roots in Palm Beach County.
It’s the story of loving sports the way only a bench-warmer can, and of passing on that love and hall-of-fame legacy to sons and now grandsons, who have charted their own way over the high school hardwood and Virginia Tech’s turf.
It’s the story of sweaty football jerseys and melting ice cream cones… Of the whole Griesemer family — ball-game-loving wives included — breaking down Wellington High School basketball games over ribs and beans at Park Avenue BBQ, not much more than a long pass and a dribble away… Of long, boisterous rides on yellow buses after a big win, and even longer rides in sober silence after a loss… Of thousands of pages turned and perused and studied in hundreds of scorebooks across more than 50 years.
It’s also the story of a water bucket.
Long before Leonard Griesemer was recognized in 2008 as a Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame youth league coach, his deep love of sports, especially basketball, was evident. Unfortunately, his talent did not equal his passion.
“I sat on the end of the bench closest to the cheerleaders, if you know what I mean,” Leonard Griesemer recalled with an easy chuckle about his own limitations as a basketball player.
But those limitations did not stop him from wanting to help others excel in the skills that alluded him. So, even as a teen, he began coaching Itty-Bitty Basketball at the local Jewish Community Center, where giving back in some way was a requirement for participation. But for Leonard Griesemer, it was more than fulfilling a duty, it was balm for a son’s heart bruised by a construction worker father who never came to see him play.
“It’s one of the reasons I took to helping kids,” he said, even now at 88 the sting of his father’s absence sharp in his voice. “This was just after [World War II], and a lot of kids were without a parent. A lot of guys didn’t make it back, and the kids needed a bit of a father figure. I always tried to get the families involved.”
From the start of his 70-year marriage to his high school sweetheart June, to becoming a union carpenter like his father, to starting LEG Construction in the early 1970s, family life always revolved around sports. “My wife has more bleacher time than any woman in history, I believe,” he said.
From a young age, the Griesemers’ three sons — Lee, Lonnie and Larry — scampered around their mom in the bleachers; and when they got old enough, they helped their father under the wooden rafters of the old Central Gym on Okeechobee Blvd., where the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts sits today atop the hill; and there they were on the sidelines at Palm Beach Elementary School, where Gra-Y League football games were played.
Back then, not every football team had its own jerseys, recalled Larry Griesemer, the only one of the boys who went into coaching as a profession. One Gra-Y team would take off their sweaty, dirty jerseys and hang them on the fence to dry for a while, then the next team would suit up in them, he explained.
“My dad bought jerseys for his team… Columbia blue. Where he got the money, I don’t know. But it was a big deal,” Larry said. “After games, we’d stop at an ice cream stand on Dixie [Highway]. Everyone got an ice cream cone, and the guy who played best that day got a milkshake… Dad wasn’t just showing kids how to win games. He was showing them how to treat people.”
Sometimes Leonard Griesemer had to show adults the way, too. In the early 1960s, West Palm Beach was still very much a southern city. He was the first to have Black players on the Gra-Y Belvedere Bees football team that centered around Belvedere Elementary School.
“Yes, I got some pushback,” he remembered. “Things were said.”
Later on, when more Black youngsters came into the league, there still were vestiges of segregation. “Most teams had two water buckets — one for the white kids, one for the colored kids,” he said. “We only had one bucket.”
Larry Griesemer took those sorts of water-bucket life lessons with him into his own football career leading a group of meaty linemen at Forest Hill High School. They became known as “Griesemer’s Grunts.”
After college, he took another cue from his father and married a woman who loves sports as much as he does — supporting Larry in his coaching ambitions and raising two sons, Eric and Brett, to the sound of rubber soles scuffing maple and timed to the rhythm of basketball’s scoreboard clocks.
Today, after 40 years of marriage, Janice Griesemer easily rattles off her husband’s stats.
In 15 seasons of coaching, he combined for 258 wins with the Forest Hill High School boys and later the Wellington High School girls, she said. The Wolverine girls won four district titles, five Palm Beach Athletic Conference championships and reached Florida’s Sweet 16 six times.
Despite retirement, relocation from their longtime home and being slowed by a stroke, at age 70, Larry Griesemer continues to be involved as a consultant for several high school teams near Waynesville, N.C., where “gyms are like cathedrals.”
Meanwhile, his sons are finding their own and different ways of continuing their passion for sports after both graduating from Wellington High School.
Brett Griesemer, 32, put his talents to athletic training while getting his bachelor’s degree at the University of Florida and a master’s degree at Virginia Tech, where he has risen quickly through the ranks of the school’s training staff.
While serving as senior director of sports medicine-football, Brett Griesemer was heavily involved with the football helmet safety research program at Virginia Tech, considered a leader in the field by the NCAA. He recently was named head athletic trainer for the Hokies football team, a traditional power in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a name frequently seen in the Top 25.
“Brett has added a whole new level of professionalism and work ethic to our staff, and I have no doubt it will make our football student-athletes better because of his increased role and responsibilities,” Associate Athletics Director for Sports Medicine Mike Goforth said.
The opportunity is “a dream come true” for Brett, who has a wife much like the one who married dear old dad, and granddad. The former Megan Burker is “super into sports.”
“She understands about me waking up early and coming home late,” he said.
As well she should. Megan lived that life for years as an All-American lacrosse player at Stanford University and then as head coach of the Virginia Tech women’s team. Today, Megan Griesemer serves in the school’s athletic department as assistant director of compliance while mothering their two sons — Max, 3, and Cohen, 1.
Though too young to absorb a lot of Xs and Os of Wellington High School basketball discussed in play-by-play, press-or-not-to-press detail over post-game meals, Brett said he absorbed things more important while listening to his parents and grandparents dissect a game.
“I think about the work ethic and the commitment to the team,” he said. “I think about the long process. The stick-to-it-iveness it takes. Not only in terms of creating wins and losses. But in commitment to family. To creating better husbands and fathers, and just decent people.”
Eric Griesemer, now 37, echoes his brother’s thoughts.
“Wins were a big part of it… [but] they taught about so much more than sports. They taught us about leadership,” he said. “It was about the commitment to everyone getting better. About helping to make a better student, and better young adult. How do we give that player the confidence to take the shot?”
Eric is following in his grandfather’s footsteps — creating a separate career, his in information systems technology — while becoming heavily involved in youth sports, something his wife Zara enthusiastically supports. Though oldest son Gavin is only 5, the Wellington resident already has coached him in flag football, tee-ball, basketball and soccer.
That’s not a surprise after growing up in the Griesemer family. “It’s just in my blood to be involved,” Eric said.