For 41 years Jesse Holt brought kids from the crucible of the inner city’s streets to the sanctuary of the track and field oval. Whether they became doctors, lawyers, engineers, Olympians or football stars, they learned first from Holt how to reach their own personal finish line.
Holt, founder and coach of the Miami Northwest Express Track Club, died Sunday doing what he always did – helping others. After attending church, he was moving furniture when he collapsed in the backyard of his Little River home, probably from a heart attack, family members said. He was 73.
“The community has lost a giant,” said Roosevelt Richardson, former coach and instructor at Miami-Dade North and Florida Memorial College and longtime friend of Holt from their youth in Overtown. “There was something special about his ability to motivate kids. It wasn’t about winning; it was about nurturing. He’d work as hard as he asked them to work.”
Holt was mentor to thousands of kids – and their kids’ kids – through the decades from the club’s base at Moore Park, which had been a “Whites Only” park until he and friend George Williams took it upon themselves to integrate it in 1960 when they asked to run on the track.
Holt wasn’t paid for coaching or for organizing South Florida’s largest annual meet, the Northwest Track and Field Classic that attracted athletes from throughout North America and the Caribbean. He was MC of the meet for the last time in June, days after suffering a stroke that left his hands so cold he wore socks over them. He wanted to make sure he was at the microphone to announce as many kids’ names as he could.
Holt, retired from Miami-Dade County’s licensing department, often took money out of his own pocket to buy shoes or pay registration fees for his athletes. They’d sleep and eat at his house when necessary. Running the club was a family affair, with Holt’s wife Claudette and children Alan, Darren, Reggie and Teri sharing the responsibilities of washing uniforms, assisting at practices, handing out ribbons and arranging parenting seminars and academic tutoring sessions.
“He was essentially a father to so many kids from single-parent homes or their fathers were incarcerated,” said Alan, pastor of the Total Victory Church in Dania Beach. “He felt his purpose was to take someone labeled ‘at-risk’ or ‘low-income’ and provide support to create a success story. He used the sport as a tool.”
Bershawn “Batman” Jackson, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and former world No. 1 in the 400-meter hurdles, grew up in Liberty City and joined the club at age 7.
“He is the man who saved my life when I could have ended up in jail or dead,” Jackson said. “When I thought I was too small to be a hurdler he showed faith and wouldn’t let me quit. He was everything to me.”
When Jackson ran in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he paid for Holt to attend his first Olympics and watch protégés Jackson and Tiffany Ross-Williams compete. Jackson’s enduring memory after taking the bronze medal was embracing Holt in the Bird’s Nest Stadium stands and hearing him say, “I’m proud of you.” Jackson lives in Raleigh, N.C., where he’s started his own track club, and talked to Holt every single day.
Ross-Williams, a Northwestern High graduate from Opa-Locka, said Holt would drive his athletes to summer junior meets around the country, loading up the van with bags of Krystal hamburgers and Famous Amos cookies, then telling riddles along the way.
“We were like a big family,” said Ross-Williams who used to watch her god-sister practice with the club until Holt approached her. “He said, ‘Little girl, you’re here every day. Why don’t you run?’ So I got on the line to race, and I didn’t know what the lanes meant so I cut everybody off, but I won. I’ve been running ever since.
“He opened a gateway to travel, scholarships, college, careers, and it all started at Moore Park – with that dreaded Olympic ladder drill.”
The club’s most famous alumni include Jackson, Ross-Williams, Robin Reynolds, Tim Harris, Pavielle James and Ebony Gibson, plus National Football League players Artie Burns, Brandon Harris, Melvin Bratton, Willis McGahee, Glenn Holt and Reggie Holt.
Holt was born in Shellman, Georgia, where he lived in the one-bedroom concrete block house that his father built after serving in the U.S. Navy. In 1953, Holt and his family moved to Overtown, where his father ran a grocery store.
Holt attended Dunbar Elementary and Booker T. Washington Junior and Senior High. He became the first black athlete to compete against whites in an age-group meet in Florida and to be named to the All-Dade County high school track and field team.
He was a scholarship sprinter at Grambling State. He had Olympic aspirations until he injured his hamstring.
“He wasn’t just fast on the track – when he was writing term papers he was the fastest two-finger typer I’d ever seen,” Richardson said. “He was from a humble background but all he wanted to do was give back.”
Holt is survived his wife, four children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
▪ A memorial wake is planned for Friday, Oct. 28, followed by a funeral service on Saturday, Oct. 29. Further details will be announced. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Miami Northwest Express Track Club, 1310 NW 90 St., Miami, Florida, 33147.
Bill Van Smith, formerly an editor at the Miami Herald, contributed to this report.