Jesse Holt, founder and coach of the Miami Northwest Express Track Club, was remembered as a mentor who raised the aspirations of thousands of inner-city kids at his funeral Saturday.
Inside the New Birth Cathedral of Faith, the central aisle was covered with a long strip of carpet marked with lane lines and numbers. Holt’s casket was adorned with blue-and-white flowers — the club’s colors. Mourners wore royal blue ties and blouses, and one youngster wore a club headband.
Holt, 73, who died Oct. 16 at his Little River home, dedicated 41 years of his life to the club and its annual Northwest Track and Field Classic. From Moore Park in Liberty City, he nurtured Olympians, NFL stars, doctors, teachers, engineers and at least one pastor — son Alan. Holt, who worked for Miami-Dade County, did not get paid for coaching; rather he often used his own money to pay for athletes’ travel expenses or uniforms.
“He taught us reciprocity — if I give to you, you give to others,” Alan said during his eulogy.
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Olympic bronze medalist Bershawn “Batman” Jackson recalled how Holt bought his ticket to the Junior Olympics in San Jose, California. Sixteen years later, Jackson bought Holt a ticket to Beijing, to watch two of his protégés hurdle in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
“He took us out of Liberty City, Brownsville, Opa-locka and showed us another world,” Jackson said. “Coach, thanks for saving my life and making me the man I am today.”
Melvin Bratton, University of Miami and NFL running back, said Holt used to pick up anybody who needed a ride to practice in his old car dubbed the “Yellow Submarine.”
“We’d pile in there, hanging off that car on the way to Moore Park, and the police would look and wave Jesse on,” Bratton said.
Bratton looked at Holt’s wife, Claudette, in the first row said said: “You and Coach Holt raised all of us at the same time you raised your own kids. People say we invented swag at the U, but swag came from this man. He instilled in us a drive to be the best we could be.”
Bratton and Jackson said the club’s road trips were memorable. One to Albuquerque, New Mexico, involved 48 hours — each way — on Greyhound buses, lots of fried chicken and Kool-Aid.
“We’d get lost and end up in New Hampshire instead of Boston, but Coach Holt made it an adventure,” Jackson said.
Claudette and Jesse had three sons and also adopted his late sister’s daughter, Neferteri.
“He was my Superman,” Neferteri Holt-Franks said. “All my compassion comes from him.”
Holt’s granddaughter Janelle Holt — one of nine grandchildren — said Holt expected all club members to go to college and helped them get scholarships.
“I’m sorry I never won any of the races you made me run, but you were so proud of me for trying,” she said. “Later, my car broke down about 300 times, but you always came over at 10 p.m. to fix it or change a tire.”
Holt, born in Shellman, Georgia, in 1943, was a sprinter at Grambling (Louisiana) State and played two years of pro football. He and a friend integrated “Whites Only” Moore Park in 1960, and he was the first black athlete in segregated Miami to be named to the All-Dade County track and field team and to compete against white runners in an age-group meet.
Holt graduated from Booker T. Washington High in Overtown and was honored with a declaration from the school’s alumni association. Hundreds of his former athletes and assistant coaches stood in tribute to him.
Son Darren said the Holt household was a home away from home for athletes. All family members helped with practices and the organization of the huge Classic meet.
“My wife and I got married just before the Classic, and every anniversary since we’ve spent preparing heat sheets,” he said.
Holt’s family said the club — which has expanded to Broward County — and the meet will live on.
“Love of self is the first thing my Pops taught us,” son Reggie said. “He used to sing like James Brown, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’ He taught us love of community and love of family. He shared with everybody.
“He’s traded his Grambling wings and his Northwest Express wings for heavenly wings.”