Jimmy Lee football: a source of pride in a St. Paul community

On the corner of Lexington and Marshall in St. Paul lies the pride of the Rondo neighborhood and surrounding areas: the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center. You may have never heard of Stacy Robinson, but the kids who grew up on the playground at Jimmy Lee surely have. He is a gridiron legend. Robinson started out playing for Jimmy Lee football as a child and attended St. Paul Central High School, from which he moved on to North Dakota State on a football scholarship. Eventually, Robinson could be found playing in the National Football League with the New York Giants. After his tragic death in 2012 of multiple myeloma, they named the brand new turf field at Jimmy Lee after him, a field he helped fund.

Stacy Robinson is just one of many famous athletes who played for Jimmy Lee. This is the playground that brought us Twins greats Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor. Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens played there for two years. Macalester outside linebackers coach Phil Archer is one of the all-time greats, previously playing for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and with the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers. A countless number of high school and college athletes have come out of Jimmy Lee as well. Anyone who’s grown up in St. Paul playing youth football or basketball knows the name of Jimmy Lee.

I sat down with longtime Jimmy Lee football coach Bruce Beneke to talk about the impact of the playground on the surrounding neighborhood, and on the lives of the kids that have played for him throughout the years. Now over the age of 70, Bruce has been coaching at Jimmy Lee since 1972. Over that span of more than 40 years, Bruce has seen it all. Back in the day, Jimmy Lee was the team to be reckoned with, “the Yankees of Little League football,” as he put it. They were feared by all the other playground football teams in St. Paul and Minneapolis. You knew when you were playing Jimmy Lee football.

In the 1970s there were 21 youth football teams in St. Paul. Today, there are just six. Roster numbers used to push 40; it was a struggle to get all the kids in the game. Again, that is not the case today. However, this does not mean the culture has changed. Jimmy Lee is a true community center during the football season. Thousands of fans turn up for the Jimmy Lee-West Side Boosters football game every year.

When I attended St. Paul Central and began playing football there, I could not stop hearing about Jimmy Lee football. The 2010 Jimmy Lee team that produced many of my teammates seemed to be part of legend, canonized in the deep tradition of Jimmy Lee football.

After talking to Beneke, I found that this program was more than just a source of pride for many people—it was a source of good for the community. Football isn’t only a great afterschool activity, it also provides excellent role models and life lessons for young men, many of whom are lacking these positive influences in their life. Coach Beneke has been working with some coaches for more than 25 years. Regularly, coaches have also played college football, and all of them are professionals in the workforce. Along with this strong, positive male influence, kids learn how to work together through the ultimate team game of football.

To hear Bruce talk about his years of coaching ,you would never guess all the hard hours he has worked, all the countless lives he has touched, all while getting paid little or nothing. This man loves the game of football, and loves helping to develop young men. It keeps him young. As the future of football is becoming more uncertain, so is that of Jimmy Lee football. But as long as coaches like Beneke and his coworkers are there helping to instill good values, it will remain a strong source of pride and good in the community.