While watching the University of St. Thomas (UST) football team defeat archrival St. John’s 20-17 before 37,000 people at Target Field last Saturday, visions of former Twin Cities prep standouts Leonard Jones, Dee Buford, Aaron Benner, Teynae Richardson, and Roman Cress reminded me of individuals who know this rival up close and personal.
All went on to have outstanding athletic and academic careers at St. Thomas. I caught up with each of them and asked them about their experience.
Jones had an incredible experience as a student-athlete at St. Thomas. After a stellar career as a basketball and track star at Minneapolis Patrick Henry — leading the track team to Class 2A state championship — “Leapin’ Leonard” enrolled at St. Thomas in the fall of 1990.
By the time he graduated in 1995 with a degree in physical education, Jones had become one of the school’s most decorated track and field athletes. He was an all-American and is a member of the UST Hall of Fame. He even played football in his junior year as a receiver and also participated in basketball.
Jones, currently a career resource counselor at Sanburg Middle School (Robbinsdale), admits that his transition from Henry to St. Thomas wasn’t a smooth one.
“It definitely was a culture shock the first year being one of a few African American student athletes on campus, but with the help of a partnership with a Catholic School in New Orleans called St. Augustine, an all-African American boys school, and a group of young men from Detroit, I was able to build lifelong relationships with friends who I’m still friends with today.”
Buford came to UST after an outstanding prep career as a volleyball and basketball star at St. Paul Central. After leading the basketball team to the Class 4A state basketball tournament in 2005, she embarked upon a four-year run in which she excelled in volleyball and basketball, culminating in a degree in mathematics with a minor in engineering in 2010.
Currently a senior operation analyst at DCM Services (a small collection agency), she professed her experience at UST to be a positive one.
“I had great experience in both sports,” she said. “Made lots of great friendships. The best part of UST,” she added, “was meeting my husband.”
Before coming to UST, which he attended 1987-1992, Benner starred in football and basketball at St. Agnes High School in St. Paul. Though recruited for basketball as well, he concentrated on football and was a four-year starter at receiver for the Tommies.
He earned a degree in education and is currently the dean of students at Cretin Derham Hall High School in St. Paul. Though his experience at UST was an overall good one, Benner admits he held a grudge after being left off the all-conference team his senior year. Her says he has since gotten over it.
“I averaged 21.5 yards per catch on 47 receptions for 1,015 yards my senior year but was left off the all-conference team,” he said. “They can’t take those numbers and a great football experience away from me. College was a blast. The friendships that were formed were priceless.”
Richardson was an all-conference basketball player at Minneapolis Southwest before she enrolled at UST in the fall of 1992. She led the women’s basketball team to two NCAA Division III Final Four appearances in 1995 and 1996 before graduating with a criminal justice degree in 1997.
She later earned a master’s degree in education and now teaches at Capitol Hill elementary in St. Paul. Her experience at UST was very rewarding in a way that resonates not only in the past but in the present as well.
“I had a good experience at St. Thomas,” she said. “Coach Ted Riverso (Who now coaches at Augsburg University) played an important role in my life during my time there.”
Richardson also pointed out the long-term impact of graduating from UST in terms of friendships. “It’s real nice in terms of networking,” she said.
“I remember I needed something from the school and I reached out to [St. Thomas Hall-of] Famer and Men’s Basketball Coach] Johnny Tauer and he helped me without hesitating.”
Before Cress became one of the most decorated track and field athletes and a Hall of Famer at UST, he starred in track and field at Minneapolis South before graduating in 1995. Five years later he found himself enrolling at UST and a member of the Tommie’s track and field team.
After completing his eligibility in 2003, Cress graduated with a degree in health promotions. Though he represented the Marshall Islands in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the current Minneapolis Public Schools administrator still counts his UST experience as one of the best.
“I had a great time at St. Thomas,” he said. “Everyone was friendly when I got here, and I made lifelong friendships. We are like family.”
Mitchell Palmer McDonald welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Dr. Mitchell Palmer McDonald is a contributing columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.