Mark Leach is a friend, which doesn't exactly put me in exclusive company. There probably are 25,000 or so of us Ñ the 15,000 residents of Pendleton, plus all the others who have drifted in and out of Eastern Oregon's Round-Up City and crossed paths with the Buckaroos' No. 1 fan.

Leach, 56, is a sports nut. When we spoke on the phone the other day Ñ he lives in an assisted-living complex Ñ he was as anxious as ever to grill me.

'What do you think about Bob Whitsitt leaving the Blazers?' he asked. 'Is Sabonis going to be back?'

Normal stuff, except Leach isn't a normal guy.

Brain-damaged from a lack of oxygen during birth, he hasn't had the options in life that most people have. But with the loving support of family and friends, he has simply made more of his opportunities.

Leach has spent his life having fun and doing his best to bring joy to others. He is the patron saint of good spirits in Pendleton, 'the most popular guy in town,' says friend Dean Fouquette.

For 18 years, Fouquette employed Leach as a sort of maitre d' at his athletic supply store, greeting customers and making them feel comfortable in the way only he can.

For 20 years before that, beginning at age 15, Leach served in much the same capacity at the athletic supply store run by Kenny and Tom Melton.

Four years ago, with his health deteriorating, Leach retired from the business he loved. Fouquette misses him, as do his patrons.

'Mark is so genuine,' Fouquette says. 'He greets everybody with a handshake. When he tells you he's glad to see you, he means it. He was as honest and loyal an employee as I've ever had. He would do anything to help. He came to work with a smile on his face Ñ couldn't wait to get here. He has a unique ability to make people feel good, something you don't see a lot of anymore in our cynical world.'

Leach played youth sports through eighth grade. When he couldn't compete anymore, he stuck close to the games he loved. From his high school days until a few years ago, he sat on the bench with players during every home Pendleton High football game.

'He would read the papers and cut sports articles out, then glue them into scrapbooks,' says his sister, Susan Cable, with whom he lived for several years after their parents died.

'Since he was a little kid, he was always excited about sports. If he had had a normal birth, he would probably have been very good at sports. My parents built a swimming pool in the back yard to build up his strength, and he developed into a good swimmer.'

Leach has a knack for sports trivia and statistics.

'Mark reads the box scores and has a great memory for stats,' Fouquette says. 'He can recite batting averages, won-loss records. He knows all the top 10 in the pro rodeo standings and is on a first-name basis with a lot of the top cowboys who competed in the Round-Up. Each year, they would come into the store looking for him.'

Leach thrives on memories. He remembers coming to Portland with Fouquette and Tom Melton in 1991 to watch the Trail Blazers play Philadelphia in Memorial Coliseum. 'The Blazers won, Danny Ainge had a big game and Jake O'Donnell was a referee,' Leach says.

Friends provided Leach an unforgettable moment on his 40th birthday in 1987, during a Pendleton High alumni football game. Inserted at running back on the game's final play, Leach took a handoff and weaved through suddenly slippery-fingered defenders for a 33-yard touchdown run. 'One of the thrills of my life,' he says.

Leach's life has come with plenty of medical moments. A Coca-

Cola fanatic for years Ñ 'He could drink 15 a day,' Fouquette says Ñ he passed out from the sugar high while working one day in 1986. From that point on, it was water and Diet Cokes.

Another time, he keeled over when his blood pressure dropped while on the bench during a Buckaroo football game. 'They had to haul him off in an ambulance,' Cable says. 'He recovered, like he always does.'

Life for most adults is pretty complicated. With Leach, it has never been that way. It is about treating people right, about looking at the bright side of every situation.

'He has always been that way, my sweet brother,' Cable says. 'I have often wondered if it's just his makeup, or if with what was lost in his brain, all the meanness got snapped out of him. Even though what happened at birth was a tragedy, one of God's great gifts was giving us Mark for so many years.'

God can work in mysterious ways, but there is no mystery to Leach. Nice talking to you again, pal, and best wishes on the rest of your journey.

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