As a Catholic kid growing up in East Toledo, my dream was to become a priest. But when my father got taken off to prison leaving my mother with four kids and no job, we moved to Weiler Houses, aka the “projects.” That’s when I became a bad kid.
When you’re getting beat up every day, you learn to fight back. I hated the world. I had no respect for people. At school, I was rejected because of where I lived.
My father came back, got a job and we moved to a better neighborhood. I made the baseball team at school and, when I made a mistake, the coaches said “Don’t worry about it.” The positive environment of sports was new to me.
I went on to college, and then into a job as a laborer at GM for 30 years. But I still felt lost. I didn’t know what my real purpose in life was. While working at GM, I met a boxing coach and helped him promote some local fights. I liked it and, one day, he said to me, “Why don’t you open up a boxing gym?” So I did and I found my encore.
I use boxing as a hook, to reach kids on the streets, in gangs, from broken homes. In other words, kids like me.
At The International Boxing Club, everyone is welcome and everything is free. We train the kids in boxing or cardio-exercise, but we also build their self-image and their respect for others. That’s the goal of our “horseshoe talks” where a kid sits in the center chair, and everyone pays him or her two compliments. Then I ask, “How did it feel to give a compliment?” “How did it feel to receive one?” Do that every day and watch how your life will change.
Early on, I found out that 75% of my kids were failing in school, so I broke the news to them, “Guys, we’re not going to the national tournament. You’ve got to become a champion in life, before you’re a champion in the ring.” Half of them quit on me!
I raised money to build a learning center at the gym, and my agreement with the kids is that they bring in their homework, and study for one hour before they can box. If they are failing in school, they can run and stretch, but cannot put on the gloves on, until their grades improve. Believe it or not, it works.
One young man came to the gym for all the wrong reasons. With drug dealers thick in his neighborhood, he wanted to learn how to fight, not box. One day, we were driving past some beautiful homes. “I want a home like that someday,” he said. I told him, “Get that education and you can.” He got his grades up and is now in college studying architecture. He’s going to beat the odds.
The gym is a safe haven, a “temple” as we call it, because it’s so much more than a gym. Every kid I help makes me feel proud, but I can’t save them all. I learned recently that one of our former students just received life in prison. It hurts when I lose them to the streets.
To keep things in perspective, I occasionally drive by the housing projects I grew up in and thank God for putting me through that. Those beatings left me with crooked lower teeth. But every time my dentist offers to straighten them for me, I say no. It reminds me of where I came from.