When watching a boxing match on television, it’s easy to write-off the sport as way too violent. Two athletes with brute strength enter the ring looking to land the perfect punch that knocks the opponent out cold.
It may seem violent, but the sport of boxing involves so much more than what is seen in the few minutes between each ring of the bell.
In fact, boxing – with its emphasis on preparation, dedication and proper sportsmanship – can actually be viewed as a sport perfect for teaching life lessons.
That’s been the exact mentality of former NYPD police sergeant Pat Russo, who helps run a string of youth boxing rings in New York City that serve as safe havens in some tough neighborhoods. He grew up in St. Frances Cabrini parish, Bensonhurst, and currently attends Our Lady Help of Christians, Staten Island, or St. Athanasius, Bensonhurst.
Two gyms are located in Staten Island and one in Brooklyn in the basement of the Flatbush Gardens Housing Complex on New York Avenue. The Brooklyn gym features two boxing rings and all the latest training equipment.
Each day after school, kids ages 12 to 21 learn proper boxing techniques, self-defense, discipline and life values from active duty and retired police officers who serve as coaches. Over 500 kids have enrolled in the program, which began in 1985 as a collaboration between the Community Policing Program of the 72nd Precinct, the N.Y.C. Parks Department and local elected officials.
“We use boxing to attract at-risk kids,” said Russo, who has been involved in training kids about boxing for over 30 years. “Once we have their attention, we stress the importance of school and preparing for your future. We encourage them and actually help them prepare for civil service jobs.”
The program – dubbed the “N.Y.C. Cops and Kids Boxing Club” – is funded by the Dr. Theodore Atlas Foundation, which provides scholarships and grants to individuals and organizations.
“It’s about getting kids through high school,” said Teddy Atlas, director of the program who also works as an ESPN boxing analyst. “It’s about kids understanding how to live, how to properly behave and how to conduct themselves as proper people.”
There’s no cost for the kids to join this program; they just have to bring a copy of their latest report card. The program stresses that education comes first, so a tutor is on site every day to help any of the young boxers with their schoolwork.
“This program is really awesome,” said Leon Hohauser, a youth boxing participant. “It’s a great program because you get taught for free, you box for free and it just helps you so much.”
The program has been successful over the years in channeling the energy of youngsters into a form of constructive recreation while also developing character. That guidance has helped steer many kids away from trouble.
“I didn’t care about nobody else; I used to think the world revolved around me,” said Richardson Hitchens, a boxer in the program. “But now, I’m starting to see that you need people in life, especially the right people.”
The majority of the NYPD and FDNY boxing teams came through the youth program, and many go on to compete in the annual N.Y. Daily News Golden Gloves competition. “There’s no better reward than when you see a kid 10 years later, and he hugs you and he’s a New York City police officer or a firefighter or a teacher,” Russo said. “And they say, ‘If it wasn’t for that program, there’s no way I’d be where I am today.’”
The next Rocky Balboa is likely not enrolled in the boxing program, but the focus has never been about molding championship fighters: It’s all about molding championship people. And as these young boxers enter the real world – life’s “boxing ring” – they will be fully equipped with the values necessary to become champions as people, and that’s the best victory of all.
Contact Jim Mancari at firstname.lastname@example.org.