Donny Jackson stands in a dark room, doling out granola bars and chilled bottled water to the long line of sweaty and mostly shirtless kids. The July heat is inescapable and made worse by the lack of air conditioning in the building. The open refrigerator door leaks orange light and cold air into the room. One by one, the kids thank him. I reach for a handshake. He puts a granola bar in my open hand.
I had heard about a youth boxing program doing good things for inner-city kids, free of charge. Months later I am given the opportunity to write about it.
2550 Midway. My GPS brings me west down Kings Highway, past the hospital, down Mansfield, across the tracks, right on Midway. My destination is a beige cinderblock box with a red square painted on the side: Shreveport Youth Boxing. Est. 5-15-16.
Tim Fitzgerald, Matt Hudnall, Donny, and assistant coaches Charles Smith and Jonathan White are there. Some grown men are warming up, hitting the three heavy bags hung from squeaking chains. The small room is made up of hot air, a low ceiling, and a red, white and blue boxing ring with ropes and corners. Upon entering the room you can’t help but notice the unpainted plywood floors, along with the American flag, Muhammad Ali posters, and marker-scrawled inspiration on the walls:
Hard work beats talent whentalent doesn’t work hard.
Don’t quit! Suffer now and live
the rest of your life as a champion.
It takes 34 muscles to frown
but only 4 to punch.
Train don’t complain.
Tim has pads on his hands and girls are taking turns throwing punches. He takes a break to show me around the building. There is the workout/ring space, a small room with double-end bags strung from floor to ceiling, a bathroom, an office, and a room with a refrigerator. Outside, he shows me there is room to grow. “We own the land all the way back to the tracks. Eventually we’re hoping to build a bigger place.”
Donny holds pads in the middle of the ring. A circle of eight African-American boys and one Hispanic boy rotates clockwise around him. A few are under ten years old. One moves in to hit. One TWO. One TWO. C’mon. One TWO. Back to the circle. The next one moves in. One TWO. One TWO. Good job. Rotate. One TWO. Keep your hands up. One TWO. HANDS UP. One TWO. Better. One TWO. Good. One small boy hits hard, really hard, with no technique. His eyes pierce holes through Donny’s pads. A strong beginner. Another boy misses the pad on his cross—Donny encourages. The next boy hits quick, precise—Donny critiques.
Donny tells me “Some parents bring their kids in, saying he has ‘anger management issues’ they hope to resolve. Boxing itself doesn’t fix that.” Of the YouTube testimonial from the street-kid-turned-Homecoming-King (LaDaryl Poole), he says “A lot of these kids…no one has taken the time.” On why the problems get better when boxing itself does not solve them, he explains “The process itself is constructive: there are errors, you make mistakes. You may not be where you want to be, but that gives a kid something to work toward.”
I ask him about so many of the kids who just show up off the street—those whose parents are not responsible for their participation. “Most of them just walk in. Just want to watch for a day or two and not get involved. But . . . there’s a reason why they’re there. They don’t just show up.”
For years the program was housed in the same neighborhood, down the street in Coach Ray Paxton’s gym. Donny trained under Paxton beginning in 1996 after playing two seasons at linebacker for the Shreveport Stars. He made it to Nationals in 1997 and 1998, never reaching his goal to fight for the 2000 Olympic team. By 1999, he told Paxton “I want to do what you do. I want to coach kids.” Donny met Tim Fitzgerald a few years later when Tim brought his son to Paxton’s gym.
Tim is the owner of TFG Financial, an investment and wealth management firm. He boxed in his youth, but had little involvement with the sport until his son expressed interest. His participation in the program increased through the years. He is now at the gym most afternoons helping the other coaches with the sometimes overwhelming number of kids showing up to participate.
Donny is a husband and the father of two teenage girls. He went to Green Oaks, played football for Southern Arkansas University, and graduated with a Behavioral Science degree. Over lunch at the Cotton Boll, he tells me “I’m a social worker. For Volunteers of America.” He has been there for almost 17 years, and is now the Program Director for the developmentally disabled population. In that same 17 years, he has coached and mentored countless boys and girls through boxing.
“Coach Paxton talked to the kids all the time, but usually it wasn’t about boxing.” Donny explains the sport as a thinking process. Before a fighter makes a decision, he has to think it through. He may be able to land a punch, but what are the consequences? Is he losing position? Is he opening himself up to get punched? “We’re teaching life lessons through boxing.”
Boys are sparring in the ring. Donny mans one corner and Charles Smith, a former pro, stands at the other. A mouth guard hits the ground during a rest period and the fighter picks it up, about to put it back in his mouth. “Don’t do that, give it here,” Donny says as he takes the mouth guard from a gloved hand and goes to the bathroom to rinse it off. “You gotta protect yourself first. Don’t do that.”
This spring, Tim and Donny needed a new location for the program. Tim found a place and bought it from the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union, who in turn donated $5,000 to equip the gym. Tim hired help to outfit it with floors and install the equipment. They created a 501(c)(3) to accept donations and moved into the place in May. Tim told me “Before we moved into here, when the kids didn’t have anywhere to train, Donny would pick them up, right here in this neighborhood, then he’d drive them to the SPAR facility out by the airport. And then bring them home. Every day.”
The kids are not coddled here. They put on head gear and gloves and they spar. Each coach in his respective corner tells his fighter the truth. He’s bigger than you but he can’t move—make him turn. Boys and teens rotate in and out of the ring according to Donny’s instruction. You’re stronger but you’re slow—if you move your feet you can get a punch in. Skill and conditioning levels are fully exposed—the big and strong throw hard but tire quickly, the lean go round after round. The boys who have been in the program for months move nimbly and punch straight.
In sparring, technique receives instantaneous feedback. A fighter is auto-corrected when punched in the gut. One learns to keep his guard up as soon as his opponent takes advantage of an opening. Keep moving or be punished. Loss of concentration is penalized—not by a coach or the referee, but by another kid’s glove. As LaDaryl Poole puts it, “You have to learn how to control your emotion. If you get hit, the average person gets mad. You can’t be that person. You have to stop. Analyze the situation. Focus.”
One of the boys, Bobby Leonard IV, moves like a pro and his father stands by the ring, beaming.
Bobby, 14, has been training in the gym for eleven months. Though not big for his age, he is lean and athletic, and he moves well. His dad (Bobby Sr.) is able to make it to practice one or two days every week in between working two jobs. One of the only parents watching the kids train, he tells me it is heartbreaking to the kids when their parents are not involved. He’s got 4 children and 4 step-children: “Three are at Southern in Baton Rouge, one is on a Navy scholarship, one is in dental assistant school, Bobby’s at Woodlawn and there are two younger ones.” He stresses to Bobby IV, and to all of the children, that education is their number one priority, always.
Bobby IV played football for a while. His dad says “I think he played to make me happy. I played at Fair Park”. He participated in USA Wrestling and did well in competition, but his cousin got him into boxing. “He told me ‘Dad, this is what I want to do.’ We went to donate his football cleats to the Providence House and I said Are You Sure? And he said ‘Yessir.’”
“Bobby is a real good kid. We’ve never had any problems with him. He’s got a 3.7 grade point average, does his chores. We have a ‘No C’ policy in the house. He never brings home a C.”
Bobby boxed 3 one-minute rounds in a tournament on August 6th. He lost by decision. In the last eleven months, his father says “He won his first fight. But then he lost one or two and he would get discouraged.” Is he discouraged about losing this last one? “No, he has a different attitude now. I asked him if he was upset. He told me ‘No, I just need to train harder.’”
Donny tells a boy, not loud enough to embarrass him, “You need a belt for those pants. Don’t come in my gym wearing those shorts again without a belt.”
Grown men, little kids, and teenagers are all here. One guy has gone pro. A few others are in amateur fights. The boys are competing in tournaments and the coaches want to raise money for one in Shreveport. Donny estimates that the club needs to raise $6,000 to host a respectable one.
I am picking Tim’s brain about the program and the good he and Donny are doing for our community. My thoughts are on the haves and the have-nots in our corner of Louisiana, and the fact that most of the kids drenched from training in the summer heat will walk home from the gym drinking a donated bottle of water and eating a donated granola bar.
I say to Donny, “The stereotype is, you bring a kid to a boxing gym to toughen him up. To make him more confident. To teach the child to stand up for himself. And the stereotype is, most of these kids from this neighborhood are already tough. They can fight. They’re confident and athletic. They don’t need this, right?” Donny laughs. Far from the truth. Not the case at all.
I send Donny a text: I want to talk to the homecoming king. To meet him, search “Ray Paxton” on YouTube and you will find clips titled “Best Boxing Coach Ray Paxton” and “Paxton Boxing JFM.” There is no better advocate for the program. I reached LaDaryl Poole on his lunch break at AT&T, where he works as a floor mentor in the customer care department.
“It was 6th grade – the first time I went to 6th grade. I had just failed out and there was a school board hearing.” Poole was twelve years old. “This guy walked out with like a five-page printout of all the trouble I had gotten into. Two of the teachers said I was smart, that I was a good kid. But three of them said I was bad, I was a troublemaker. I had just started boxing. The hearing was to see if I could stay in Caddo Parish schools. I was mischievous, a bad little kid.”
Poole moved to California and back by the time he was eight. “We didn’t have any male role model at the house, but my mother and grandmother taught us right from wrong—we were raised in the church.” As the new kids in a bad Shreveport neighborhood, his brother would get jumped by the local boys and LaDaryl would run away. “My brother said, ‘Look. You can’t keep running away. You need to stay with me and help me fight.’ If you were a sheep, you’d get eaten by the wolves.”
“My grandmother had one of those big Chester Cheetah dolls. And I would practice hitting it all the time. Fighting became fun for me.” He started fighting in the streets and at school. “I was never a bully. I would pick fights with anyone I saw bullying other kids, but I never went looking for trouble. It always found me.”
Had the school board hearing gone the other way, he would have been sent out of Caddo Parish to an alternative school, but he was allowed to stay. In round two of the 6th grade, he was bounced from Bethune to Broadmoor Middle, then back to J.S. Clark, boxing all the while. He ran track—the 400, the 800, and the 1600 relay as anchor. “I lost one race in 6th grade and none in the 7th grade.” By the 8th grade, he was too old and thus ineligible to run track, but he continued going to Paxton’s boxing gym.
“All these neighborhood guys started going to the gym. I’m watching these guys sparring. I said ‘I want to do that.’ I kept coming, every day. Pretty soon I was traveling, seeing different states. I started winning. People clapping for me. It opened up my mind to a whole other world.” Many of the other neighborhood kids eventually lost interest and quit showing up. “Most of the people I grew up with are in jail – they’re the ones out there shooting at each other. If I wouldn’t have met Ray, if I wouldn’t have gone in that gym . . . it made me the person I could be instead of the person I thought I wanted to be.”
Poole had his sights set on Captain Shreve. “I thought Shreve would be a good opportunity. But when my mom and I went to talk to them about me going there, they told me my behavior record was too bad to accept me. That was all from before I started boxing too. From the time I repeated 6th grade through my Senior year, I never got into any trouble.” Poole went to Fair Park instead.
Poole’s entire outlook changed: “[Before boxing] My temperament and my attitude toward things—I had no control. It takes that anger inside of you and turns that negative energy into positive energy.” Poole was Fair Park’s Junior Prom Prince, his senior class President, and Homecoming King. He played Linebacker through high school. He has one semester left to get a degree from BPCC if he can find the time to take off of work.
“You take a kid, no father, maybe no mother, impoverished, seeking understanding within a world that’s too crazy to understand, and then you push them toward a positive goal. It gets them out of that atmosphere. Some people say boxing is a bad sport. But if you take two guys who don’t know each other and they fight in the street, they might end up shot, in jail, or killed. Take that same situation, let them box, then they shake hands at the end. We’d be on the road, after tournaments, and guys would get their Bibles out and pray together after fighting. It takes war and brings peace.”
After the gym workout, the older boys go for a long run. The younger ones go down the street to the baseball field with Donny and run sprints. Around 7 o’clock the kids are in the ring for pushups, flutter kicks, and crunches on the Coach’s command. The workout ends and the fighters form a huddle, all touching hands.
One Two Three TEAM! One Two Three HARD WORK! One Two Three TEAM! One Two Three SBC!
Donny tells me there are boxing scholarships for college and that the USA Amateur Boxing Association is scouting locations in the South for an Olympic training facility like the ones up north. “I want to develop an Olympic level champion.”
Tim tells me “I don’t want this to be about underprivileged kids or disadvantaged kids…this is a youth boxing program.” He means what he says—all kids are welcome at the gym, though most of the boys and girls are from low income homes. Many kids, rich and poor, could benefit from the program. LaDaryl tells me “If I ever have a son, he’s gonna box.”
The kids are here, it is hot and they are sweating. Donny is speaking softly but all the kids are listening. Every child under his watchful eye is privileged to be here. And for being here, for trying, for failing, for sparring, for running, for fighting, they all have the advantage.
For more information on Shreveport Youth Boxing, visit www.justformiles.com