It’s like a scene from a movie: the inner-city youth, the cramped gym, the former boxing champion, and the priest.
But in this very real scene in Dorchester, the basement gym crowded with inner-city youth is also a dance studio, the former boxing champion is a retired US Drug Enforcement Administration agent, and the priest is not wearing his collar.
It’s Tuesday night at the Teen Center at St. Peter’s Church on Bowdoin Street, and here, just like at the expensive suburban health clubs, boxing is making a comeback. About 10 middle-schoolers and later a half- dozen high school students, including two girls, come to bob, weave, and spar.
Father Richard “Doc” Conway, who drops by before going out to meet friends tonight (which is why he is not wearing his clerical collar), got the idea for the program two years ago. “Some kids just can’t deal with team sports; they are too individualistic,” he says. But he adds that they still need something to focus them and keep them off the streets.
Another priest got actor-director Mark Wahlberg, all too familiar himself with climbing up from the streets of Boston, to donate money for the equipment, and Conway set out to recruit Paul Doyle, the DEA agent and former 1967 New England heavyweight boxing champion.
Doyle, who lives in Westwood, is an author (“Hot Shots and Heavy Hits: Tales of an Undercover Drug Agent”) and was busy writing his latest book. He says he was reluctant to commit at first, but Conway talked him into giving it a try. Meeting the kids changed Doyle’s mind.
The Teen Center is an afterschool program that provides homework help, college preparation, support, recreation, and a safe place to hang out to more than 200 adolescents in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood in Dorchester. To a kid, the students here greet every adult with a look-’em-in-the-eye handshake, both when they arrive at the gym and when they say goodnight.
Doyle says that many of them have been up since 5:30 in the morning to catch the buses they need to get to their high schools on the other side of the city, and they have been at the Teen Center doing homework and working with tutors since 3 in the afternoon. Yet they come to the gym with energy and determination, he says. “I started working with these kids, and I was captured.”
He has a couple of students with real potential for the ring, but Doyle says his main objective is not to create amateur or professional boxers. Boxing, he says, is a way of teaching kids about discipline and respect. “It’s the best character-building there is,” he says.
An orphan himself, abandoned in Roxbury, Doyle grew up in a series of Boston housing projects. When one of the boys mentioned that he didn’t know his father, Doyle could relate. “Yeah,” he said. “Neither did I.”
“The kids trust him right off that bat,” says Conway of Doyle. “He’s a great teacher.”
Most of the kids are Cape Verdean and some are still struggling with English. But what teenagers need most, Doyle says, is encouragement and personal attention. Wrapping knuckles, timing punch-outs, and working with the kids on their footwork are part of one of the best ways he knows to do that.
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Boxing became “a working man’s sport” during the Industrial Revolution and stories of champion boxers rising from nothing has provided fodder for more than a hundred movies.
Because of the injuries and corruption associated with the sport, boxing fell out of favor in the 1980s, but in the last decade it’s experienced something of a resurgence, both as a popular workout regimen in health clubs for men and women, and more formally in the increase in the number of amateur boxing competitions.
Jim Perella, president of USA Boxing in New England, says that between 2008 and 2012, there was a 35 percent increase in the number of amateur boxing shows (up to 79 in 2012) in New England, and an almost 25 percent increase in the number of clubs registered with USA Boxing in New England (83 in 2012.)
“When hard times hit everyone, they revert to human labor. Boxing is a sport of human labor; you use yourself to make your money,” he says.
Volunteer Arthur Ciriello , a housepainter and friend of Doyle’s from Westwood, leads the kids in skipping rope and agility drills. They graduate to timed drills at the three punching bags suspended from the ceiling.
Later, when the kids exchange their training gloves for the larger sparring gloves, it becomes clear how labor-intensive this training is. Doyle and his volunteers supervise each pair of students in controlled sparring, teaching them to keep their feet light, their hands up, and eyes trained on their opponents, even as they duck and weave.
On most Tuesday and Thursday nights, at least a couple of officers from the Boston Police Department’s Safe Street team stop by to coach, Conway says, but this is the week after the Marathon bombings.
Police participation is one of the best parts of the program, according to Conway. “Because the police are here in the gym with them, it changes the way the kids feel about the police.”
Doyle recalls the first night he assigned one 15-year-old boy to go hit with one of the police officers, the boy resisted. “Now that kid talks about becoming a cop.”
When one of the kids misses the St. Peter’s van, it is often one of the officers who provides the ride home, says Ciriello. And police donated the metal storage cabinet used to lock up new boxing gloves.
Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston, who often drops by to encourage the girls, donated pairs of pink and white boxing gloves.
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Dulcelina Tavares, 18, a senior at Madison Park High School in Roxbury, wears the pink gloves tonight. The first of the four girls to participate in the program, she says she wanted to “show other girls that we could do it.”
She keeps coming, she says, because she likes to get strong and because the agility drills help her with soccer and hip-hop dance. “I like the sport, but I also like the guys who work here. They encourage me to go to college and they show you, all the time, that they care,” she says.
Jucilino Barros, 17, also a senior, actually sees a future in boxing. “One day a friend here told me to try this, and I liked this,” he says.
“He’s quick and he’s got all the right reflexes and he knows the fundamentals,” says Doyle. He believes Barros is good enough to compete and win in amateur boxing matches right now.
Doyle says that he and the other coaches all emphasize that good boxers don’t waste their fighting skills outside of the ring. He explains that his adoptive father, who first got him interested in the sport, had his own promising career destroyed when he got into a street fight and wound up shattering his knee cap.
Conway would like to expand the program at St. Peter’s to include older youths and young adults in the neighborhood, but the gym is small. No more than a dozen kids can participate at a time. Sessions are staggered with the middle school students meeting from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and the high school students working out from 7 to 8 p.m. Doyle hopes to raise money to buy a portable ring so that the young boxers can “live” spar.
Doyle says he started boxing when he was 12 and his own life was extremely difficult. He says boxing taught him confidence, discipline, and how to read and evaluate people. “The first time I got into the ring with a 16-year old, he beat my brains out, but I learned a lot of important things that helped me in life.”
What he learned was that if he wanted to succeed in boxing, he had to take care of his body. “So I never drank — I wouldn’t even drink soda because of the sugar. And I made sure I got a good night’s sleep. I wanted to have every advantage I could get in that ring.”
Boxing is a metaphor for life, Doyle says. “In real life, things can get desperate, but no matter what, don’t quit. Boxing teaches you that, no matter what, you have to keep moving and keep punching.”
Jan Brogan can be reached at janbrogan