First published in The Wichita Eagle Tuesday, November 26, 2002
Johnny Papin heaved a heavy punching bag onto one shoulder and walked out into his back yard.
It was June 2001, six years after the death of his friend Bill, the man who had given him clothes, a job and a tutor who taught him to read.
Johnny hung the bag from one of his locust trees. He pulled on an old pair of boxing gloves.
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He threw a few combinations.
Jab-jab-jab, left hook. Jab-jab-jab-right.
Hitting the bag took off some of the edge. But not all.
He was 49 now.
He thought he was becoming the kind of middle-aged man who sat around complaining about teens getting into trouble but did nothing about it.
He'd thought this for years. But now he felt worse about it.
Days before, he had decided to walk away from the Boys & Girls Club, where he had mentored boys through boxing for more than a year.
With him he had taken several thousand dollars' worth of boxing gloves, punching bags and headgear - all bought for him by Mary, his friend's widow. Bill's and Mary's real names are not used here at the request of their family.
Johnny had worked hard with the kids at the Boys & Girls Club. But he liked to do things his own way, and he was unhappy with the club.
He thought maybe he'd still work out with the boys.
His back yard was the only place he had to go.
Who'd be stupid enough to train boxers in a back yard? Where would they go when it rained?
He was thinking about quitting.
He hit the heavy bag, watched it wobble on its chain and go nowhere with every punch.
He still had his job, part time, working for Mary as her house caretaker. He had a hobby, boxing.
But a job is not a purpose. Neither is a hobby.
One day, as he worked out, he looked up to see several teenagers standing by his backyard fence, watching.
"Hey," one of them said. "Can we hit the bag, too?"
"No," he said.
He'd told Brenda, his wife, that he'd hung the bag out there to work out, stay in shape.
But that wasn't all.
Teenage boys love to watch boxing. It's like a magnet.
Now they'd come.
They asked again, "Let us hit the bag."
He took a breath.
"OK," he told the boys.
* * *
Johnny soon had a dozen boys working out in his back yard.
He wasn't sure he wanted to teach them.
His wife, Brenda, asked questions that he couldn't answer.
"Do you know all these boys? What kind of boys are they? Are we gonna have trouble here?"
She hated boxing. Part of him hated boxing, too.
But there's a funny thing about being a man, Johnny said. Sometimes the thing you hate to do is the thing you need to do above all else.
More boys came, one or two at a time. They watched the workouts over his back fence and asked to join in.
"You want to learn? Then you gonna work," he told them.
He hung three more heavy bags. He ordered footwork and left-jab drills.
Step and jab!
Step and jab!
He drove the streets of his Ken-Mar neighborhood, clocked mileage on his odometer, mapped out a route, and made the boys run, every night.
One mile a night. Then two.
The boys began to sweat in the summer sun.
"You want to work? Then you better be ready to work."
Shadowboxing. Left-left-right combinations.
Bob and weave. Slipping punches.
He ordered sparring rounds and circled the boys as they fought.
"Jab! What you windin' your SILLY arms around like that? Are you SWIMMIN'? You tryin' to SWIM??? Don't DO that! JAB!
"The jab is the deadliest weapon in the ring," he told them. "Educate your left hand. Don't wind it up and lunge it! Throw it STRAIGHT from the shoulder! POP it out there so the other dude can't even see it COMIN'!"
He formed a prayer circle after every practice.
"Bow your heads!"
He'd point to a boy.
"You lead the prayer tonight."
* * *
Mary hated boxing. What a brutal sport, she'd told Johnny.
Mary and her husband had been golfers. Bill had befriended Johnny at the Wichita Country Club back when Johnny was tending bar.
"Are you going to spar with these kids and stand there and let them hit you in the head?" she demanded of Johnny. "You've been hit in the head a few too many times already."
He was talking, excited, shortly after he had opened his back yard to teenagers.
He told Mary everything: How good he felt, how maybe he could help kids, give them something to look forward to, preach to them about trouble and gangs.
Johnny told Mary he wanted to form a boxing club.
She helped him apply for a charter to form a nonprofit group. He called it the "Hope City Boxing and Awareness Club," awareness referring to the need to be responsible to others.
One day, Mary drove to Johnny's home.
She looked in the back yard, saw the heavy bags hanging from the trees.
Well, she thought.
He's really doing it.
* * *
Johnny still had doubts.
He was teaching boxing and responsibility. Manners.
But were the kids listening?
He was spending his own money on the $30 American Boxing Association passbooks the kids needed in order to take part in association-sanctioned fights, on equipment, plastic mouthpieces the kids couldn't afford. Soon there would be road trips to fights. He'd have to pay for the food, the gas and the fees.
Golfer and developer Johnny Stevens, who'd also befriended Johnny at the Wichita Country Club, sent him $100 a month to help do this. But that didn't cover everything.
How could he afford this? Could he keep it up?
He'd heard an old saying: If you can save just one kid from trouble, you've done something.
He wondered whether there was any truth in it for him.
Then two weeks after Johnny started the boxing club, Immanuel Thompson peered over the backyard fence.
Manny had nearly flunked out of sixth grade. He had begun to sass his teachers and his mother.
But he liked sports, all sports, and now he wanted to try boxing. He asked Johnny to teach him.
Johnny sent him home to ask his mother.
Mama had said yes, and now Manny was back, asking again.
"Will you teach me?"
"Yes," Johnny said. "I'll teach you."
He still didn't know why he was doing this.
But he was about to find out.