Within months, Williams says, she did her job so well, she earned a small raise. Another soon followed. She got her kids back. Tanganyika had to be slowly won over, but not Little Berry. He needed his mom.
"I said, `If I'm nothing else in this world, I'm a mother. ... And I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired,'" Williams says.
She worried about her son, though. He was rebellious. He was obsessed with boxing, but he was getting into fights outside the gym, too. He was decent in school - bringing home mostly A's and B's from Douglass- and he was laid back and quiet most of the time. But he wasn't afraid of anyone. Drug culture, Williams understood better than anyone, turned boys like Little Berry into pawns.
When she heard he was selling marijuana - right up the street from her house - she confronted him. He denied it. "She knew I was lying," he says.
She wasn't outraged. She knew it was motivated by money, money she couldn't give him. Every time he turned on the television, he saw street life glorified in music videos. And she knew every person he'd looked up to had sold or been caught up in the world of drugs. Even his best friend had started selling. She tried to be rational and logical. There are better ways, she told him. Your father and I made those mistakes so you wouldn't have to. Do you understand?
He swore that he did, but he kept tiptoeing back. The first time he was locked up on a minor drug charge, she broke down in tears.
"Little Berry, he got that mentality that he a thug," she says. "And I want to save him from that corner."
Her son, still sitting next to her, says nothing. He loves her, and considers her his other half. Sometimes, he feels like he knows exactly what she's thinking. People say how much they look alike. Every night, he kissed her goodnight, even if she was already asleep. He knows she's right. He knows how much it broke her heart when he was arrested.
But he has nothing to say.
Coach is a fighter at heart
Most afternoons, perhaps even on an afternoon like this, Marvin McDowell will walk through a dark hallway, and slowly climb the 26 stairs necessary to unlock the door to UMAR Gym. Above the door, a video camera glares down at him, projecting his image onto a grainy black-and-white television inside his office. The walls and floor of the gym are cracked, the paint is peeling, the air musty. The windows reveal a neighborhood full of broken homes and broken spirits. But it is a place that feels like part of his soul.
When his fighters arrive, McDowell will fold his long arms across his chest and tuck one of his large hands under his chin. His fists are worn and weathered, the result of years lived and thousands of punches thrown. He'll sit in silence, purposefully ignoring, for now, the 11- and 12-year-old boys hungry for his attention. He'll watch Berry shadowbox from across the gym, then watch him hammer away at a leather speed bag shaped like a teardrop. He feels, most of the time, he is reaching him.
McDowell is a barber by trade, but a fighter at heart. He learned to box as a way to survive growing up in a neighborhood not much different than this one. Seven times he was a South Atlantic Boxing Association champion, and for several years he fought professionally. He was inducted, in 1996, into Maryland's Boxing Hall of Fame. But when his fighting days ended, after he had participated in countless nostalgic barber shop debates about boxing, he realized he needed to run his own gym. Not for ego's sake, but because he sensed that he could save some of the young men who were dying in the streets. Years ago, boxing set him on the right path. He believed it could do the same for others.
In time, his "No Hooks Before Books" program started to take shape. Kids could come to UMAR and learn the sweet science, but not until they completed two or three hours of schoolwork. Two city teachers, paid for with a grant from the city, served as tutors. Every kid had a folder to keep track of his academic progress. Dave Schorr, an accountant for the Bozzuto Group in Greenbelt, read a story about McDowell's program in the newspaper and volunteered his services. Schorr helped raise money through charity golf tournaments, apply for grants and establish tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. In time, UMAR's annual operating budget bloomed to $100,000.
All McDowell had to do was take care of the boxing. To help, he recruited an old friend, Dennis James, an ex-heavyweight and former addict with huge hands and a big smile no one could forget. When McDowell laid eyes on the 14-year-old Berry for the first time, he saw a boy with quick hands. He saw someone who wasn't afraid to get hit, someone who knew how to get leverage each time he threw a punch, bending low like a thick-armed stevedore about to jerk a heavy crate off the deck of a ship. He saw an angry kid who needed his guidance.
"He was an aggressive cat, man. A mean little cat," McDowell says. "And he did not like to lose."
Berry did lose at first. His first three fights were all defeats. But he kept returning, kept thundering away at the speed bag, learning to move his feet and learning that he could channel his aggression into strategy. His jab became lethal. His left hook, a refined, pernicious hammer. He traveled to tournaments, left Maryland for the first time, and made friends. Most of the boys, like him, had no father in their lives. He racked up victories, but he couldn't completely leave the streets behind.
In September 2006, McDowell arrived at the gym one afternoon and opened his mail. Someone had sent him a letter from the state prison in Hagerstown. The return address said: Mr. J. Berry #288-729.
"I'm writing to you because I have big concerns about 'Lil Berry as far as the path he might be headed in," the letter said. "I am speaking of the street life that could lead him to this life, behind these walls or worse. I get to talk to him, but not as often as I would like and not enough for my words to make a difference. (Feel me?) But I know he sees you just about every day and he respects you. Please speak to him about what's going on with him, and about what he wants to do with his life, and about how one bad decision could kill his dreams. ... I don't want this life for him."
McDowell didn't tell Berry about his father's letter. Instead, he pulled him aside one day and looked him in the eye. Give me this year, McDowell said. This is an Olympic year. You have the potential to fight in Beijing, maybe even win a gold medal. No one out there can stop you ... except you. Don't throw your life away on something foolish.
James Berry III is in the fight of his life
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