McDowell felt as though Berry took his message to heart. But he wasn't sure.
The day he was scheduled to fight for the Golden Gloves regional title at 141 pounds, April 2, he was also scheduled to appear in city court because he'd been charged with marijuana possession. His fight was moved at the last minute. A random stroke of luck. He went to court, pleaded guilty and went home with time served. The next day he won the regional title.
Two losses, one chance
It's an ordinary day, not unlike yesterday, not unlike what tomorrow will likely bring.
Berry is running again. This time, the sun beats down on his face. There is much to think about.
He had two chances to qualify for the U.S. Olympic boxing trials - one in Tennessee, one in Colorado. He lost in the first round of both tournaments. Both losses were devastating. McDowell worried initially that all their hard work was on the cusp of unraveling. The hours he'd spent trying to keep Berry focused would not be enough.
Drug dealers needed muscle, men who aren't afraid to use their hands, and every so often, one of them would drop by the gym and greet Berry like he was an old friend. Some were old friends, kids from his neighborhood, now hardened into grown men. Berry could never turn his back on them and didn't want to. It was never as simple as just walking away. There was no walking away. This was his life.
In Tennessee, McDowell had a long conversation with Al Mitchell, an ex-fighter from Philadelphia now running the boxing program at Northern Michigan University. The program is part of the U.S. Olympic Education Center, in the town of Marquette, on the southern shore of Lake Superior. Its mission is to train athletes with Olympic potential, as well as give them an education. McDowell pleaded with his friend.
I've got a kid who needs someone to take a chance on him, McDowell said. A chance to get out of Baltimore. He's a smart kid, a good student, but he needs an education. He needs to figure out a way to survive, with or without boxing. Can you help me?
Mitchell thought that he could, but first, he wanted to meet with Berry.
Listen, son, Mitchell said, it's not going to be easy. You're going to be up there in the snow and cold. We're in the mountains, away from everything. You'll be getting up early each morning to run and work out, and schoolwork is going to be hard. You're going to have to keep up your grades. If you don't get the grades, you can't box. But if you think you can handle it, there is a full scholarship waiting for you in the fall.
Little Berry didn't have to think about it. He accepted on the spot. He knew it would be difficult, that he might struggle being away from his family. But this, he realized, was his chance. Without boxing, he had no plans to attend college. A trade school was a more realistic destination. Now he had visions of himself as a businessman. The more he thought about it, the more it appealed to him.
"I know it's all for a greater cause," he says. "I know school can make things better. I know it can get me out of this town, get back on track and keep me focused."
And so today, like every day, Berry will run. He'll try to think as he moves his feet and sweats. Some days, he'll see the police cuff and arrest someone his age, and for a second, he'll think: That could have been me. He'll continue to run.
When he arrives at the gym, he'll begin his workout in front of the mirror by flexing his biceps. His large hands will knife through the stale air. Right jab. Left hook. Jab again. His combinations will dart and flicker, his fists changing directions like a dancing flame. He'll punch mostly in silence.
His expression will not change. He'll duck, bob his head, throw a quick jab, then step to his left and unleash a graceful and violent combination of punches. When he finishes, his hands will fall to his sides.
He'll stare at the image of himself in the dirty mirror and turn around. In the gym, men young and old will watch closely, eager to see what James Berry III will do next.
Sun reporters Jennifer McMenamin and Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this story.