A boxer forges bonds with troubled teens

As boxing matchups go, it wasn't exactly an even bout: Six-foot-five former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney facing a 13-year-old boy who could barely reach his chest.

But Mr. Cooney wasn't looking to win any fights on the paved basketball court behind this home for troubled teens in Paterson, N.J. Instead, he delivered a message more subtle than a punch while sparring with the teenager.

"You can do it, I know you can," Cooney says.

That's not something often heard by the 22 residents of the Kilbarchan Treatment Center, housed in a former orphanage on a quiet residential street.

Most arrived here with emotional or behavioral problems that prevent them from living in the homes of parents or foster families, says Barbara Bishop Wells, administrator of the home run by the nonprofit Youth Consultation Services (YCS).

Some are young enough to keep stuffed pandas or bunnies in their dorm-style rooms. None were alive at the pinnacle of Cooney's fame two decades ago when he lost a 12-round battle to heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.

In the years since, Cooney started a foundation, the Fighters Initiative for Support and Training (FIST), to help former boxers find jobs and adjust to life outside the ring. So YCS board member Dominick Bratti says it wasn't hard to persuade Cooney to use boxing as a way to help kids learn about resilience.

"When you get hit, you don't lie down. You dust yourself off," says Mr. Bratti, a New Jersey attorney. With its teenage male population and basketball court, Kilbarchan seemed a good place for Cooney to visit twice a week.

At first, though, many of the boys reacted coolly to the idea. Only one had ever heard of Cooney before. Watching a video of his career highlights helped warm them up a bit.

Then they went outside.

They punched the hanging bag. After an electronic bell rang, they switched to punching big pads held by Cooney, who grunts after each hit. Finally, they donned face gear and a mouth guard and sparred one on one with Cooney.

Initially, Bratti worried about giving the impression that they were teaching fighting to kids who may struggle with anger. But Ms. Wells says boxing actually helps. "When they get out here, they work out that tension and stress," she says.

It took a while for them to open up, says Cooney, who started visiting in July. "They finally get that I'm here to help them." While they box, the teens tell him about parents they never met or fights they get into with each other.

Cooney doesn't lecture in the makeshift ring on the basketball court's foul line. But he gives every participant individualized advice or prodding: Get closer. Keep your elbows tight.

"He took the time out to come and see us," says one 17-year-old, who cannot be identified by name because of privacy concerns. "He didn't have to do it."

Cooney, who grew up in a home with an angry father who drank too much, says he sees himself in many of the kids. "In teaching them, I'm healing myself as well. There's a part of me that never got talked to the way I talk to them."

Ask the kids what they've learned and they'll say self-defense. But Cooney says that's not his message. "You're a bigger man to walk away," he often tells them. "They're learning they can apply boxing – the conditioning, structure, discipline – to whatever [they] want to do in life," he adds.

"Look at this guy," Cooney points proudly. "He couldn't jump rope." Now, the teenager does 40 and then 50 jumps at a stretch. After each attempt, he gets a hug from Wells.

One 14-year-old, who likes to go by the name Silver while boxing, says the sessions have taught him to stay focused. "Keep trying and you'll get better," he says. "I'm not good at a lot of things, but [Cooney] gives the kids confidence."

By the end of the summer, most of the 10 regular participants are so eager to start that they tape up each other's hands well before their instructor even arrives. "It's fun playing with Cooney," says one 13-year-old.

Cooney planned to end the sessions around Labor Day but decided to continue into the fall. He's also planning a road trip to Pennsylvania with the boys to watch a friend's minor league basketball team. He hopes to expand the program to some of the other 55 YCS facilities around New Jersey and use his FIST foundation to enlist former boxers as instructors.

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