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Detroit coach gives kids a fighting chance

By Mary Murray, Senior Producer, NBC News 

DETROIT -- Khali Sweeney, a boxing trainer on Detroit's east side, paced the cement floor and stared at the clock. It was 4 p.m. and just a handful of his 65 students had shown up for class.

"They'll be here," he promised.

But, over the next 30 minutes just one other kid walked through the door of the Downtown Boxing Gym.

We were there to shoot a story for ‘Nightly News with Brian Williams’ but, as the afternoon was slipping away, so too was our natural light. We were getting nervous.

‘No Cash For Gas’

"OK, I wasn't going to tell you but here's what's happening," Sweeney said. "We usually pick the kids up from school. But we ran out of money this month. No cash for gas."

He added, "Don't think bad on us."

At the time, his last remark made little sense.  Even outsiders could tell that this gym operates in a bleak place with scarce resources.

But the coach meant something else. He didn’t want anyone to think that he was complaining or looking for a handout. The 43-year-old Detroit native has a strict code of conduct.

'Step up and take responsibility'

For seven years the Downtown Boxing Gym has been a lifeline for a group of kids on Detroit’s east side.

When Sweeney grew up in the neighborhood, the area was “vibrant, and alive.” While the community had its share of problems, it also had commerce and factories that provided many with a livable wage.

Today, it is a just a shell.

Times are so tough that lots of city buses no longer run through this part of town and street lights have been shut off.

The economy may be rebounding in other parts of America, but here there are no signs that jobs are coming back.

For Sweeney, while driving around the neighborhood past vacant lots, crumbled foundations, and scores of homes burnt to the ground, many of the streets evoked family memories: the place his grandmother bought groceries, or the barbershop where he cut his hair. 

“That’s where my daughter graduated high school valedictorian,” he said, pointing at a three-story unused brick building.

The collapse of the auto industry brought Detroit to its knees.

“The other manufacturers pulled out,” said Sweeney. “And most everybody else went with them.”

But he worried about the ones who stayed, especially the children.

“A kid gets up in the morning, goes to school and he comes back to nothing,” said Sweeney. “At the same time, he sees all this stuff on TV and dreams of getting it, but there’s nobody around to show him the way to become a success.”

He stated that "kids are led astray when left on their own ... somebody needs to be their gatekeeper. Somebody needs to step up and take responsibility.”

Sweeney opened the gym seven years ago, originally as a business. 

"I turned out to be lousy at making money," he laughed. But the truth is, Sweeney won’t take money from families that are just scraping by.

Statistically, Detroit holds the dual distinction of being both the most violent as well as the poorest city in America. The U.S. Census Bureau found that almost six Detroit kids in 10 are growing up in poverty.

In Sweeney’s experience, that’s overly generous.

"I dare you to find one kid here living the American dream," he challenged.

Michigan's official unemployment rate hovers around nine percent and Detroit’s is near 30 percent. Sweeney said at least half of the parents in his community are out of work while the rest earn minimum wage. 

"Families are just one paycheck away from being homeless,” he said. "It killed me to see parents choosing between paying for food or boxing lessons.”

So, he opened his doors to everyone, letting the kids train for free.

No one gives up around here’

The kids we were waiting for finally arrived after 5 p.m.

Despite the bitter January cold, the majority had walked at least a mile to arrive at the gym. Most wore nothing thicker than zipped-up hoodies -- no coats, gloves, hats or scarves. This wasn't a fashion statement. The smaller ones were visibly shivering.

Sweeney had a quick fix: he had the kids sweating soon enough.

The relative quiet exploded into a jumble of noise -- jump ropes slicing the air, fists pummeling speedballs, and grunts and hisses from kids beating heavy hanging bags.

Like a general inspecting his troops, Sweeney walked up and down rows of exercising kids and bellowed orders to perfect form. The stance of a seven-year-old was repositioned for better range and balance; another young boy received pointers on his sparring technique.

When one teen just didn’t throw a cross with his usual speed, Coach ordered, “down on the floor” -- his code for 20 push-ups.

“When you make a mistake in the ring, you end up on the floor,” warned Sweeney. “When you make a mistake here, you’re gonna end up on the floor.”

In the course of the afternoon, just about every kid ended up on the cement floor -- including a reluctant teen on his tough first day. Devin Graham’s “mistake” had been to suggest to the coach that maybe he should quit. Sweeney had just reprimanded some girls who had been teasing the 13-year-old about being overweight.

“No one gives up around here,” Sweeney said, and he worked with the boy one-on-one – he did sit-ups, ran in place, and then Sweeney laced him into his first pair of boxing gloves. Climbing into the ring, the coach held a pad and became the boy’s moving target.

When they finished, Sweeney brought Devin into a back room.

“Stop making excuses,” he said. "Boxing is hard work. Just tell me if you're up to the challenge. If you are, I’m here. But, if you’re not, leave now. I don’t like wasting my time."

In the weeks that have passed, Devin hasn’t missed a day.

Hit the books before the bag

Christal Berry joined the gym last year and said it “changed” her life. “Boxing is all I can think about,” she said.

She described herself as a “shy girl,” easily wounded by cruel remarks that would trigger her anger. She would obsess when something unpleasant happened.

“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she said.

Christal weighed over 200 pounds when she met Khali last year. Then just 13 years old, the girl was afraid she would die.

The aerobics, rope jumping, and shadow boxing have helped her lose more than 50 pounds and feel mentally stronger too.

"I let people get under my skin and I just carry it with me the whole day … I feel a lot better after I get done hitting the bag," she said.

But before she gets to that, Christal, along with all the children here, must do their homework.

Lisa Dunn is the teacher who runs the mostly one-woman tutoring program that’s helping Christal raise her grades.

To stay in the gym, every kid must prove he or she is getting good grades. Both Sweeney and Lisa review school progress reports. A slipping grade means more time with Lisa, and less with the coach.

Sweeney came into Darien Richardson’s life at a time when he felt no one was in his corner.

“I just wanted to give up,” he said.

That was six years ago when Darien was sliding down the slope traveled by two-thirds of teens in this neighborhood. He was on the verge of dropping out of school.

“The coach convinced me to finish high school and go on to college,” he said. “He's that guy, that man you can talk to when anything's happening in your life.”

Kadeem Anderson used to get in a lot of fights -- the kind that was going to get him expelled from school.

The kid had a short fuse, according to his mother, Alice Anderson. She was tired of the constant calls from school to complain about another Kadeem misadventure.

Boxing brought his temper under control and the discipline to turn down temptation like drugs or wasting time in the street.

Now, "When bad stuff happens at school, Kadeem is the first to walk away,” said Alice. “I’m so proud of him.”

The 15-year-old is already a Downtown legend. In his first competitive fight, David won the regional Golden Gloves.

‘You give what you get’

Three people pour their heart and soul into making sure Downtown stays open -- Sweeney, Dunn and an idealist young woman named Jessica Hauser who stopped in one day a few years ago to watch a friend train with Sweeney.

“Right away I knew Khali was doing something important here and I wanted to help,” she said.

Little did she know that would mean going broke in the process.

"My mom's going to kill me when she hears this but I’ve drained my savings account to pay the bills," said Jessica.

Rent and electricity have to be paid every month along with a $1,200 heating bill in the winter. No one pulls a paycheck. When they can fill the tank, Sweeney and Jessica use their personal cars to shuttle the kids.

Sweeney has taken side jobs in construction and security when funds have run low. Friends too have stepped in to help.

Russ Russell manages “Forgotten Harvest,” an organization fighting hunger in Detroit for the past 20 years. Every week, he sends a truck of food to the gym.

And, we weren’t the only ones who noticed the kids had no winter coats. Russell contacted Meijer, a Michigan-headquartered superstore chain, who outfitted every Downtown kid with warm clothing free of charge.

Sweeney says many “good people in the community” have come to their rescue including retired attorney Ed Forton, who paid the bills for months, along with local businesses that include Avalon Bakery and Supino Pizza.

In return, Sweeney insists that the kids give back through monthly community service projects.

“Poverty is frightening for these kids,” said Sweeney. "They worry about food, about their parents getting sick. Boxing toughens them up.”

But he also wants to teach the kids that they are not powerless. “If you treat these kids like victims, they get this mentality of being helpless,” said Sweeney. “I’m obsessed with giving every kid in Detroit a fighting chance.”