Giving kids a chance


There are good things happening on the Northside. We don’t hear enough about them. Sometimes we are surprised to find them happening in our own backyard. People quietly making a difference.

This spring, I started to regularly see a group of boys being run around my neighborhood by an imposingly fit young man. They’d disappear down Knox Avenue and pop up again 10 minutes later in Folwell Park. This was some serious fitness training for kids that might typically be indoors glued to something electronic! I was impressed. And curious. I could feel that something good was happening here. I finally tracked them down to the former fire station at 1704 33rd Avenue.

When you walk in the door to the Fighting Chance Boxing Club you are transported into a different world. Away from the sometimes chaotic Northside streets, where random acts of all kinds abound, into a place of controlled activity and focus. The positive energy in the space is palpable. The smell of physical effort and learning. The noise of intense training. And you just know this is a safe space. As one enthusiastic mother told me, “there is so much love here!” Yup, you can feel it.

The Club’s mission: To effect positive change in North Minneapolis youth through boxing and physical fitness. But I don’t believe this statement does full justice to what is actually happening at this old fire station.

The Inspiration

The gym manager is a quietly spoken man named of Phil Williams — Phil “The DRILL” Williams. The DRILL acronym, coined by Williams himself, stands for: Directly Related to the Inner City with Love and Loyalty. And everything Phil does here relates back to those powerful words.

Phil explained that the Club was a collective idea. In the beginning, a small group of volunteers (many from the professional boxing world) worked with kids from the juvenile detention system, introducing them to boxing. Then the funding ran out. Finding the empty fire station on 33rd Ave changed everything. The space was perfect. The ring was set up, training equipment brought in, and they had a home for the Club right in the heart of North Minneapolis within walking distance of the kids they aspired to help.

Funding and Food

The Club, a nonprofit, is funded 100 percent through donations and grants (send a tax deductible donation to the gym or, Facebook Northside Boxing Club). The trainers are volunteers. Adults can join for a $30 fee, but the program is totally free for youth between the ages of 9-20. They can come to the gym five days a week, receive professional-grade fitness training, learn to box using equipment provided by the Club – and they get a free meal when they are done. Healthy meals (which are typically hot) are donated by local restaurants. Phil told me that for some kids this may be the only meal or nutritious food they get that day. I thought about this for a while as I watched kids line up to eat. The grim reality for children that may live right on my own block. And I understood better the total awesomeness of this type of program!

The Kids

It’s all about the kids. That’s what Phil says. Many of these kids come from struggle. The Club is a place where they are being given a chance to overcome that struggle. Provided with an opportunity to bring victory into their own lives.

The gym was packed with highly-charged youngsters the day I visited. They have between 30-40 kids that come regularly, mostly boys. There was clearly real structure to what was happening in the gym. Kids moving from one rotation to the next, fast and noisy like kids do, throwing out questions as we stood and talked. Phil always with an eye on what was happening on the floor, quick to give direction or correction. Kind but firm.

There are rules. These rules are different from the rules on the street, at school. For some of the kids, there may be a total absence of rules at home. So they have to learn. They learn about respect, listening, discipline, working hard towards physical fitness, pushing themselves. They learn too that there are folks out there that care deeply about their success. They are loved and nurtured here. Hugs are free!

The Trainers

There is nothing sloppy about this operation! You take one look at the trainers and wonder how much it would cost to hire one of these guys as a personal coach. But here they are volunteers. Putting in their own time to work with the kids.

And they work them hard. I watched professional boxer “Samoan” Joe put the boys through their paces, drilling them in the ring, and then walking round a communal water bottle to each kid during a break. This gesture really struck home. The Club was like a big family.

I heard about trainer Moe Marciano. How if Moe gets hold of you, there is no failing. Because Moe doesn’t allow it.

Phil trains and is also Chief Second for the kids that get in the ring to fight. He’s the guy in the corner that keeps the fighter focused on winning. He works on what he refers to as “particulars.” Strategy.  How to fight a particular opponent.

I asked Phil about his day job. Turns out he’s a barber, took up boxing as a hobby, and the rest is history. Literally. Because unbeknownst to me, I was talking to a boxing legend. Phil holds the world record for the fastest knock out ever!

The Making of a Winner

While one of the primary goals of the Club is to help every young person achieve a sense of personal victory, this is, after all, a boxing club. Kids are not only taught how to box, they are taught how to win. You may do much of your training with other kids and your coach, but once in that ring, you are on your own. This sets boxing apart from other team-based sports like football, basketball and baseball.

In July, Phil drove some of his best fighters to Independence, Missouri to compete in the Ringside World Championships. Competition was stiff with over 1,500 entries from all over the U.S. and even overseas. The kids and their parents did not pay a dime for this experience, but they came home loaded. Bringing back personal victory as well as honor for their Club. They achieved these victories alone in the ring; but knowing there was always someone looking out for them. Someone in their corner. What a wonderfully affirming life lesson.

After my visit to the gym I went to work in my garden. A handful of the kids from the Club came jogging through the park, falling apart suddenly in a fit of giggles. One of the boys looked up and saw me watching them and said: Hey, you were at the gym today! Yes I was. And aren’t you supposed to be running? Big smiles. Then they all picked up their jog and were off down the street.