published Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Chattanooga police, firefighters put fists, faces on the line for kids (with slideshow)

Antuan Brown, left, with the Whitwell Police Department, spars with Dale Dagnan.
Antuan Brown, left, with the Whitwell Police Department, spars with Dale Dagnan.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
IF YOU GO

• What: Guns and Hoses, Battle of the Badges 2013

• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

• Where: The McKenzie Arena

• Cost: $20 and $25, depending on the seat

The gym smelled like old sweat and bleached blood.

In the ring, boys of all sizes lay on their backs and pumped their legs as if they were on a bicycle while a stocky man with gloves on walked around and beat their stomachs with his fist.

Their faces showed strain without pain. They were used to the rigor. Strong cores help you duck faster, give you meanness behind every punch, the coach tells them.

Before they came to this old garage and the boxing program at Y-CAP, many were in the juvenile justice system, flagged as troubled. Now, almost every weeknight, they get a hot meal, counseling, help with reading, job training, a place to wash their clothes and physical challenge.

Many of their lives are on a different trajectory because of the YMCA's Youth Community Action Program, said Joe Smith, the program director. It's a place for them to find stability and discipline.

"A lot of them go home and the electricity is off. There is no food in the refrigerator. Daddy is in the penitentiary, and momma is bringing different men home. [There is] shooting in the neighborhoods, and we expect them to get up the next morning and focus on algebra," said Smith.

On Friday, local police and firefighters will literally fight for the program in front of thousands at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena in a charity boxing match called Chattanooga Guns and Hoses. Last year, as many as 6,000 people attended, and this year an even bigger crowd is expected, said Smith. Half the proceeds will go to Y-CAP, the other half to the police and firefighter charity, The Forgotten Child Fund.

Keith Liles, a Chattanooga fireman, and others in training for their fights take over the Westside Boxing Club rings when the children -- some hardened, some more grown up but still children -- clear out for the night.

Before putting on the gloves, Liles wrapped his hands with gauze. They all take the training time seriously, he said. It is for charity, but the matches are fiercely competitive.

In the ring that night during training, noses were busted. Some first-responders-turned-fighters leaned on the ropes to catch their breath. Blood splatters had to be wiped up off the mats.

Liles isn't a boxer, but he has competed in the match for five years and won three times. He's trying to rebound from a loss last year, he said, while covering his face with a padded helmet.

This year, he's paired with someone from Tennessee State Parks. Sometimes men and women outside the fire and police departments participate, too. His opponent is strong, Liles said, really strong.

"You want to win, but you don't want to hurt the other guy and you hope he doesn't want to hurt you," he said. Still ...

"There is something liberating about getting punched in the face every now and then."

More money is needed for programs like Y-CAP that try to intervene in children's lives before they get involved with violence or drugs, said Smith. The recent arrests of 32 black men on drug and other charges could result in millions in incarceration costs if they are convicted and sent to prison.

What if that money went into prevention programs? Smith said he has asked officials that question, because money is hard to come by.

"It takes money to do ministry," Smith said. "All this stuff don't just happen. Somebody has got to pay for it."

The money raised by Guns and Hoses will go to support teens like Roger Hilley, who has been going to Y-CAP since he was 11.

At 19, he lives in the Y-CAP transitional house down the street and boxes in the afternoon. He came to Y-CAP because he needed help. His parents were both drug addicts, in and out of his life, he said. His brothers were going down the wrong path. Smith took Hilley under his wing and taught him how to box, how to live.

"I like the contact," Hilley said. "I got discipline out of it ... I had a lot of anger built up. I still do. It's a good way for me to get it out."

A week after Guns and Hoses, he will graduate from Hamilton County High School, and it will be the proudest moment of his life, he said.

"A lot of my friends have ended up dead or in jail," he said. "I think about that a lot. It could have been me."

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601.

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