On March 14th, 1980, I was asleep in my hotel room in Las Vegas when a loud and long knock on the door awoke me. I opened the door and our other boxing coach Mr. Hunter walked in very distraught. In a quivering voice he muttered “The plane crashed, they’re all dead!” I knew in an instant my life had just changed, I closed my eyes as I felt like I had vertigo, I sat down slowly on the bed as sorrow started sucking the life out of me. The plane was carrying the US Boxing team to Poland for international competition. 14 boxers and 8 boxing officials and coaches and 62 other passengers perished. Among the dead was my coach, mentor and close friend Junior Robles, my teammate and good friend Byron Lindsay and several other boxing friends that were on the team. Junior had been selected as one of the coaches for the USA team that went to Poland, while Mr. Hunter and I took our team the United Boxing Academy to the Golden Glove Regionals in Vegas. Many of our countries best boxers died that day. It was not yet known if the US would boycott the 1980 Olympics and every young man on that plane was hopeful with dreams of Olympic glory. I had lost other important people in my life, but this was different, this was the man that gave me a purpose and direction in life.
It took time to earn his trust and respect though, in fact Junior was obviously angry at me when I first showed up at his gym. He purposely tormented me, trying to break me and make me quit. He made me do footwork drills for hours every day while everyone else did ten minutes and went on to a normal routine. I had a high tolerance for pain but doing those drills for hours literally tore the skin off of the bottom of my feet. But I wouldn’t quit, I limped home every night and I would cut the large blisters and torn skin off with scissors, then soak and bandage my feet packed in ointment to prepare for the next torturous day. He made me spar with two nationally rated fighters and one national champion, even though I was quite the vicious street fighter that means nothing in the ring, I was no match for that caliber of technical fighter, and I took a pretty good pounding.
I wasn’t just trying to prove him wrong, or to show him that I wasn’t a quitter or a quitter. I knew deep down this was my last chance to make something of myself. I also had a history with Junior, my brother boxed for his dad (Old man Robles), and I use to go to his dad’s gym and workout. Junior knew me, he knew I was a criminal thug, and he really didn’t want me near his government funded youth organization and he thought he could break me and run me off. One of the guys at the gym said “why don’t you just go to another gym? Junior hates you.” Leaving was not an option for me, and the truth is Junior didn’t hate me anymore than I hated myself, and I kind of fed off of the animosity towards me.
When I was a young man, I didn’t care if I lived or died and I lived my life with a reckless abandon that defied any form of rational reasoning, and perhaps even a death wish. But I was married now, and I had reasons to live. I had already ceased the criminal activity and quit using drugs for quite a while but the damage I had done to my body was severe. I had barbiturate poisoning that made me very sick, I had open wounds that would not heal, oozing puss and bleeding for more than a year. Doctors said there was nothing they could do but bandage them, and that it would take time for the barbiturates to purge from my body. That’s what happens when you shoot large amounts of barbiturates straight into your veins for a prolonged time. I also had multiple collapsed veins in both arms from intravenous drug use that was so severe that every morning when I woke up both arms were numb, and I couldn’t move them. I would stand and flail my arms around till I got some blood flowing, sometimes taking a half hour, but even then, they were weak. I was on a long medical absence from work because I contracted hepatitis from dirty needles. My eyes were yellow, and I was very weak and unhealthy, and I knew if I didn’t do something I wouldn’t be able to support my family. But I wasn’t feeling hopeless, depressed or sorry for myself. This was my doing and I owned it. Boxing was in my family, and I knew if I could pull this off, I could put my past to rest.
I never told Junior about my health issues or anyone else for that matter, the only person that knew what I was going through was Robin, my wife. I just gutted it out and kept my mouth shut and did my best even though it was more than painful. No one in their right mind would try to be an athlete in that condition, especially a boxer, but I had to, I needed to.
Junior repeatedly called me a coward and continued with his plan to break me as I struggled to keep up, but I suffered through, and my feet finally healed, and my arms started gaining some strength and no-longer numb. After months and months of bleeding and sweating through the gauntlet of physical and mental scrutiny I was still standing. Junior finally realized that I wasn’t a quitter, and I wasn’t going anywhere. I started developing some skills and I would soon get a few fights in the ring. Even though I was still dealing with my physical hindering medical issues I knocked out three guys in my first few of fights and with only six fights under my belt I went to the AAU Nationals, but I had developed a bad case of “shin-splints” an injury were the connective tissues pull away from the shin bone making hundreds of splinters on the bone that make it unbearable to walk let alone run, just my pants touching my shins would make me stiffen up in pain. Again, the doctors said there is no treatment for shin splints except to stay off my feet and rest until they healed, but at this point in my life sitting down meant surrender and that just wasn’t an option.
Without the ability to run and my other medical issues I wasn’t in any condition to fight, especially at a national event, but I entered the tournament anyway and because I had never embarrassed Junior in the ring, he gave the nod. Out of 40 boxers in the welter weight division I drew the seasoned veteran, Don Modicue. My opponent had 160 fights and he was rated #7 in the country. But it wasn’t my inexperience or his vast experience that bothered me, it was me not being out of shape. I didn’t struggle in the first two rounds, in fact I was winning that fight but lacking the stamina to finish, I faded and lost, but for the first time since I began this journey, I got a word of encouragement from Junior, he said “You did good.”
The shin-splints lasted more than a year and a boxer that can’t get in shape. I prepared for two other big tournaments, but a serious intestinal problem landed me in the hospital just days before both tournaments as the dieting to make weight seemed to trigger the attacks. Junior started to think I was a coward again and that I was afraid to fight. But he didn’t know me very well. I was no coward, and I certainly wasn’t afraid to fight. It turned out to be appendicitis and was finally diagnosed when it ruptured. Two years of hard training and preparing only to bow out for medical reasons. It was deeper than just being disappointed, I was fighting for more than the glory the ring had to offer. Everyone told Robin she should never have married me, I wanted so bad to prove them wrong. Every setback had me looking in the mirror and those feelings of worthlessness antagonized me. When my stomach healed from the surgery I started preparing again and trained hard for two months. I bought a new mouth piece but it had a ridge on the lower part and when I was sparing with Al Mack he caught me with a hard uppercut and busted a large hole just below my bottom lip, that ridge on the mouthpiece cut me so bad I could stick my tongue through the hole below my lip. I was so angry knowing it was another setback I just kept throwing punches ignoring Junior yelling to stop. He had to jump in the ring and grab me. Back to the hospital again, and almost three months before it would heal enough to spar again. my wounds were still taking a long time to heal. Another five months lost to injury. It was almost four years of training in and out of the hospital and I only had a hand full of fights to show for it. But I still kept training and trying to get healthy. In my next fight I was very sick with a high temperature, I hid my coughing from Junior because I wanted to fight, again I told no one I was sick. I passed the physical, but it really wasn’t that hard, most of the time the only doctors that we could get to volunteer were a podiatrist or something. I lost a close decision in a fight I still believe I won. But near the end of the fight, I could barely breathe, and almost lost consciousness and I had to be helped out of the ring and driven straight to the hospital again. The doctors said, “were you just in a boxing match?” I nodded yes. The doctor said, “you have pneumonia, you should never have been in the ring.” It didn’t seem like that big of deal to me at that time, I was use to training and fighting sick, unhealthy and injured, but I knew I was going to have to make a decision soon but the thought of quitting meant that maybe everyone was right, maybe I was a worthless.
My next fight was USA vs Canada, I had not even worked out for a long time as I was having a hard time recovering from pneumonia. I was in no shape to fight; I went there as Junior’s assistant coach, but the guy scheduled to fight the Canadian got sick and they needed a fill in. I thought to myself “I have never not been sick when I fought’ why would this fighter bow out?” It didn’t even occur to me that I was the anomaly, and he was the rational person. I even had a hangover from drinking the night before and no sleep as I was not expecting to fight. I would take on the Canadian Brad Hortie a hard-hitting slugger with 150 fights. It was a full house at the Sahara Hotel in Vegas and Brad and I had the crowd on their feet screaming, It was a war, a war I lost but I felt good about it, because I knew that if I was in any kind of shape I would have beaten him. Even when I wasn’t plagued with injuries and illness I could never get into good shape, Junior said to me “You’re the best fighter in the country for two rounds, two bad fights aren’t two rounds. If you could get into shape, you might be a National Champion.” I was starting to sink in that it was over for me, I was never going to be healthy enough to be a fighter.
During my illness and injuries, I went to the Gym everyday anyway and quickly picked up the intricacies of coaching from one of the best technical teachers. After four years of never missing a day and suffering through the worst possible health scenarios I finally felt like I had earned Junior’s respect. After he learned of all that I went through without complaining or ever mentioning my health issues he said, “you are one tough son of a bitch” and that was the trophy I needed, the one I wanted. I just wanted to be acknowledged....
I became his assistant coach and was appointed to be the Chief Official of the Pacific Southwest and I was hired by his youth organization as a Sports Coordinator/Counselor. I was now his trusted confidante, and this once drug thug was now sitting in on board meetings working with local police and politicians. I was now finally free of my old life and my future was bright. Under Juniors tutelage I learned self-respect and self-worth, I learned to win humbly and to lose with dignity. But Junior was gone now and even though I am not one to show much emotion the devastation of losing the one person in my life that gave me hope was quietly eating me up inside, but of course I told no one.
The new Program Director made me the new Head Coach and within a couple of years I won a couple of team championships, coached a national champion and two bronze medalists at the Nationals and a Kings Cup Champion. I was a rising star as a young coach and at the Nationals in Colorado Springs the Olympic Boxing Coach watched me workout my fighters and said he had never seen anyone use the workout techniques that I used and wanted me to come to his office to talk. Even though I was having great success, something died in me when that plane went down, and I slowly began to unravel, and I would soon hit an all-time low that left me devastated beyond the point of even wanting to live. But I eventually arose from that depression and my newfound faith helped me find peace.
But it was time for me to leave the sport of boxing, for eight years I put my physical and mental rehabilitation first and that was ok, but I realized I was neglecting my family. All the late nights at the gym, and all of the traveling, I was missing my children growing up. The job I took with the Community Youth Athletic Assn. only paid about a third of what I made as a Collision Tech., and I need to put my family first and go back to my old job. I had finally accomplished my goal and I just needed to go home now.
It doesn’t bother me that I lost all of those big fights, in fact they are a badge of honor for me. For a rookie like me to even make it to the Nationals and represent the US in International competition is unheard of, especially with all of the physical issues I was dealing with. Most of those guys started boxing at the age of 7 or 8 and have 60 to even 300 fights under their belt at the Nationals and I stood toe to toe with them and would have beaten them if I would have been healthy.
After Junior and I became close friends, I asked him why he tortured me so. He said when someone as old as you walks into my gym it is highly unlikely that they will make it, and especially with your background. I had to determine if you were serious or not, I didn’t want to waste my time with an older person, my focus was helping kids. I couldn’t pass you off as a novice, you were too old, you had to be thrown in with the big boys and I needed to know if you were tough enough.
I sometimes wonder how good of a boxer I would have been if I wouldn’t have destroyed my body and had so many medical issues. I also wonder where my career as a coach would have taken me if I would have stayed. The answer to those questions I will never know, but I am at peace with it now and I have nothing but wonderful memories.
The old Gym has been torn down now, and I really miss my good friends. Even though it has been more than 40 years since that plane went down, I am still saddened by the loss of the person that basically saved my life. There is a memorial dedicated to the boxing team that died that day. It stands at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, every year they have a memorial service in remembrance. Someday I hope to attend. There are also Streets named after Junior and Byron in National City, I think I will go there soon and do a real drive-by of thankfulness and gratitude. Boxing was only my first step in changing my life but without it, I would have just been what everyone said I was.
In the comments is an article from a local newspaper that somewhat verifies my story.