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Becoming Holyfield

A Fighter's Journey

by Evander Holyfield and Lee Gruenfeld

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Becoming Holyfield
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A Fighter's Journey
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Evander Holyfield and Lee Gruenfeld

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Book Summary

The story of the Olympic medallist and world heavyweight champion covers such topics as the disqualification that lost him a gold medal, his sensationalized matches against Mike Tyson, and his appearances on such shows as "Dancing with the Stars."

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Becoming Holyfield

Prologue

Atlanta, 1978

The kid's name was Stevie Kirwood, and he wasn't bad at all: a quick left hand, light on his feet and a couple of years of ring savvy so that the usual tricks you can play on a rookie wouldn't work.

Try as I might, I couldn't put Stevie down; his reflexes were too good and he was reading me too well. So even though I landed a lot of punches, not many were good solid hits. Stevie would see them coming, and while he couldn't get completely out of the way, he'd duck or twist or sidestep enough to keep himself from getting too hurt.

On the other hand, he was spending nearly all his time protecting himself and hardly laid a glove on me. I was getting a nice workout while racking up points with the judges and could coast to an easy victory, but that's not how I liked to do things. I threw everything I could against Stevie, but he was still standing when the bell signaled the end of the third round, which is as far as amateur fights go. Barely standing, anyway: He was completely exhausted and hardly had the strength to come to the middle of the ring for the decision.

With the ref between us, a hand on each of our arms, we waited for the official announcement. I knew the standard language and lip-synced it in my head along with the announcer: "The winner, by decision...Stevie Kirwood!"

Wait a minute. Who? Stevie Kirwood?

I turned to the ref, my eyes wide and my jaw hanging open. Was he kidding? Had he gotten our names mixed up? But there was Stevie, arms raised high, dancing away toward his smiling corner men. Someone who'd never seen a boxing match in his entire life and had watched this fight from half a mile away through dark glasses would know I'd won, and they gave it to Stevie?

I screamed at the judges and spat on them. I grabbed the ref, picked him up and threw him out of the ring and into the third row of chairs. I climbed up onto the ropes, raised my arms and yelled to the audience that I'd won the fight, and then I went on television and wrote letters to every sportswriter in Atlanta.

Actually, I didn't do any of those things. I just stood there for a second, fighting to keep the pain and humiliation from my face, and then walked back to my corner to get my gloves unlaced. I didn't do anything because Stevie Kirwood was white, and one thing a black fighter in the Deep South learns early on is that knockouts — clean knockouts — are the only way to guarantee a victory against a white kid. Anything else is a crapshoot. So when the decision went to Stevie I did what I'd done before on those rare occasions when I'd lost a decision to someone I was sure I'd beaten: I did nothing.

Later in my career sportswriters liked to talk about my polite manners and what a good sport I was in defeat, as well as in victory. I didn't get angry when unfair stuff happened, and I didn't prance around or go all show-offy when I won. But it's not because I'm such a saintly guy — Lord knows I'm not — it's just how I was brought up. I was taught to behave that way, and near as I'm able to figure, it was because of three things: my mama, a boxing coach named Carter Morgan, and old-fashioned southern racism.

Mama — and her mother as well — had some mighty strong beliefs about how kids were supposed to behave, and a lot of it came from the Bible, although Mama liked to frost that cake with a little of her own icing. Pride being a mortal sin wasn't just a slogan for Mama; it was God telling us how to live. Pridefulness to her wasn't just about bragging or showing off, it was about going nuts when things went sour, as though you were too good to suffer a little injustice once in a while. She thought it was a waste of energy to fight things you had no hope of changing, and that you were better off directing your efforts to making sure it didn't happen again, or at least being smart enough to avoid the same situation in the future altogether. One of the things she knew it was useless to fight was someone in authority who'd already made up his mind, especially if you were black and poor and living in the South. Arguing would only get you into more trouble, so the only reason left to argue was pride, and that was no kind of reason at all.

When I was about four I was playing in the front yard with my older brother Bernard and our beautiful collie, Lassie. That dog was an overgrown pussycat who'd never hurt anybody, but when a mean drunk wandered into the yard and began harassing her, throwing stuff at her and laughing when she got hit, she broke her chain and chased him away.

About an hour later the drunk showed up with the sheriff and pointed to Lassie. The sheriff came into the yard and said, "This guy filed a complaint so I gotta shoot your dog."

Me and Bernard figured he was just kidding, or putting on a show to calm the drunk down, but our older sister Annette saw what was going on, ran out and pulled us inside. Lassie scooted under the house, which she always did when we let her loose in the middle of the day because it was nice and cool down there.

We watched through the window as the sheriff pulled a shotgun out of the squad car and walked up to the house. He looked back at the drunk standing by the car, then leaned down where we couldn't see him anymore. A couple of seconds later the whole house shook as he fired off the shotgun. Then he stood up, rested the barrel on his shoulder and walked back to the car, like all he'd done was shoot a can off a fence or something. The drunk guy saw us looking through the window and laughed, then grabbed at the car door handle three or four times before he finally managed to get it open and fall into the car.

Annette wouldn't let us move while the sheriff was still there. "He din't do nothin'," Bernard said to me, and shook his head, hard. "Just makin' that drunk fool think he did." He was trying to convince himself as much as me.

When the car was finally out of sight my brother and I ran out the door. Usually when the front door opened Lassie would come flying out from under the house so fast she was at the bottom of the porch stairs before we were, but this time we didn't see her at all, and when we looked under the house there was blood and fur all over the place.

No hearing, no due process...a cop just up and killed our dog. "What're we gonna do?" I asked Bernard.

"Nothing," Annette said behind us.

Later that night when Mama got home she said the same thing as Annette. I asked her how that could happen, that some guy could shoot our dog and there was nothing we could do about it.

"Didn't say it was right," she answered. "Just said there's no use trying to do something about it because you can't. And that policeman, he knows you can't. That's why he done it." And she went on to tell us that if we tried to do something about it, things would only get worse, not better, so we shouldn't waste time on it. "You let it be."

I didn't do anything when treated unfairly by a teacher, either. All I had to do was watch other kids try to argue, the teacher getting madder and madder and the situation just getting worse for the kid. I learned to keep my public hurts private, and after I became better known in the larger world and had other people to go to bat for me, I knew better than to carry on like an overgrown brat.

I didn't get angry and make a scene the first time a bad decision went to a white kid, even though I was fixing to, because Carter Morgan saw me and caught my eye just in time. He stared at me with a frown and shook his head. Not a lot, just a little, but in a way that let me know that I was to settle down and get hold of myself.

When I ran up to him after leaving the ring, I hadn't gotten a word out before he pumped his hands at me, palm down, and said, "I know. I know."

"But I walloped that kid!" I said, nearly in tears. "I had him down in the first — "

"I know!" Carter said more forcefully. Then he took me into the locker room, sat me down and explained. "People around here, they don't like to see black kids beating white kids. A close decision can — "

"But it wasn't close!"

"Yeah." He scratched the back of his head. "And you can go back and argue it. But you want to fight again, don't you?"

I shot him a look: Of course I do.

"Then hush up and let it go. That's all there is to it."

"But it ain't right!" I insisted. How could that be all there was to it? "You tellin' me there's nothin' I can do about it?"

Carter shrugged. "There's one thing you can do..." he began.

"Yeah?" I jumped at the small bit of hope he held out. "What? What can I do?"

"You can knock guys out," he answered. "There's nothing they can do when you knock guys out. They don't like it, but there's nothing they can do. So if you want to win, what you gotta do, you gotta knock 'em out."

Which is what I spent the rest of my career trying to do. By the time my amateur career ended following the 1984 Olympics, I'd won by knockout seventy-five times. I don't want to brag, just make a point, but something Howard Cosell would later tell me during the Olympics was really true: In amateur fights, which only went three rounds back then (many are four now) and where safety is everything, knockouts are few and far between and going for them is risky. For an amateur to win by KO as many times as I did was awfully rare, and now you know why it was so important to me. Don't get me wrong — knockouts are important to every fighter — but to me they had special meaning. They're how I protected my wins.

But I didn't win all the time. Sometimes it was because I'd been outfought, and I could handle that. But sometimes it was a loss by unfair decision. When that happened, I did what I could, based on what was in the rules: file a protest, ask for a hearing, "proper channel" things like that. And if it didn't work and there was nothing else to be done, I dropped it.

Understand, this had nothing to do with meekly swallowing whatever was dished out to me. Far from it. When it was appropriate to fight, I fought. But I made good and sure there was a reason to fight other than foolish pride. I made sure there was something to be gained, because from the time I started boxing at the age of eight I always had my eye on a larger goal, and Mama and Carter helped me to see that sometimes you had to make sacrifices and grit your teeth without complaining if it meant getting closer to that bigger goal. And even if it didn't, there was no excuse in the world for behaving badly.

I hung around outside Carter's roped-off training area for months trying to get into the boxing program. Kids made fun of me, because of how small and scrawny I was, but I didn't make trouble and I didn't let them push me away. I took whatever they dished out because it wasn't important to defend my pride to them; it was important to get into that program. If I acted up and caused a fuss, Carter wouldn't have stood for it and I wouldn't have had a prayer of getting past the door. So I took the small hurts and the teasing because anything else would have moved me farther from my goal rather than closer.

Did it bother me standing there in silence while a bad decision was announced? Of course it did. It was awful being humiliated and robbed like that. But I wanted to keep fighting and Carter taught me to solve the problem a better way than storming around and complaining and feeling sorry for myself. I got stronger and more skillful so I could whup opponents to the point where it was impossible for anybody to rob me of victories.

Those lessons drummed into me by Mama and Carter Morgan paid off throughout my whole life, in more places than just the ring, and they continue to pay off today. My upbringing made me who I am, and I feel I have a calling to inspire people to be the very best that they can be. I wanted to write this book so that others can benefit from what I learned, and maybe avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way.

But just preaching about stuff isn't what I'm about, and I doubt it's anything you want to read. What I'd rather do is tell you some stories about my life. Even though they're stories you might already have read about in newspapers or magazines, you haven't heard my side yet, what really happened the way I lived it. And to me they're not just individual stories, even though some might be pretty interesting or exciting or funny. They're all part of how I got to be who I am, and I'm hoping that reading about them might touch you in a way that helps you put your own life in perspective and makes it just a little bit better. Or, if not your life, then maybe your children's. Copyright © 2008 by Real Deal Events, LLC

Chapter 1

Childhood

I don't think there's a harder job than being a poor, black, single mom raising a large family in the rural Deep South. And I don't know anyone who did it better than my mother, Annie Laura Holyfield.

I was the last of nine kids, eight of them living. (A brother, Jimmy, died of pneumonia shortly after childbirth before I was born.) So Mama had a lot of practice before I came along. There wasn't a trick she hadn't seen or an excuse she hadn't heard. She'd also already seen how various ways of dealing with kids worked out later in their lives, so by the time she got to me, she had her philosophy pretty well worked out: Discipline, consistency and a lot of attention were things a parent owed a child. It was the responsibility you took on when you had children, and there was no choice involved. If you believed in God as strong as Mama did, raising your kids right wasn't just a promise you made to them; it was a promise you made to Him, too.

But those things were worthless if you didn't slather an ocean of love over all of it. No matter what you did to make your kid straighten up and fly right, the most important thing was to make sure he had no doubt that he was loved. That had to be at the foundation or the rest of the structure would rest on shaky ground, ready to collapse at the first of the many difficult tests that every life brings.

I saw a lot of tough parents in the neighborhoods where I grew up. I saw plenty of kids getting whupped upside the head all the time. But what I saw coming from many of those parents was anger and impatience. It wasn't discipline; it was punishment, for things those kids did to their parents, like distracting them from something they were doing or wasting their time or embarrassing them or just plain annoying them. That kind of thing only makes a kid fearful and resentful.

Mama whupped me plenty, probably more than the rest of my sisters and brothers put together. But it wasn't because she'd come to the end of her rope after bringing up the others; it was because I needed it. I was willful and rambunctious and had more energy than I knew what to do with. I got into trouble all the time, not because I was a bad kid but because I liked to push the boundaries and see what I could get away with.

But unlike a lot of the parents of those other kids I saw, Mama never disciplined me because she was annoyed or impatient. Every whupping came with an explanation. "When I say be home at five, you be home at five." If I asked her why I had to be home at five, she'd say something like, "You don't ask me that after you're already late. You gonna do that to people when you're all grown up, break your word and then try to talk your way out of it?" There was a lesson every time, and she was never unfair. Strict, for sure, but not unfair. She was predictable, too. I can't remember a time I got a whupping that I didn't know for sure it was coming. So I pretty much learned early on about making choices and controlling my own life. Don't want a whupping? Don't play in that abandoned house when she told you not to. Very simple.

But, as I said, most important of all was the love. Growing up I never once doubted that my mother loved me, not for a second, even if I was mad at her or she at me. I never once felt that I had to perform or accomplish anything to "earn" her love. It was just there, always. I might do things that made her angry or sad or proud or happy, but nothing I did could affect how much she loved me. It was that, more than anything, that shaped who I eventually became and how I try to treat my own kids.

I learned a lot of lessons from Mama, about perseverance and keeping your eye on the big picture, about letting go of resentment that could drown you if you let it, and about picking your battles carefully. I learned not to nurse grudges, but to just do what needed to get done and move on. Having goals and working to achieve them wasn't just some tired cliché Mama read in a magazine somewhere. It was a way of life. Nothing got her dander up worse than hearing excuses for not accomplishing something. That was a lesson that would go to the very heart of how I behaved when I became a boxer. I've had more than my fair share of bad calls and bad luck, like being denied an Olympic gold medal and having a piece of my ear bitten off during a fight, but I like to think that I didn't dwell on them, that I didn't go crazy and complain, that I figured out how to get past them and move on. It was pretty much always the right way to have done it.

Sometimes later in life I'd have cause to wonder if maybe I should have been more forthcoming about a setback, like the time I lost a fight because my shoulders were badly injured. But there would have been no way to do it without it sounding like an excuse, so I just let it go. That caused me a lot of problems, including having my boxing license taken away, but you know what? Eventually, it turned out that keeping it to myself was the exact right thing to do, even though it didn't seem that way at the time. Without Mama having driven all those lessons home, I probably would have given in to the temptation to rant and rave about the unfairness of it all, and not only not accomplished anything by it but made it harder to correct the situation.

I'll give you the best example of how strongly Mama stuck to her principles, even when it cost her something to do it. Like I said, I started boxing when I was eight, and she hated it right from the start. She didn't like the idea of people beating each other up, no matter how controlled and "legitimate" it was. In the environment she'd grown up in, fighting was never a good thing. And what mother can stand the idea of somebody else trying to beat up on her kid? But she didn't stop me from doing it.

I didn't lose a fight until I was eleven, but when I did, to a kid named Cecil Collins, it devastated me. I came home and told Mama I was quitting the sport.

Big mistake. "You go on back in that ring and beat that boy!" she said. This from a woman who didn't want me boxing to begin with. "You don't quit until you do what you set out to do!"

So I went back and fought Cecil again. And again I lost. "Go back and fight him again!" Mama said.

I did, and this time I beat him. It felt wonderful, like I'd just climbed Mt. Everest or hit the winning home run in the World Series.

"Well, there you go!" Mama said, beaming. "Now you can quit!"

I didn't quit — there were some things even my wise mama didn't understand — but you get the point. If I hadn't gone back in there and tried again and again, I probably would have spent a large part of my life regretting it. But Mama knew how I'd feel once I won, all proud and happy. Her attitude wasn't, "See? I was right." It was, "Don't you feel good having finished what you started?" It was that feeling that shaped my later approach to life, not the fact that I'd done what Mama asked, and that's why the lesson was so valuable. It really came from me; Mama just pushed me to get there.

She had more to do with who I am than any other single person. Carter Morgan ran a close second, but by the time he got to me, my mother had already gotten the train headed down the track.

Mama was born Annie Laura Riggen in July 1928 in Atlanta. Her grandmother had a very large family that stuck together through the years, so even though Mama only had one brother and no sisters, there were always a lot of kids of various ages running around. It wasn't until her grandmother passed that Annie Laura realized that one of her sisters was really her aunt. They were the same age and nobody had bothered to explain things.

Mama got married to Joseph Holyfield when she was fifteen. She took his last name, and after they split up in 1953, she kept it. Shortly after that she moved the family to Atmore, Alabama, to take care of her mother, who'd had a mild stroke. Atmore, a mill town about forty miles northeast of Mobile and two miles from the Florida border, is where she met Isom Coley, a lumberjack who was a gentle man despite being incredibly strong physically. He and Mama made plans to marry, but somehow never got around to it. So when they had me in 1962, her last name was still Holyfield, and that's the name she passed on to me. Isom and Mama had a falling out before I was born so I grew up without him around, but later on he would come to all my fights and never had a problem with me having a name different from his.

As for a first name, Mama hadn't given it much thought before I was born. A friend of hers suggested "Evander" because she'd just read something somewhere about a hero of that name in Roman mythology. He was the son of Mercury, born in Greece with the name Euandros, which means "good man." He went to what is now Italy and founded a new city on the site where Rome would eventually rise, and became its king, Evander.

I hated both my names when I was little. They were unusual, and other kids were always cracking wise about them. One of my mother's girlfriends was called "Chubby," which my siblings thought was pretty hysterical. Some of them started calling me that because I was as skinny as a pencil. You'd think that "Chubby" was about the rottenest name you could hang on a little kid, but I didn't mind it at all. It sure beat "Evander." When I got to school I even insisted the teachers call me Chubby, and most of them did. It still comes back to haunt me once in a while: When I fought my first title bout as a professional, someone scrawled "Nail him, Chubby" on a blackboard in my locker room, and when the ABC cameras showed me warming up, there it was on national television, big as life. I had to explain it during the postfight interview.

Later in life I came to appreciate my real names more and more, especially as I began to discover my spiritual side. Evander might be an unusual name in the United States, but when I went to the Olympics in Greece in 2004, people loved to open up baby name books and show it to me. I also once visited Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, which was named for a prominent New York educator.

Our house at 81 King Street in Atmore is still standing today. It amazes me now to see it. When I was very young it seemed huge and fine, but that just shows you how oblivious a kid can be to hardship, because it was a run-down little nothing of a bungalow. But all my memories of the place are fond ones, at least if you don't count my dog getting shot.

My brother Bernard and I were the babies of the family, so while everyone else was either in school or working, we got to roam around the quiet neighborhood playing with other kids. This came with a small measure of guilt, though, because our older brothers and sisters didn't have time for that. They all worked, and worked hard, even the ones in school. Mama didn't plan for us to live in a shack forever and just accept whatever life handed us. She was a devout Christian who tried to live by the teachings of the Bible, and what that meant to her was that you had a duty to work hard and try to better yourself. It didn't matter what you did — Mama cooked in a restaurant — but as long as you were doing it, you had to do it well and with an eye toward making things better and better.

Grandma Pearlie Beatrice Hatton was confined to a wheelchair and wasn't able to work, but she had plenty of energy and found ways to burn it off. Most of the ways usually had something to do with disciplining Bernard and me, which she did often and with a lot of enthusiasm. She also did it with a lot of old-time religion. I didn't mind the whuppings so much; hardly a day went by that I didn't get scratched and bruised playing sports in empty lots so I got used to dealing with pain pretty early, and Grandma's idea of a "whupping" was usually just a sharp pinch on the arm. It was the religious lectures that drove me nuts, because while she was quoting from the Bible, I could hear other kids outside laughing and having a great time. Once in a while, without thinking, I'd say, "Couldn't you just go ahead and pinch me already so I can go back outside?" That usually backfired, because she'd say, "No!" and realize I really wasn't paying attention, which only brought on more fire and brimstone and sometimes the switch, which that "frail" little lady used like she'd trained for it. It got even worse after Bernard and I saw someone in the house late at night and Grandma decided that it was an angel come to bestow God's blessing on us. Once that happened, she got even more zealous about making sure we turned out right. But, just as with Mama, we knew Grandma loved us, and we loved her right back. Later in life I'd come to think a lot about those Bible lessons, too. I wonder if Grandma knew at the time that, even though a lot of what she tried to teach us had no immediate effect, it would pay great dividends later.

Mama moved all of us, including Grandma, back to Atlanta when I was four. We stayed with my eldest sister JoAnn for the first few months. She lived in her mother-in-law's house, and when all of us were added in, there were fourteen of us under one roof, but I don't have a recollection of anyone minding very much. By the time I went to kindergarten at E. P. Johnson Elementary School, we'd moved into our own place.

Bernard and I figured to pretty much pick up where we'd left off in Atmore and roam around the new neighborhood looking for any kind of games we could get into. But Grandma got real protective now that we were in the "big city" and subject to all kinds of new dangers and bad influences. The reins were on pretty tight and that meant even more disciplining from her, because when the choice came down to sticking to the front yard or risking getting our arms pinched if we wandered off, it was a pretty easy decision. Adding disobedience to our list of sins made Grandma even more zealous, which made her more protective and tightened the apron strings even further, which made Bernard and me even bigger sinners when we disobeyed her, and...you get the picture.

Before any of this could get out of hand, something happened, a little thing, that would change my life forever. It was one of those incidents that really gets you to wondering about things like destiny and fate and whether anything that happens to you can truly be called an accident.

Bernard and I were playing ball with a new friend in the neighborhood when he suddenly said he had to leave. We hadn't heard his mother call him, and it wasn't getting dark. Who leaves in the middle of playing ball? So I asked him where he was going.

"Boys Club," he said, and ran off down the street. Bernard figured that it was probably one of those clubs that kids form that has a grand total of four guys in it and a life span of about a week. But the next day when we met up with him again, he said, No, this was a real club, with a building and everything.

"What do you do there?" I asked him.

"Just stuff," he answered.

"What kind of stuff?"

"You know, like baseball, football, basketball, swimming, Ping Pong, handball..."

My eyes must have been popping out of my head, because he stopped after a while and asked if we'd want to go there.

Would I want to go to Disneyland and Heaven all rolled into one?

But it cost money. I don't remember the exact amount but it was only something like twenty-five cents a year. Still, as hard as everybody in the family was working and trying to save, it might not make for an easy sell at home.

It didn't, but not for the reason I thought. "Club?" Mama said, all suspicious. "What kind of club? I don't like the sound of that."

"It's where kids play ball," I insisted.

"Where is it?"

"I don't know."

"How do you get there?"

"Bus comes and picks you up."

"Who's watching?" Grandma wanted to know. "Who's making sure you little troublemakers aren't tempted by the devil?"

Good question. I had no idea, so I just started making stuff up. All the kids in the neighborhood belonged, it was the safest place in the whole country, there were ten adults in charge for every kid who walked through the door...if they'd let me go on I probably would have said that Jesus Christ himself had started the organization two thousand years ago. But I didn't get that far, because Mama and Grandma must have planted a chip in my brain when I was born that sent "He's lying" signals right to their radar. I'd barely gotten into my speech when I knew the jig was up.

Strangely, neither Mama or Grandma went off on me for making up such a load of trash, maybe because they thought there was something worth having a look at here or just because I was being so outrageous that nobody could take me seriously. Either way, Mama said she'd check around and see what's what.

I didn't wait for her to get around to it. I got the phone number of the Warren Memorial Boys Club, I brought our friend home to tell her about it, and I even got his mother on the phone and handed the receiver to Mama. She asked a lot of questions but still wasn't convinced, and neither was Grandma. This was turning into a major catastrophe, and a really cruel one, too. What was God thinking? How could he dangle something like that in front of two sports-crazy kids and then snatch it away like that? We maybe got into a lot of trouble, but come on: We weren't that bad.

The same day Mama talked to our friend's mother on the phone, he came by the house to see if we were going to the club with him that afternoon. Our faces must have told the whole story. He sat down on the porch and got glum with us, and then Grandma rolled up to the door in her wheelchair.

"What do you kids really do in that place?" she demanded, trying to give our friend a hard time.

"Depends on which days," he said.

"Yeah? Like what?"

"Well," he said, "on Saturdays we have Bible classes."

Man, you'd have thought Grandma had just seen the Burning Bush right there on the porch. Her jaw dropped open, her eyes went wide and she stayed that way so long I thought maybe she was having another stroke.

Then she found her voice. "Annie Laura!" she rasped, calling my mother. "Annie Laura!"

Mama came running. "What's the matter?"

Grandma pointed to our friend with a rolled-up magazine that shook in her hand. "This boy here, he says they got Bible classes down at that club!"

"Bible classes!" Mama exclaimed.

After making good and sure the startled kid wasn't just making it up, Mama told us we could give it a try. That afternoon Bernard and I went to the corner an hour before the bus was supposed to come and hopped around impatiently until it finally arrived.

You know how a lot of times in life you build something up in your mind so big and for so long it can't help but be a disappointment when it actually arrives? Well, this was just the opposite. When that bus pulled up in front of the Boys Club, it was all Bernard and I could do not to jump out the windows before it came to a stop. There were kids all over the place doing just what our friend had told us. There was football and baseball underway outside, and when we went through the front door there were more activities going on than our eyes could drink in: shuffleboard, pinball, pool, boys playing musical instruments, working on woodcraft projects...and none of it was cut-down kiddie stuff, either. The indoor swimming pool was a full twenty-five-meter job and the baseball diamond outside was also regulation and so was the football field. The basketball court was, too, but I noticed that one whole end of the gym was fenced off. At first I didn't pay much attention to it, but that would change later.

Bernard and I were so over the moon at all this stuff we didn't know where to start, so we signed up for everything. But before we were allowed to do anything, we got read the riot act. The Boys Club wasn't just a recreational free-for-all; it had rules. Hundreds of them, and the adults running the place were serious about all of them. Step out of line and there were a couple of ladies standing by who were ready to explain things to you all over again, in ways you couldn't help but understand. It was kind of like living with Grandma, except with much better toys.

My brother and I tried it all, but it didn't take me long to find myself getting drawn to football more and more. It was not only fun to play; I seemed to have a knack for it. I was very small for my age but, despite my size, I would win a bunch of MVP trophies over the next few years.

It wasn't just natural. I worked harder at the game than the other kids. There were men there who knew football inside and out, and knew how to teach it, too. Once they realized how eager I was to learn, they spent a lot of time with me, on things like fundamental skills and playmaking. I got double- and triple-covered by the opposing teams a lot so I often had to fight my way through bigger kids and try to be creative in how I was going to get the ball down the field. I didn't always win the MVP award, but I always got the "Most Hustle" trophy.

There were two reasons I was willing to work that hard. The first had to do with growing up without a father. The few times I asked Mama about my father, all she would say was, "You don't need to know. Just pray for him." So I did, every time I said my prayers.

Being the last of eight kids with no father and only one mother to go around, I must not have gotten as much attention as I needed because I found myself doing things to win approval from other dads. I always worked hard at whatever I did, and those other dads liked that. They used to say to their own sons, "How come you don't work as hard as Evander?" And the more they approved of me, the harder I worked. I liked that kind of attention. I thought that a lot of those fathers wished I was their son and that made me feel pretty good. As I got older, though, and started to accomplish some things that weren't dependent on anyone else's approval, I stopped going after it and I also pretty much forgot about my father, too.

The other reason for all that hard work was that I'd decided that I wanted to be a professional football player. Not just for any team, either, but the Atlanta Falcons. Mama was real big on having long-term goals and working to achieve them. She wasn't much impressed by hard work if all it did was get you through the day. You had to be headed somewhere, and I was. I took a lot of ribbing about my size at first — I only weighed sixty-five pounds when I joined the Boys Club — but that stopped pretty quick. Even young kids have enough street smarts to know that it's not very cool making fun of someone who just ran over you on the way to a touchdown. I was the club leader in sacks and solo tackles and was averaging over three hundred yards and four touchdowns a game. I had plenty of time to grow and put on weight.

One of the interesting things about the Boys Club is that a lot of the kids were black and poor, and nearly all of the adults who ran the place and put time and money into it were white and middle class. I didn't take much notice of that while I was there, but I'd have occasion to think about it later. There was a lot of racism in the South in the late 1960s, and a rising wave of black self-assertion as well. So there were white southerners who thought it shameful that other white people were investing so much in black kids, and there were black southerners who thought that black kids shouldn't be getting so much direction from whites. But because the club was such a sheltered, self-contained environment, I didn't have any interaction with people who were critical of its racial mix. I probably wouldn't have cared much anyway — I was just a kid having too much fun.

Thing is, white people have helped me all my life. A lot of black people have, too, of course, but because of how Mama raised me and because of the Boys Club, I never learned to make those distinctions, or religious ones, either. I've had a manager named Finkel, a promoter named Muhammad, a trainer named Duva, and everything in between. Makes no difference to me. All I want to know about somebody is, can he do the job and can I trust him. I've gotten some flak about that philosophy, which I'll tell you about later, but I ignored it all. Copyright © 2008 by Real Deal Events, LLC