Johnny 'Coach' Callas: Changing Lives Through Boxing
COBA boxing trainer Johnny Callas speaks about the role of the gym in the community and the new space that COBA will move into in the fall.
Johnny 'Coach' Callas has turned around many lives through boxing
HARTFORD — Coach, father figure, mentor. Those are a few of the titles that Johnny "Coach" Callas has collected over the past 28 years.
"I made a gut decision to go into boxing and I made a gut decision to go into social work," Callas said. "They were the two best decisions in my life."
Those gut decisions created COBA (Charter Oak Boxing Association & Youth Development Program). Callas is the CEO/founder of COBA, boxing coach at Trinity College and is a 25-year veteran with the DCF (Department of Children and Families). He is also a 2013 Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, a referee and has a master's in social work.
Callas is dedicated to teaching high-risk inner-city kids how to use boxing as a vehicle to become champions in life. Lifelong friend and former professional boxer John "Iceman" Scully knows what Callas has meant to so many and nominated him for the "Hometown Hero" series.
"There are a lot of kids who might have gone the other way if it wasn't for him," Scully said. "He's the epitome of what this article is about."
For the past 17 years, COBA has been nomadic. Callas has been fighting to reopen COBA in Hartford after it was leveled along with the Charter Oak projects in 1999.
When the gym was shut down Callas told the housing authority, "I promise you, whether you support us now or not, I will have the best, most memorable youth development program this city has ever seen."
After bouncing around over the Hartford area, he got the chance fulfill his promise. Two years ago Callas began renovating COBA's new home on Pope Park highway.
"Tells you a lot," said current COBA board member Sammy Vega. "If he wanted to, he could have moved to a different town and opened up a gym, but he said the city of Hartford needs it most. That's a hero, he took a chance, it took a long time and now he's home."
Vega trained at COBA's rival gym and met Callas through Scully. Vega is now the director of Mega Education, a reward-based incentive program designed to keep kids in school. He has teamed with Callas to provide an education center, equipped with computers and desks, at the new gym.
Vega's program is one of the tools Callas utilizes to help the youth of Hartford.
"By any means necessary we are going to keep these kids alive, off drugs, out of gangs and in school," Callas said.
His commitment to youth development doesn't stop in the ring. His services have brought him into tough family situations, juvenile court and even in the delivery room for one of his female boxers.
"He went to my high school graduation" Raymond Cardona, an original COBA member, said. "I don't even know how to put into words what Coach has done for my life and my family."
After COBA, Cardona served as a sergeant with the U.S. Marines and is now a department of corrections officer. He said since he met Callas, Cardona has felt like member of his family.
One of the newest members of Callas' family is 13-year-old Isaiah Lopez. His mom, Heidi Lopez, said she has noticed what lengths Callas will go to help her son.
"I think he's amazing, Coach Callas is like a father that my son doesn't have," Lopez said. "We can confide in him, he's just always there."
Before COBA, Isaiah had never left Hartford. Because of amateur boxing tournaments Isaiah has seen parts of the country that were not possible before meeting Callas.
"It's been awesome," Isaiah said. "[Coach Callas] takes me to see the biggest attractions every time we go places. He took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame when we were in New York and he also took me to Lake Placid."
Callas opens up the world to his boxers. His goal is for them to use the lessons to give back to the city.
Raul De Jesus Jr. joined COBA in 1996. He said Coach sold them on the notion that Hartford was home and that they are part of the recovery process.
"He allowed me to see Hartford 10 years down the road," De Jesus said. "I couldn't even see past tomorrow because I didn't know where I was going to eat or make money. He has the ability to create leaders and ones that will stay here and help out the city."
De Jesus became a leader almost immediately upon graduating COBA. He was the youngest person to run for mayor in Hartford and served on the city council when he was 24.
Callas says the new gym wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the help of former boxers. De Jesus was on the city council when they approved the new COBA gym as a line item in the city budget. Cardona stays in touch with Callas and helps coach when he can.
"Now that I'm grown, along with Robert Ford [Deputy Police Chief of Hartford] and Sammy Vega, we can finally step in as a coach figure," said Cardona. "So now he can venture out and do the things he's always wanted to do."
With his former boxers helping to run the academy, Callas now has the opportunity to pursue other interests such as being a professional referee.Copyright © 2016, Hartford Courant