Jerod Gaskins finds peace in boxing
Life could have been much different for Jerod Gaskins.
His boxing gloves could have easily been handcuffs and the boxing ring he spends countless hours in could have been a jail cell. It's a fate that has become all too common among troubled youths today, and it is one that Gaskins is thankful he turned away from.
His recent Golden Gloves championship in the 165 pound (middleweight) class is just another step in his attempt to turnaround a life that was riddled with mistakes that found him in front of a judge last November.
“Sometimes you get caught in a bad place at a bad time,” said Gaskins. “In my opinion, if I didn't have the things I have, I would probably be in jail or probably be close to death.”
During that time, Gaskins was arrested and subsequently expelled from Middletown High School on possession of marijuana charges. It was the second time Gaskins had been expelled from school, the other time coming when he was in seventh grade at Woodrow Wilson Middle School.
“I feel like the people that I was with, the kids that I hung around, they were a bad influence, but they weren't a big bad influence, but they had small little trickery things that slide in there sometimes,” said Gaskins. “It just built on me, but sports and boxing kept me away from that.”
One of Gaskins' biggest champions is his trainer, Johnny Callas. Callas is the Executive Director and Head Coach of the Charter Oak Amateur Boxing Academy and Youth Development Program Inc. Charter Oak helped build the Champions of Life program, which Callas is the director of. He is also a former All-American and Olympian boxer and World Championship Boxing referee.
The Champions of Life program is designed to work with boys and girls ages 8 to 18, helping them develop positive life skills, while preventing drug and alcohol abuse by making them leaders and teaching them to be goal oriented.
The Champions of Life Program operates in partnership with Ken Shamrock's Lions Den in Middletown. Nearly 60 youths are enrolled in the program and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, Callas and two other trainers work with the kids for nearly two hours, working them out physically while trying to build them up mentally.
Gaskins' mother, Patricia, can see how the Champions of Life Program, along with all of the other programs offered to her son have started to mold him into the young man she always hoped he would be. Jerod is now more attentive of his school work and more motivated to succeed.
“He's doing wonderful in school. He's doing better than I believe he ever has,” said Patricia. “He is turning into a young man. He's not a troubled child. He's had his mistakes, but he is doing a whole lot better now.”
As Jerod sits in the ring, intently looking at his hands, Callas begins the methodical task of massaging and then wrapping those hands in preparation for a fight. He spends the time discussing the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent and as Jerod absorbs the information, he begins to set his mind to the task in front of him.
This calm before the storm wasn't something that came at first for Jerod. The first time he stepped into a ring he was just plain scared, but knew it was an opportunity that he couldn't pass up. He lost that fight, but then he did something the next day that Callas says is the most important thing he could do.
“Jerod was one of the first kids through the door,” said Callas, who also has 21 years of experience with the Department of Children and Families. “Win, lose or draw, no matter how bad it is, you keep coming back. That's the sign of a true boxer and that's what I want him to do in life and that's what he is doing. That's why he's worth my investment, as well as my time and energy.”
History is one of Jerod's least favorite subjects, but when it comes to boxing, he has a keen understanding of the history of the sport and some of its fighters. His favorite is Cassius Clay and he is specific in saying the name.
Jerod relates best to a younger Muhammad Ali and feels he can connect with him as a boxer before he changed his name, though he understands and respects why the “Greatest of all-time” changed his name.
“[Gaskins] obviously has a real competitive edge, he's very strong willed and all of those things are key, not only in [the boxing ring], but in life and we're hoping he's going to transfer all of that over,” said Callas. “That's not the point of my program ... isn't to make professional fighters, it's to make winners in life, Champions of Life.”
While Jerod enjoys being in the ring and the sounds and sights of his friends and relatives cheering him on, he does wish his mother Patricia could make it to more fights. The fact is the thought of watching her son take punches doesn't sit well with her.
“I've watched a couple of them, but I don't like watching them,” said Patricia. “I hate to see my son get hit in the face or punched in the stomach.”
Despite her reservations about the physicality of the sport, Patricia sees this as another group of people trying to help Jerod grow into a better person. Her son has been in youth programs in Middletown since he was five years old and she can see how much he enjoys the programs he is involved in as does the rest of his family.
“He scared me for a minute, he really did, but now since he has gotten in this boxing and everything; I see a man now. He matured so much,” said Jerod's aunt, Diane Gaskins. “You can see the glow in his eyes.”
Jerod doesn't just dance in the ring, he enjoys dancing on stage, and that is something that he is able to take part in Thorough Energy dance team that practices every Tuesday and Thursday nights. He is even being looked at as one of the leaders of the group according to Izzi Greenberg, director of the North End Action Team or NEAT.
Greenberg has known Jerod since 2001 and can see how Jerod has matured. Greenberg says that both dancing and boxing have given Jerod something to motivate himself on a daily basis and allowed him to use any spare energy he has to do something positive.
The Champions of Life program has a unique draw to it as well, according to Justin Carbonella, who works in the Middletown Youth Services Bureau.
“The appeal of boxing is really doing something to draw a certain group of young people who were just not interested in doing anything else,” said Carbonella. “With boxing, it was just this natural draw for one reason or another, they were really excited about it.”
For now, Jerod will continue his schooling in an alternative education program in Middletown until he is eligible to return to Middletown High School, which could be as early as March. Until then, he is going to continue to work on his boxing and dancing techniques; two things that go hand in hand.
Jerod has had a checkered past, but every time he faltered, he saw how many people would come to his side and now he hopes that he can give back to them for each time they held him up.
“I feel like they're my back bone. If I have to bend they're there,” he said. “I appreciate all the time they've taken to help me, because I definitely know they have broken off on some of their schedules and their plans to help me out and I appreciate it to the maximum.”