Headbangers Boxing Team offers DC kids a chance

Tucked away a few blocks from Nationals Stadium in SE Washington stands abrick building. Most passers-by are unaware that the D.C. Parks and Recreation sponsored youth boxing gym, Headbangers Boxing Team, even exists. But for attendees, the gym is much more than a place for exercise; it’s a sanctuary for learning life’s lessons beyond the city streets.

Headbangers is a free-admission boxing gym overseen by three staff members and volunteers. The only cost to its members is a $50 annual fee to Potomac Valley Association, the local governing body for amateur boxing. Coaches Barry Hunter, Patrick Harris and manager Marshall Cunningham grew up in  tough SE Washington neighborhoods.

Recalling some of the past and present members of the team, manager Cunningham who has been with the gym for more than 30 years, grins and says, “We’ve had kids who’ve had some issues.”

Located in Ward 6 in an area that, until the construction of Nationals Stadium, had been overlooked in DC’s revitalization efforts, there is no shortage of young men and women in need of the types of programs the staff once wished they had access to as youngsters.

Take professional boxer Anthony Peterson, for example. At age 27 with a professional record of 31-1 along with a Golden Gloves championship and a Junior Olympic tournament victory, Peterson  is a standout. Perhaps the only other boxer at the gym who rivals his achievements is his older brother, Lamont, who, in front of a sold-out hometown crowd at the Washington Convention Center this past December, became the WBO and IBF Light Welterweight titleholder by defeating former champ Amir Khan. And though the brothers’ fighting talent is indisputably phenomenal, the fact that they ever stepped into the ring is substantially more impressive.

By the time Anthony and Lamont were ages 10 and 12 respectively, they had been through many spates of homelessness and had learned to cope with living on the streets. Shortly after finding a more stable living situation at a foster home, the brothers were welcomed to the gym and introduced to the staff.

The Petersons immediately took to the sport and the disciplined stability it required; a stability that had been completely foreign to the pair during their impressionable early childhood. And to help ensure that the duo continued in the right direction, they forged the foundations of enduring relationships with role models and peers that had previously been absent in their lives.

Headbangers offers more than just boxing, but life lessons. (Courtesy photo.)

Of  coach Barry Hunter, Anthony Peterson remarks, “Barry is more than a role model, more than a friend … he’s a father.”

Peterson credits Barry and the Headbangers staff with teaching him everything positive that he knows.

When he and Lamont were children, Barry used to meet them on his lunch breaks and provide food and other essentials that were out of reach.

When contemplating the challenges within the ring compared to those beyond, Peterson said,  “boxing can’t hold a candle to life … you can always get up from a punch but not from a life blow,” not without a helping hand.

The vast majority of team members are young amateurs, their stories and transformations are no less exceptional. On par with the Petersons, the gym serves all of its members as a meeting place for maturation individually and athletically among those the group almost unanimously describes as a “second family.”

The type of life-altering changes that the Headbangers Team offers its members is too seldom replicated in DC.  Youth programs have been especially vulnerable and targets of embezzlers in the past.

For example:

  • Former DC Council member Harry Thomas Jr. was sentenced to 38 months in prison in May for embezzling more than $350,000 from the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. The Trust Corp. is touted as “the primary resource for developing partnerships that expand and improve services and opportunities for children and youth, especially during their time out of school.”
  • Nearly two years ago Keely Thompson, former professional boxer and executive of Keely’s District Boxing and Youth Center, was charged with pocketing about $500,000 of city and federal funding. His gym was located in the NW neighborhood of Columbia Heights and had a mission plan similar to that of Headbangers’ of providing “at-risk” youth with positive alternatives.

The biggest loser in these cases always ist he most vulnerable – youth at risk. But Headbangers continues to fight on for the kids. For those who aren’t in the fortunate position of being engulfed by caring and responsible mentors, Headbangers’ doors are always open, Cunningham says.

“In the old days it took a village to raise a kid … that’s basically our concept,” he says.