By KRISTA JOHNSON, Montgomery Advertiser
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Even though there aren’t ropes around the wrestling mat, Tycorian Stephens knows when to push back against his boxing coach and circle out of what should be the corner as they practice, jab after jab.
Stephens is intimately aware of the boundaries of the mat that doubles as a ring, nestled in a small room that serves as a gym, situated off the McIntyre Community Center’s basketball court.
His coach, Montgomery Police Lt. John Mackey, started the gym nearly two years ago. His job as an officer is largely focused on sharing his story and his success with young people throughout the city, attending events, visiting schools, running mentoring groups and more.
When Stephens successfully bobs and weaves away from his blows, Mackey smiles.
He yells “let’s go” when Stephens doesn’t.
A sophomore at Robert E. Lee High School, Stephens first heard about the gym from a district attorney who he encountered after getting in trouble for fighting.
He didn’t consistently show up in the beginning, Mackey said, but is there for the three practices a week now. Last year, Stephens won the fight of the night at the Sugar Bert Boxing tournament.
“He sees now all too clear that doing it the right way and not taking short cuts in life is worth it,” Mackey said of the young man.
Another of his boxers, Jabez Poole, won this year’s tournament. He plans to become a police officer after graduating from G.W. Carver High this year.
That became the goal since meeting Mackey, Poole said: “He’s great motivation.”
Operating under the MPD boxing label, Mackey opened the gym to give Montgomery’s young men and women a cost-free, positive outlet.
Nestled within the Washington Park neighborhood where poverty engulfs many of its residents, Mackey is using his upbringing by a poor single mother in Washington, D.C., to show those who come to box that their current circumstances do not have to be their future.
To him, the goal is simple: “If I can reach one, then my job is fulfilled.”
When Mackey was growing up, D.C. was known as “the murder capital of the world.” ”We didn’t have grass in the front yard, we had dirt and we swept that dirt,” Mackey said. He bore witness to violence and drug use. When he was in fourth grade, his mother was sent to prison.
At a pivotal point in his life as he was preparing to move into junior high, he lost his only parent for 18 months, leaving he and his little brother in the care of a jobless stepfather.
He remembers wondering why he was dealt those cards.
“Why I was born without a silver spoon in my mouth? Why was I born without a father?” he asked.
But with time, Mackey said, he found that “God brought me through that for this job. … I can tell students,
‘Look, I’ve been through that too,’ and I can speak with conviction. It’s not the end.”
He tries to get students to believe they can achieve their dreams, because “if you can’t see yourself doing something, you won’t.”
At a recent MPS Youth Forum, he told his story to nearly 200 students, ending with a message: “Don’t tell me it can’t be done.”
At an event at Davis Elementary, Mackey spoke to third- through fifth-graders about why they shouldn’t join gangs. Multiple after-school fights were among the reasons that prompted the school’s teachers to request Mackey come speak.
When he asked the group how old you had to be to go to jail, the room erupted as most of the young students confidently answered 18. Mackey told them the juvenile facility has jailed children as young as nine.
“I’m telling you, if you get involved with wrongdoing now, it’s going to follow you the rest of your life,” Mackey said.
“Love yourself,” he advised them “Tell yourself in the mirror in the morning ‘I’m happy to be me. There’s no one else in the world like me.’ Be proud.”
Mackey is committed to helping children avoid the criminal system because “my life is not predicated on myself.”
“I found that it’s about making someone else’s life a little better,” he said.
When his job requires sending people to jail, Mackey said he tries to convey, “that even through that time, it can be a time of healing. You can be a better person — use it to change your way of thinking.”
“All of us deserve something and a lot of us, we didn’t get it,” he said.
His colleagues and other local leaders believe he is making a difference.
“I’m amazed by the number of kids that know him and come up to him and talk to him,” said MPD Sgt. Jarrett Williams about Mackey. “These kids, they trust him.”
Using his own past, Williams said Mackey is able to understand the struggles some Montgomery youth are experiencing, allowing him to “reach out to them in a way that some people can’t.”
Charles Lee, founder of local nonprofit That’s My Child, serves on the youth forum board with Mackey.
In his past life of selling drugs, Lee likely wouldn’t have had any positive interactions with Mackey, but today they are working together toward a common goal — brainstorming ways to help the community keep young people from being “locked up.”
“A lot of police officers, that’s just their job but he really has a heart for changing the community,” Lee said.
“He’s personally invested.”
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com