Compared to the standard “don’t do drugs” talk, Thursday’s guest speaker at Columbus Middle School was a knock-out.
Student-athletes from Columbus Municipal School District and nearby counties were addressed by WBC Heavyweight Champion of the World Deontay Wilder, and they listened.
Wilder grew up in Tuscaloosa. He told The Dispatch students in the Golden Triangle can relate to his background. His message was clear: If you’re going to do anything, give it your all.
The students managed to sit through a series of preambles given by various members of the Deontay Wilder celebration committee, a group of local leaders and boxing enthusiasts who helped get Wilder to speak Thursday.
Mayor Robert Smith welcomed Wilder with the keys to the city and formally declared it to be “Deontay Wilder Day” in Columbus. The master of ceremonies, WCBI’s Derek Rogers, led through a procession of brief speakers from the committee, including local boxing trainer and gym owner Oliver Miller, and local historian Rufus Ward, who detailed the champ’s rise.
The crowd heard from Shannon Gray, the man Wilder beat at the Trotter Convention Center in 2009 in his second professional. Gray, who overcame a personal battle with addiction to retake the boxing ring in 2001, drove from Kentucky to join Wilder in addressing the kids.
“You are the most important person in this room,” Gray told the crowd.
When Wilder spoke, his presence outsized his tall, lean frame. The mental image of heavyweight fighters is typically a Mike Tyson type bull, but Wilder is tall — roughly 6 foot, 7 inches — and a lean 215 pounds. He was dressed plainly, other than a large gold watch and long gold chain. Wilder was an active speaker, he comfortably moved around the gym and interacted with students as he spoke.
His casual demeanor and allure broke down the audience’s teenage determination to not think anything is cool. He spoke about always surrounding oneself with positive people, and was honest about the realties of life.
“Some of you guys are gonna make it, some of you won’t,” Wilder told the students.
His own road to success was not easy.
Wilder grew up in west Tuscaloosa with childhood dreams of playing football for the Crimson Tide. When he was in junior college, he had his first daughter at 19 and everything changed. He dropped out of school to work two jobs. His daughter was sick and medical expenses mounted. Wilder did not know what to do. A friend who had seem him fight suggested he try boxing.
Making time for everyone
The first time Wilder entered trainer Jay Deas’ gym in Tuscaloosa, he said he had a hallelujah moment. He has trained with Deas his whole career.
Wilder described himself as “silly” and showed it by running into the audience to stare down a brave high schooler who stared him down. That’s a story the young man will be able to tell for the rest of his life.
Wilder cared about impacting the kids. He went over his allotted time to speak. Afterward, he signed every single students autograph.
Deas has a longstanding relationship with Miller and Lowndes County tax assessor Greg Andrews. Deas said his gym would spar with Miller’s, and in 2005, when Alabama required an entertainment license to host fights, Deas began doing boxing shows with Miller in Columbus.
“When you come to a town, you want to involve the boxing community in that town,” Deas said. “When we really needed help, Columbus stepped up for us. That’s why we’re here today.”
A good story
The first American heavyweight champion since 2006, Wilder has managed to stay fairly under the radar in U.S. sporting celebrity. For ESPN senior producer Martin Khodabakhshian, the story is one the whole world should know. Khodabakhshian works with E:60, the video magazine program that seeks to tell the best stories in sports. He and his camera crew were filming at Columbus Middle School yesterday, it was their first day working with Wilder.
Khodabakhshian has been working in television for 17 years, at ESPN for 12 and Wilder is the first boxer he has covered. He said finding a subject so genuine and seemingly on the verge of being very famous is a special opportunity for storytelling.
“It seemed like not many people knew Deontay’s story,” Khodabakhshian said. “Already, with that hint of possible success, it’s interesting to see him give back to kids like him, signing every autograph when he doesn’t have to. It’s special.”
Wilder said the opportunity to talk to kids is important to him.
“I believe it’s important to get their attention while they’re young,” Wilder said after the event. “I call it giving them the tools to life, the tools to success. I give my kids tools to success as they get older. It starts when they’re young, building them a platform to make the right decisions.”
“When I leave my first thought is, ‘Did I get the right message off? Did I say enough?'” Wilder added.