Last year, Joe Higgins, of Freeport, prepped his young athletes at the Freeport Police Athletic League’s boxing program for the 2020 MSG Ring Masters Champions.
Three local 22-year-old fighters were ready to take on the challenge, but the coronavirus pandemic shut down not only the championship tournament, but also the PAL’s gym, in Northeast Park, for half a year.
The closures put a strain on the gym, and although it was able to reopen in September, it could only accommodate a handful of athletes at a time because of state regulations.
Another major change came in December, when Higgins, a Marine Corps veteran, took a job training participants in the Marine Expeditionary Force’s Martial Arts Center of Excellence boxing program at Camp Lejuene in North Carolina.
Despite landing his dream job, Higgins still returns to Freeport regularly to look after the gym as part of a promise he made to Patrick Day, a champion boxer who came up through the ranks in the PAL but who died after suffering a traumatic blow to the head during a match in 2019.
Now, nearly a year and a half after Day’s death, Higgins is reinventing the PAL’s gym as a center for youth boxing and mentoring. He said he hoped to start the remodeling process this summer.
“It’ll become a place not just to learn boxing, but also to tutor kids and provide career planning services,” Higgins said. “Patrick always believed this place could be more, and I owe it to him to make that happen.”
Even through the pandemic, Day’s spirit is alive and well at the gym, with a poster of the boxing star overlooking the young people who come from across Long Island to train and hone their fighting skills. Day was 14 when he joined the gym under Higgins, his neighbor, now 60. Higgins, a retired New York City firefighter, had years of experience as an amateur boxer and saw promise in Day.
By 2012, Day rose to prominence as a boxer, winning the New York Daily News Golden Glove championship, becoming the Sugar Ray Robinson Outstanding Athlete of the Year and the USA Boxing national champion and serving as an alternate for Team USA at the London Olympic Games that year.
Day’s professional boxing career began in 2013, and four years later, he defeated Eric Walker for the WBC Continental Americas welterweight title. With a major title in hand, Higgins said he saw Day become a role model to the young men at the PAL gym.
“He loved to give out advice,” Alan Teemer, 23, said, “and not just about boxing, but about life in general.”
“We all learned a lot from him,” Famous Wilson, 23, added. “He was my main sparring partner and really pushed me to win. No one could fight like him.”
Character building, Higgins said, is at the heart of the Freeport PAL boxing program, which started 26 years ago as an outlet for teenagers and young adults. Day took that mission to heart, helping Higgins mentor young men, some of whom got into fights after school.
Day’s commitment to the others motivated Higgins to expand the boxing program, even as he is busy working nearly 600 miles away.
Higgins said he had the opportunity to take the coaching job at Camp Lejeune, where he himself trained when he was 17, back in 2012, when he was training Day. After Day won the Golden Glove championship, he told Higgins that he should take the job, but Higgins refused in order to continue training his pupil.
“He had just won the championship, but he was busy thinking about me and what would be best for me,” Higgins recalled. “Patrick only thought about others, and I have to make his dream a reality. I owe it to him and the Freeport PAL. They made me a better person.”
Fellow coach Sal Giovanniello, who took over at the gym after Higgins left, said reinvention of the gym into a mentoring center would serve as “the light at the end of a tunnel” to a harsh winter.
Because of state regulations, the small gym has had to leave its doors open to allow for proper ventilation throughout the cold winter, and because of social-distancing protocols, boxers there have been unable to spar with each other.
“Without sparring, it’s hard for the kids to set goals or get motivated,” Giovanniello said. “It can get gloomy. Some of the kids still haven’t come back.”
When the gym reopens at a higher capacity next week, Giovanniello said he hopes more boxers will return, and he and Higgins believe that number will continue to increase after the gym is remodeled.
“The gym is a jewel of the community,” Giovanniello said. “The future is going to be bright and exciting here.”
As Higgins preps for the remodeling, his daughter and son-in-law plan to launch a website dedicated to the project this spring as they gather sponsors and volunteers.
The hope is to sign up as many as 100 young people signed up for the center’s boxing, mentorship and career building programs.
Those interested in joining can visit the gym at Northeast Park, on Parsons Avenue, to learn more.