The boxing program at the Friedberg JCC is the undisputed heavyweight champion in Oceanside, and has taken off during the past year under the leadership of North Merrick resident Steve Solomon.
The JCC offers three boxing classes — a class for those with special needs, another for those with Parkinson’s disease and a third for the general population. When the JCC was looking for a boxing coach, Solomon was recommended for the position after he worked with a family’s autistic child.
Laura Santelli, who moved to Oceanside from New Orleans this year, brings her son, Nick, a 27-year-old with special needs, to the JCC to box every week.
“I thought he would like it, and he loves it,” Santelli said. “My friend is an ex-boxer, and she would box with (Nick) for exercise, so he liked it.”
Solomon, 64, boasts many years of boxing on Long Island, dating back to when he was a student at East Meadow High School. He often visited Echo Park, in West Hempstead, to take part in a boxing program run by the late Arthur Mercante Sr., one of the sport’s best-known referees, who worked the first heavyweight championship between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, as well as other title bouts.
Mercante took Solomon to the New York Sports Club for charity events that Mercante organized. From there, Solomon got involved in the Golden Gloves, which promotes amateur boxing around the county, and other big tournaments. Even in his 60s, he still competes in masters amateur tournaments.
Solomon began teaching kids to box years ago, at the Nassau Police Boys Club, which is now known as the Police Activity League, or PAL.
Solomon attended the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University for his undergraduate studies, studying health and phys. ed., and did postgraduate work at Adelphi University. He began teaching in 1989, in the Meadowbrook Alternative Program in the Bellmore-Merrick Central School District. Then he was hired as a part-time health teacher at Hewlett High School, where he built a weight training gym for students.
After working in several districts, including Garden City’s St. Paul’s School and Holy Child Academy in Westbury, Solomon settled in the Uniondale School District for 30 years, mainly teaching special-needs students health and phys. ed. He said he has always had a passion for helping the special-needs and disabled populations, and believes that grew out of watching his aunt cope with multiple sclerosis. The Uniondale High School principal knew of Solomon’s boxing background, and suggested that he create a boxing program for the school’s special needs students.
“Nobody cared about those kids,” Solomon recalled. “They had nothing for those kids to do, and it was unfair to them. I told the athletic director, ‘I should work with these kids.’”
Solomon introduced boxing to middle school gym classes, and built a boxing gym at the school. He organized boxing tournaments for the school as well as charities, to help them raise money for organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Solomon also took special-needs kids to the Empire State Games, Olympic-style competitions for amateur athletes from around the state.
The success of his programs motivated Solomon to reach out to other kids, who were troubled and getting involved in street gangs. For Solomon, it was about giving children a chance to turn their lives around.
“I told the school, ‘Give me all the kids you give up on,’” Solomon said. “‘You’ve got violence in the hall every day. I’m going to stop that.’ I took it as a challenge. I knew kids were less likely to fight if they got more confident in themselves. The school never could understand that until I gave these kids a chance. I have a lot of faith, and if you do the right thing, God shines a light on you.”
Solomon ran an after-school boxing program for all students and a program for those with special needs during the day.
He retired from teaching five years ago, and his success has now transitioned smoothly to the JCC. Cyrus Vaseghi has been bringing his son, Christian, to one of Solomon’s boxing classes for the past six months, and praised the program.
“It’s not about fighting,” Vaseghi said. “It’s about exercise.”
Solomon brings his enthusiasm for the sport home with him, and periodically hosts a backyard boxing party at his home in North Merrick with retired fighters. Boxing, he said, has helped him immensely throughout his life, and he still has students who thank him for his teaching, even years after he retired from Uniondale.
When it comes to teaching boxing to disabled or special needs people, Solomon said, adapting is everything. “They may call them special, but they just have a disability, and you just work around it,” he said. “Some kids can’t move that well. I’ve had kids in wheelchairs. I work around it. Parkinson’s, work around it. I found with kids, it’s best I try to be the same way, and not let them think there's something different about them, ’cause they’re not different.”