Heart of Gold

By Laurena Marrone on December 15, 2015
Heart of Gold
“All my dreams are coming true,” says Conwell. “I’m just thankful now and overwhelmed.”

“Hitting that sack of dirt and pretending we were someone else was a way of making us forget how poor we were…”

Many people follow our athletes along their quest for a gold medal at the Olympics. However, few people realize that the coaches who volunteer countless hours, if not years, to the sport are also vying for a coveted spot on Team USA.

In San Antonio, Texas, a 10-year-old girl named Yemila Tobias will watch the Olympics next summer through the eyes of a boxer for the first time. She has only recently entered the sport. She may not understand all of the complexities associated with the long journey to the ring; not many do. What she does understand is the work, dedication and heart of the athletes and the unsung heroes in their corners.

Yemila’s coach, Jeffery Mays, is one of them. Like our athletes, he has Olympic dreams of his own.

A long-time trainer with an impressive amateur record of 98-11, Mays earned championship titles for the US Armed Forces in 1992 and 1993. As the West Point Boxing Team’s assistant coach from 2007-2011, he racked up a slew of national, regional and individual titles, including a Silver Medal at the Eastern Olympic Trials in 2007. Mays is currently a USA Boxing and AIBA certified coach, the National Coaching Coordinator for the National Collegiate Boxing Association, and the head coach at San Antonio’s East Side Boys and Girls Club.

In many ways, amateur boxing more clearly depicts the reality for most in the sport. There is no paycheck, few sponsors and very little recognition. Many athletes work full-time jobs while training and coaches endlessly volunteer their time, dollars, and resources. Their role extends far beyond the physical, often serving as fundraisers, therapists, public relations managers and surrogate parents.

I recently caught up with Mays from the Olympic Trials in Reno, Nevada, where he described the atmosphere as exciting. “Hopes and dreams are on the line,” he says.

Mays discovered his passion for boxing through television, and like many boxers, he found an escape through the sport. “As a boy growing up in Mississippi, I watched the greats on television: Ali, Foreman, Leonard, Hagler, Duran,” he says. “I remember my younger brother and me hanging a sack full of dirt in a tree, putting socks on our hands and just wailing away. Hitting that sack of dirt and pretending we were someone else was a way of making us forget how poor we were, if only for a little while.”

“Once I started boxing, no matter what problems I had, or what was going on in the world, boxing was my ‘happy place.’ Even though I coach now, the gym—and boxing—are still my ‘happy place.’”

As an amateur, Mays had Olympic hopes but didn’t have a coach or support system to keep him grounded and focused. A professional career was also in his sight, but a hand injury that prompted two surgeries made the risk too great. He turned his attention to coaching, and developed a holistic approach that nurtures the not only the physical, but also the emotional and mental condition of his fighters. “I have to make sure that the boxers have the basic and advanced boxing tools,” he says. “But I also have to make sure that they don’t crack under pressure, and that they are ready to deal with a long, grueling tournament.”

Last July, Mays was selected as one of three coaches to travel to Serbia with the USA men’s team for the Golden Gloves of Vojvodina. He had to quickly connect with boxers he had never worked with before, all of them relying on his expertise to get them one step closer to gold. “The main challenge to coaching in these competitions is not knowing what motivates the boxer, says Mays. “Not knowing how hard to push or how hard not to push. Not knowing their tendencies good and bad. We didn’t have a training camp, so we just tried to see what the boxers knew and tried to get a good emotional feel for them.”

Charles Conwell, a middleweight from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was one of the boxers who competed in Serbia under coach Mays. He won the Silver Medal in that competition. The two met again in Reno ahead of Conwell’s fight in the finals on Saturday evening; he was the only boxer from the Serbia trip to secure a spot in the winners’ bracket.

I asked coach Mays what stood out most about Conwell. “He is a very humble and confident young man,” he says. “He’s technically sound. He’s willing to learn. His hunger and passion for boxing are unsurpassed.”

Conwell, speaking with me before the fight, takes it all in stride. He’s as calm and centered today as he is in any other competition. “It’s all the same. It’s all boxing,” he says. “I’m prepared. I’m ready.”

The 18-year-old is quick to credit his coaching team, Charles Conwell Sr., Otha Jones and Roshawn Jones, for his success. When asked what he needs to do to bring home the gold he says, “Listen to my coaches. Follow their game plan. Stay disciplined.”

Conwell went on later that evening to defeat two-time national champion Leshawn Rodriquez from Medford, New York. In a post-fight interview with USA Boxing he said, “I’m just thankful for my team, my family, all of my supporters from Cleveland and everywhere else. I’m speechless right now… All my dreams are coming true, I’m just thankful right now and overwhelmed.”

Since 2007, when Mays led boxer Michael Benedosso to win the Silver Medal at the Olympic Trials, there have been significant changes in the sport. Women’s boxing made its debut as an Olympic sport in 2012. Scoring has changed to a 10-point system, and men no longer wear headgear.

It remains to be seen if the efforts to model Olympic boxing more closely to its professional counterpart will boost its popularity. For me, I’d love nothing more than to see a boxer get the same media attention as a swimmer or a gymnast. Whether that occurs or not, Mays will continue on his mission. “Most people will live their whole lives searching for a purpose, and to answer the age-old question, ‘Why are we here?’” he says thoughtfully. “To me, that question was answered a long time ago. I exist to make a difference, and I make that difference by doing what I love to do, coach boxing.”

“Some people seek fame or riches. Me, I don’t need any of that. The best feeling in the world is having a former boxer come up to me five or six years later and tell me, ‘Coach, you changed my life.’  That, you can’t put a dollar amount on.”

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  1. Laurena 06:31am, 12/18/2015

    Richard- Very proud to be your daughter. Yikes, I hope that’s my dad because I haven’t talked to him yet.
    Jayme- Thank you dear sister xoxox
    Shanti, mija- I miss you dearly. Thank you for taking the time to read, comment and support me. xoxox
    Clarence- If anyone on this comment board has not read your work, they have missed out on a deep knowledge and appreciation of this sport that I can only humbly nibble away at in this lifetime. You are an inspiration. And one heck of a friend, might I add. Thank you.

  2. Clarence George 03:50am, 12/18/2015

    Laurena is one of my favorites.  As a person, of course (well I remember the week Prince Rainier hosted us for a week at his palace), but also as a writer—each article a spoonful of caviar (Beluga, of course).

  3. Shanti 10:13pm, 12/17/2015

    Beautifully written and very inspirational. Your passion for the sport is evident in your writing. Great job!

  4. Jayme 06:27pm, 12/16/2015

    Inspirational!

  5. Richard 02:41pm, 12/16/2015

    Great article, keep them coming!

  6. Laurena 10:34am, 12/16/2015

    Irish Frankie- You hit the nail on the head! Thank you so very much.
    Pete the Sneak- Beautiful comment that I quickly shared with Coach Mays. Couldn’t agree more. Thank you for your wonderful compliment.
    Andrew- Coming from a man with such heart, this means a great deal. Thank you.
    DavidT- You’re “awesome!” Guess my trip to the Eastside was inspirational??
    Juan-You know.
    **Thank you all!**

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:17am, 12/16/2015

    Laurena-Looks like you’re doing what you love to do too!

  8. Pete The Sneak 05:12am, 12/16/2015

    ““Some people seek fame or riches. Me, I don’t need any of that. The best feeling in the world is having a former boxer come up to me five or six years later and tell me, ‘Coach, you changed my life.’  That, you can’t put a dollar amount on.”...This quote should be placed in every boxing trainer’s gym/dressing room globally…Laurena, geez man, another winner of an article. Loved it! Please keep them coming…Peace.

  9. andrew 04:29am, 12/16/2015

    I was thrilled to wake up to read this amazing article. I can feel the heartfelt passion put in to writing and following these incredible people.After reading it a second time…... I feel I can relate more clearly the plight these unique people go through to achieve their goals in and out of the ring. GREAT JOB AND KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.

  10. DavidT 10:58pm, 12/15/2015

    Great article.  I can relate to watching those great boxers as a kid.  Add Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.

  11. Juan 09:03pm, 12/15/2015

    Great article!!!!

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