Boxing gives Q-C's Joe Perez a second chance to win at life - Quad Cities Online
Boxing gives Q-C's Joe Perez a second chance to win at life
By Stephen Elliott,

Photo: John Greenwood
Steve VanDeWalle, left, was trained to box by Bill Sangster, now 89 years old. Steve is now training twenty year-old Joe Perez to be an Olympic contender. A passing of the torch in teaching boxing to the younger generation has been vital to all three.

Photo: John Greenwood
Twenty year-old Joe Perez works out at a local gym with his trainer, Steve VanDeWalle.

EAST MOLINE -- The three men share a dream, their stories intertwining with hope, despair, love and redemption.

The oldest, Bill Sangster, 89, is dying.

For him, the dream -- representing the United States as an Olympic boxer -- ended in 1948, when he fought and lost in the Olympic Trials.

He passed the goal to Steve VanDeWalle, now 35.

For Mr. VanDeWalle, the dream came crashing down in 1994 when a car accident wrecked his knees. Although he went on to be all-Army and all-Armed Forces boxing champion, the constant, severe pain in his knees forced retirement, eliminating his hopes of making the 2000 Olympic team.

He's passing the dream to Joe Perez, 20, hoping that the slender young man with the fast hands will overcome his troubled teen years and achieve the goal that eluded the two older men.

For Mr. Perez, the dream is alive. He trains at Fort Carson, Colo., with the Army's World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). He is aiming for the 2012 Olympics, an impossible goal had it not been for Mr. VanDeWalle, who took the loyalty and love Mr. Sangster gave him as a boy and passed it on to Mr. Perez.

Bill Sangster

When he was a 14-year-old kid, Bill Sangster didn't have a pair of boxing trunks or shoes. But he wanted to box so badly he sometimes cried when listening to Catholic Youth Organization tournament bouts on the radio.

He got his chances, and by 1938 -- when at age 16, he moved to East Moline from Marengo, Ill. -- he already had won the Rockford Golden Gloves.

In 1941, he wanted to travel to the West Coast and turn pro. But the war came, and Mr. Sangster found himself in the Army in France. A chaplain asked him to fight a bout for the troops.

"The chaplain said, 'Hey, I want you to fight tonight,'" Mr. Sangster said back in 2002. "I said, 'Fight tonight?' I hadn't fought in three years. 'What you talkin' bout', fight tonight?'

"So, the chaplain was talking and talking, and I kept looking at the chow line down there, and I said, 'Man, oh man, I better give this guy some answers.' I said, 'OK, I'll fight,' so I could get something to eat."

The soldier he fought, from Lincoln, Neb., turned out to be about 25 pounds heavier than the 130-pound, raw-boned Mr. Sangster.

It didn't make a difference.

"I hit him and boom!" Mr. Sangster said. "I dropped him right off the bat. He couldn't understand a little guy like me doing that."

After losing in the '48 Olympic Trials in Toledo, Ohio, Mr. Sangster quit throwing punches and became a boxing teacher in the Quad-Cities. When not working in a factory, he was teaching many a boy how to jab, how to block and punch, how to feint, how to outsmart opponents.

"He'd do anything for those kids," said longtime Quad-Cities boxing trainer Jeff Perez.

Mr. Perez remembers Mr. Sangster buying kids jackets, sometimes Christmas presents. He bought them hamburgers after their bouts. He told them about life and how to live it right and be smart. Always be smart. Always think.

Even as glaucoma robbed Mr. Sangster of eyesight, he found a way to help those kids. He took the city bus to the gym to give boys advice. His daughter, Martina, moved in with her father at his East Moline home to care for him.

She said many men he taught in the ring as youngsters remember her father. When they see the two together, they tell Martina how Bill changed their lives in some way.

"You have to believe in yourself," he would tell them. "You have to believe you can make it."

Steve VanDeWalle, one boy who listened

"Bill taught me to be a man," said Mr. VanDeWalle, now married with four children and a teacher at Thurgood Marshall School in Rock Island. "All those things you learn in the ring, they carry over into life."

Mr. VanDeWalle has been boxing since he was 7 years old, starting at the East Moline gym run by the late Bert Viscioni. There, Mr. Sangster was called in to work with the little boy.

"Bill must have seen a spark in me," Mr. VanDeWalle says. "He became my trainer and focused on me."

Mr. Sangster traveled with the youngster to tournaments, hitting the road more than 100 times with him, instilling his knowledge about fighting and about life.

"He said I'm like his other son," Mr. VanDeWalle said.

At age 17, Mr. VanDeWalle fought in the 1992 Olympic Trials in Marquette, Mich., but lost. He was being groomed for the 1996 trials when the car wreck did in his knees. At the time, he was one of the top amateurs in the country.

When Mr. VanDeWalle's Olympic dreams ended, he finished his stint in the Army and came home in 2000. He earned his teaching degree, and started a makeshift gym in a church basement in Moline.

He invited Mr. Sangster to come help him.

Mr. VanDeWalle's first pupil was 8-year-old Joe Perez.

Joe Perez, a man with a second chance

It hit him like a punch in the mouth as he sat alone in a Rock Island County Jail cell, knowing he had blown it.

It was June 9, 2009, and 19-year-old Joe Perez had let down the few people who still believed in him.

He thought of his father, Gregorio, who came from Guanajuato, Mexico, where as a teenager, he stooped and labored in the hard sun of the Mexican fields, planting and picking vegetables.

He thought of his mother, Maria, and how she and Gregorio came to America to find a better life, to raise a family, to share in the American dream. His parents have worked at Tyson Foods at Joslin ever since, cutting meat, sacrificing for their three children.

Joe Perez was born in Tyler, Texas, in 1990, and moved with his family to the Quad-Cities as a child.

The polite young boy, who started boxing out of the Riverside United Methodist Church basement when he was 8 years old, could steer himself deftly in the ring, winning amateur boxing titles throughout the United States.

His troubles started outside the roped square. A combination of street fights, street gangs, vandalism and drugs brought him heartache and more trouble.

His life took on the appearance of a roomful of chairs turned upside down, a roomful of lies and regrets, of mistakes he saw clearly now, at 19, alone with his thoughts in a jail cell. The sage advice of Mr. VandeWalle, of Mr. Sangster, faded away into a past life.

"Um, the last time I was locked up, you know, I saw my dreams were going out the window," he says. "I got down on my knees and made a little cross out of toilet paper in the jail cell.

"I hung it up. I got down on my knees again. And I prayed. I asked God for forgiveness. Keep me safe, God. Let there be another day I can see my family again.

"If there's a door you can open up for me and get me out of this mess, then show me."

He got that second chance.

The most recent charge against Mr. Perez, unlawful delivery of cannabis, was dismissed but can be reinstated.

Rock Island County State's Attorney Jeff Terronez has seen a lot of young men like Joe Perez, most of them going in the wrong direction.

Mr. Terronez said Mr. VanDeWalle helped convince him to give Mr. Perez another chance.

"I trust Steve," Mr. Terronez said. "I trust his opinion. It's something I decided to take faith in. Hopefully, it works out for Joe as time goes on."

"I always have an element of doubt," Mr. Terronez said. "Unfortunately, with the job I do, I tend not to have too much trust and faith in people turning themselves around.

"The way I look at it, I did for Joe what I said I would if he stuck to his end of the bargain. If Joe screws up, he's going to prison. Period."

So far, Mr. Perez is taking his opportunity and running with it.

"I have a lot of faith," he says. "(God) gave me this opportunity. I thank him every night for the life he has given me.

"Right now, my friends are locked up. That could have been me, too."

Trying to make it

Joe Perez trains out of Fort Carson, Colo., fighting for the Army's World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). His coach, Basheer Abdullah, a three-time U.S. Olympic coach, was head coach of the 2004 Olympic boxing team that fought in Athens, Greece.

Coach Abdullah had trained Mr. VandeWalle back in the 1990s, before Mr. VanDeWalle's injuries forced his retirement. Mr. VanDeWalle kept in contact and recommended Joe Perez for the program.

"Steve's influence saved Joe's life," Coach Abdullah said via e-mail. "I believe that Steve's values, mentorship, patience, and guidance have led Joe in the right direction.

"Joe had reached a roadblock in his life, and Steve pushed very hard to get Joe to join the Army."

Because of Mr. Perez' criminal record, though, he isn't able to join the Army. Coach Abdullah said he is trying to get his fighter into the service on a waiver. Meanwhile, Mr. Perez trains with the team, getting up at 6 a.m. and finishing at 4 p.m. From 5 to 11 p.m., he works at Lowe's and stays with one of the Olympic coaches.

There's little time for anything but boxing.

"He has a traditional Mexican boxing style of being aggressive and fundamentally sound," Coach Abdullah said. "He's a very special young man in my life, and I want to see him be successful in the field he chooses to proceed in.

"He is incredibly smart and can make the right decisions."

One last time together?

On July 8, Mr. VanDeWalle and I carried the old man, dressed in an olive-green suit and black cap, into the ranch-style home of East Moline residents Gregorio and Maria Perez, where son Joe is visiting from Colorado.

Bill Sangster is blind now. He suffers from Alzheimer's disease. He is weak. Whether he hears us, whether he knows what's going on, is uncertain.

We put Mr. Sangster on a couch.

All three men were ready for photographer John Greenwood as he attempted to huddle them together for a picture. Mr. Sangster's head dropped, and he fell asleep without warning. His daughter and granddaughter, Martina Sangster and Martina Sangster II, also of East Moline, attempted to wake him.

"Wake up, Grandpa! Wake up!" the granddaughter shouted as she gently shook him.

Mr. Sangster's unseeing eyes opened. He said something inaudible, then mutters he is all right. Slightly agitated, he made others in the room smile at his sudden obstinance.

"It's been slowly progressing," said Mr. Sangster's daughter, Martina, of the Alzheimer's. "The last two years have been really working on him hard."

Mr. VanDeWalle and Mr. Perez posed with the old man. Mr. VanDeWalle hugged his former trainer and whispered in Mr. Sangster's ear, "I love you, Bill."

"Don't say can't do"

We lifted Mr. Sangster from the couch after the pictures were taken. Maria Perez gave him a drink of water. He held the glass to his lips and paused, as if the memory of how to drink water eluded him.

We asked him if he could make it to the front door before we carried him to the van. Like a fighter who won't quit, he surprised us with his sudden clarity.

"Don't say can't do," he whispered.

Mr. VanDeWalle smiled at the old line Mr. Sangster always offered when things got tough.

He tries to instill the same attitude in Mr. Perez.

"I remember what Steve always told me: 'Never quit, never give up. Anything you do in life. Not just boxing,'" Mr. Perez said.

"I feel like my story can change a few guys at least," he says. "Or inspire, motivate them. I believe anything is possible.

"I think my biggest accomplishment is not winning championships. I became a better person. I've changed my life around to be a better person and make my family proud.

"My parents are proud of me now."

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