Emmett Yanez, the 90-year-old coach at the White Bear Lake Boxing Club, found an attentive pupil in 19-year-old Robert Brant, who has taken the lessons learned all the way to nationals.
Right away, Brant knew he had found a kindred spirit in a man 71 years his senior. Yanez, 90, taught him the technique that has helped him win multiple national championships, including the USA Boxing light-heavyweight title he will defend next week in Colorado Springs. In their three years together, though, the young boxer has come to treasure him more for the greater gift his coach has given: reinforcing Brant's image of the man he wants to be.
An Army paratrooper in World War II, Yanez fought in some of Europe's bloodiest battles before coming home to St. Paul to resume his own brief boxing career. He soon discovered his true calling when he began coaching kids in various sports. Brant is part of a continuum that has spanned 50 years, and like many others Yanez has taught, he already is helping his coach pass his lessons to the next generation.
"He's not just a boxing coach, and that's what really drew me to him,'' said Brant, 19. "Emmett coaches people in life just as much or more as he does in boxing.
"He's always preached positive things to me, like being respectful and working hard. Those little things he talks about are the things that get you far in life. And he's always been there for me, in any situation. He's become a member of my family.''
Yanez admires Brant just as much. Of the hundreds of young people he's guided, he said few have possessed the ability, discipline and drive that have put the Oakdale resident on track for the 2012 Olympics.
"Robert is one of the best I've ever coached, because he's got the determination,'' Yanez said. "To be successful, you have to be strong. You have to know what you want to do. I'm very proud of Robert for being who he is. He's got the heart.''
• • •
That first meeting between Brant and Yanez has become an oft-repeated story that gives insight into both of them. In the cramped, dimly lit office at the White Bear Lake gym, Yanez showed Brant a file cabinet stuffed with registration forms from hundreds of other aspiring fighters. Then he nodded toward the few who actually showed up to work out. It was up to Brant, he said, to choose the path he wanted to follow.
Brant returned the next day. Yanez became his primary coach, assisted by Larry Goodman of the White Bear Lake club and Sankara Frazier of Minneapolis' Circle of Discipline gym.
Brant learned how to punch by beating up a dummy named Bob, with Yanez parked right behind his shoulder giving him instructions. His speed, natural skill and swift learning curve allowed him to advance quickly. In 2008 -- one year after he took up the sport -- Brant won the under-19 national championship at 178 pounds. He captured the senior national championship last summer and added a national Golden Gloves title in May.
The easygoing Brant admitted that Yanez had to help him develop his ferocity, scolding, "No more Mr. Nice Guy!'' when Brant's aggression flagged. But Yanez insists on civil behavior when the gloves are down. He does not allow swearing in the gym. Elders are to be addressed as "sir'' and "ma'am.'' Words and actions should always convey respect.
It's an old-school approach, backed up by the yellowed newspaper clippings about good character that Yanez has posted in the gym. Still, it is reaching across generations, as boxers who grew up on his advice 30 years ago now help Yanez instill it in young athletes.
"The kids admire him,'' said Goodman, 73, who has known Yanez for more than 40 years. "They like him, and they respect him, so they listen to what he says. He's been a good influence on a lot of kids over a lot of years.''
• • •
Yanez's own childhood was spent in farm fields. He picked cotton in his native Texas until he was 10, then came to Minnesota with his family to work in the sugar beet fields.
Yanez didn't attend high school. He began boxing while in the Army, where he served in the 82nd Airborne and fought in Italy, Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. In 2009, Yanez was among seven area veterans to be honored by the Dutch consul general for their roles in securing bridges and liberating a city in southern Holland.
Upon returning to St. Paul, he worked in construction and bridge maintenance. But coaching kids, including his two sons, became an avocation that soon filled most of his time. Yanez ran St. Paul's Mexican-American Boxing Club and coached at several gyms before coming to White Bear Lake about 10 years ago.
He instantly took to Brant, who gave up football and track at Tartan High School to concentrate on boxing. "There are so many kids who come in here and say they want to box,'' Yanez said. "But he was honest, a hard worker, dedicated. He showed me he really wanted to be a boxer. And he was a natural. You could see he was special.''
Brant is already hearing from people who want him to turn professional. That angers Yanez and Goodman, who train amateurs and encourage them to have full lives outside the ring. But Brant said the pros can wait, because boxing for the United States at tournaments in Mexico and Italy made him feel that representing one's country is the highest honor in sport. He is receiving financial assistance from USA Boxing to train full-time toward the 2012 Olympics in London.
He and Yanez clearly cherish their partnership. Brant is as proud of Yanez for making the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame as he is of his own title belt, and the 71 years between them hasn't deterred a close friendship. "He's really a mentor,'' said Brant, a 2009 Tartan graduate. "We go out to eat and do things, and he has a great story for every situation. He's seen it all.''
Including the sharing of his wisdom with yet another generation. Grateful for what he's received, Brant is honoring Yanez's role in his life by helping him coach younger kids. He plans to become an elementary school teacher, maybe even a coach.
"That would be great,'' Yanez said. "I've enjoyed it. Kids and sports, that's been the story of my life.''
For a video look at coach and pupil, go to startribune.com/sports
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