He is 50, lean and strong as a lamppost. He is a retired Minneapolis cop who has worked on drug task forces and SWAT raids. He is standing in an abandoned firehouse in north Minneapolis, his children at his feet, tears on his cheeks.
“There’s no doubt in my mind I’d be in prison somewhere, a drug addict, a thief, if someone hadn’t taken the time to work with me,” Victor Mills says. “This place is an offering, man. It’s an offering.”
Mills is standing, almost reverentially, outside the chalk outline where the boxing ring will be. He is standing next to his new and unforeseen business partner, who says, “Boxing teaches you empathy. It teaches you discipline. We can help kids here.”
The retired cop met the local businessman, Ryan Burnet, owner of the restaurants Bar La Grassa, Burch, Eastside and Barrio, through boxing. Last summer, they began driving kids to a local gym, then decided to make a change that could alter many lives, including theirs.
Burnet started Fighting Chance Boxing Club and hired Mills as his executive director. It’s a nonprofit organization that they hope will be part community outreach, part gym, part refuge.
They’ll provide free boxing lessons, a workout space, yoga and free meals for anyone under 18.
Burnet is working with his friends in the restaurant business to provide healthy food, and is tearing the guts out of the old firehouse. He’s moving his office to a room upstairs and planning a community garden. Burnet is practicing an inclusive form of gentrification, turning a vacant building into a welcoming space.
“This place is meant for kids to come after school, on weekends, in the summer,” Burnet said. “If they want to work out. If they want to eat a healthy meal and read a book. If they need help with homework.
“The goal of this is not to create the next great boxer. That would be amazing if it happened, but what we want to do is create a safe environment where they can grow up to become young men and women who will who become valuable members of our society.”
Mills bears witness to the power of mentoring, and boxing. He describes himself as a “mixed-race kid with a father who was never around and a mother who was overwhelmed.”
As a kid in Fort Madison, Iowa, he got into all the trouble he could fit in a day. He didn’t have a male authority figure in his life until he laced on gloves.
“I was on the streets, stealing, using, and I thought I was tough,” Mills said. “My Mom took me down to the gym, and there were a lot of positive role models there, and they proved to me that I wasn’t the toughest guy around, and even if I was, where was that going to get me? Boxing changed my life.”
Burnet started boxing to relieve stress.
“Without a doubt, I am a better father, husband and person because of boxing,” he said.
In an hour conversation, neither Mills nor Burnet ever mentioned the importance of winning a boxing match. They spoke of the discipline the sport demands.
“You go out at night, eat too much cake, and you’re playing tennis the next day and miss a backhand, well, so be it,” Burnet said. “You show up at the gym tired and make a mistake and it’s going to hurt.”
He kept using the word “empathy,” which would seem to be foreign in boxing.
“When you get in the ring with another boxer, you know what he’s been through,” Mills said.
“And with these kids, I can say, ‘I haven’t gone through exactly what you’re going through, but I know what you’re feeling,’ ” Mills said. “I mean, man, I’ve been there. And now we want to be here, for them.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com.