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Life out here by Bret Kofford: A big American heart

December 26, 2001

When reports came out a few weeks ago that Osama bin Laden had told people he thought Americans were a bunch of cowards who turned tail and ran in Somalia and would do the same in any future conflict, I thought, "I wonder if he ever saw Bobby Chacon fight?"

During his boxing career in the 1970s and 1980s, Bobby "Schoolboy" Chacon was the epitome of courage, pure American courage.

Chacon, who fought in boxing's lower weights, was not the most talented fighter around. He had one good thing going for him: a big right hand. He had one great thing going for him: incomparable courage.

Many of those of us who watched him fight came to have a deep affection for Bobby Chacon. He was charismatic and charming. He was smart, too, attending college and giving interesting, sometimes hilarious interviews. But more than anything, he never quit in the ring, he never gave any quarter. That was what made Bobby Chacon special.


Bobby Chacon, a kid who started fighting on the streets of the L.A. area, won a couple world championships. He became the stuff of legends, even song. A band called Danny and Dusty, a side project of some Los Angeles musical notables at the time, wrote a song that, as I recall, was called "Song for the Dreamers." And one of the dreamers cited in the chorus was Bobby Chacon.

And while Bobby Chacon was a dreamer, he also was an enigma. He often came into fights out of shape, yet still battled to win after win. He had an entourage of no-goodniks who helped him indulge in his weaknesses for drugs, alcohol and the nightlife. So while he was a smart guy, he often did stupid things, as smart guys too often do.

After years of mostly success in the ring, Chacon's wife, a woman he deeply loved, thought he had fought long enough, that the poundings he often took to win his fights were starting to take their toll. She begged Bobby to quit. When he refused, she couldn't take it. She killed herself.

Bobby Chacon kept fighting after her death because he didn't know what else to do. Even after doctors said he was starting to become "punch drunk" and wouldn't clear him to fight, he would go to other locales and fight. And still win.

Now, years after his retirement but still a relatively young man, Bobby Chacon has lost a lot. He has lost much of his ability to speak clearly, a result of pugilist's brain syndrome. He has lost the millions of dollars he earned in the ring and the homes and the cars that came with it. He was picking up cans on the streets for a living before old friends helped him.

Chacon's plight was portrayed this month on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." Bobby was made out to be a pathetic figure, particularly as compared to his former L.A. rival Danny "Little Red" Lopez, who got out of boxing with much of his money and most of his mind. (Bobby, of course, knocked out the great Little Red the one time they fought.)

And while "Real Sports" is one of the best programs on television in any genre, someone made the cruel decision to put in subtitles as Bobby talked. Aside from a couple times, he could be understood, despite the slurring. Someone may have thought this would add to the drama or clarity of the piece, but what it turned out to be was a slap in the face to a man who doesn't deserve it.

Maybe I am particularly sensitive to this because I spent much of my early life around a man who suffered from pugilist's syndrome, although he was just referred to as "punchy" back then. My neighbor when I was a little boy was Lew Jenkins, who had been world lightweight champ back in the days when there was only one world champ in each division.

Because we didn't have granddads and Lew loved kids, Lew was as close as we got.

Lew had been in countless grueling fights in a career that started on the Texas county fair circuit and took him to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Lew's face was covered with scar tissue, his ears were cauliflowered and his words were slurred, but he was a sweet and funny man.

And like Bobby Chacon showed in the recent television segment, and as Muhammad Ali regularly demonstrates (and showed again Sunday on "60 Minutes" in a rerun of a segment about his struggles), while the words of such former fighters might be slowed and mushed, the minds often are still adroit.

Battered Lew Jenkins, for example, was still a charmer, a storyteller, a raconteur.

Bobby Chacon was poignant in his interview on "Real Sports." When asked how long it took him to get over his wife's death, he said, "I still haven't" and nearly cried. He also was funny at times, even poking fun of his own situation.

It is easy to look at such men with derision, to see them as old brain-damaged fools.

But to those who care about them, they will always be true American heroes with the biggest American hearts.

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