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Gym is sanctuary for tough kids

Ed Crawford started the gym to help delinquent teens. Lots of them have turned their lives around.

Ed Crawford founded the boxing club in the gym 40 years ago. Some of the "roughnecks" he first brought in are still connected with the gym.
Ed Crawford founded the boxing club in the gym 40 years ago. Some of the "roughnecks" he first brought in are still connected with the gym.Read more

In the 40 years since Ed Crawford founded the little boxing sanctuary above a fire station, a few blocks from the 69th Street Terminal, the gym has added a ring, some new equipment, kickboxing classes, and a women's bathroom.

But some things haven't changed.

"We're dealing with the same stuff, same problems: drugs, alcohol, gangs, street fights, things like that," said Andy Carr, who has been coming to the gym for 36 years and who has run it for the last 15.

Crawford, 79, who was honored last weekend at the gym's 40th anniversary celebration, started the Upper Darby Recreation Gym when he was an Upper Darby motorcycle cop. The guys Crawford brought to the gym were "these roughnecks; thought they were tough and all. Well, they found out they weren't so . . . tough once they got up here."

Joey O'Donnell, now 54, was one of those roughnecks, and he fondly recalls the Upper Darby gym's early days in a renovated car shop. The ring corners were parking meters with the heads removed. Matches were fought on wrestling mats, beneath one lightbulb and with kerosene heaters to keep warm.

"It was pretty obsolete, to say the least," said O'Donnell, of Drexel Hill.

O'Donnell had been in juvenile detention centers before, and was near the bottom of his class at Upper Darby High School. The first time he met Crawford, the Upper Darby cop and veteran of three wars almost arrested him for mouthing off.

O'Donnell went on to become an Olympic finalist in 1972, and now works in sales. He, like many other fighters, is still involved with the gym, and credits Crawford for the turnaround.

"Knowing Eddie, he gave us a place to go to, to do something constructive with our lives," O'Donnell said. "He gave us a lot of advice. He gave us a lot of understanding."

The nonprofit gym, funded mostly by Upper Darby Township, still doesn't have many frills.

It's tucked away behind an alley off West Chester Pike. The fighters who climb the long steps leading up to it are, however, more diverse. Fighters range from former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins to 36-year-old Alice Dailey, a Villanova University English professor who says the college campus is "a very insulated, very privileged world. And this is my other life."

The focus is still on young men and women. Carr, a 50-year-old Drexel Hill resident and executive director of the gym's Police Athletic League, works with truant kids or ones who are required to fulfill community service hours.

He'll spend lunch time hanging out at Upper Darby High School - talking to, and sometimes looking for, these teenagers. Or he'll catch up with the ones who come voluntarily, such as Rashad Brown, 18, of Yeadon.

Brown has been working out at the gym for three years. "My uncle was a boxer. Then he got locked up, and I just wanted to fill in his shoes," said Brown, who recently won a Philadelphia Golden Gloves title.

The Upper Darby High School senior will graduate this year, and he is thinking of joining the Navy, maybe to become a doctor. He said some friends he used to hang out with are in jail. But boxing has kept him away from trouble.

"There's no off time. So you stay busy the whole year," said Brown, who likes Carr because he's "positive and a role model. That's the guy I look up to."

Carr thinks a casual approach helps him connect with teenagers. Carr is built like someone who's won several boxing and kick-boxing titles - which he has. He wears jeans, a T-shirt, no tie. His head is shaved, and he has tattoos on his arms and chest. The rest of the gym crew are similar "lunatics," Carr said.

"When these guys talk to these kids, they can relate to them. Those kids listen to them," Carr said, but added, "And, you know, I'd like to be able to say that they all turn it around. They don't."

Some die. Others go to jail. Sometimes, Carr will keep in touch with them. A letter from a former boxer hoping to be released in a year is hanging in the gym, among the newspaper clips, fight posters, pictures, and motivational quotes that cover the rest of the wall.

On a weekday before the after-school rush, Crawford pointed to these mementos. There was an Irish guy whom Crawford let stay with him for a while. There was one who went pro, one who got a regular job.

Crawford looked at another. "Good kid, but he got tied up with drugs," Crawford said, and cursed as he usually does when he mentions drugs. "He wound up dying."

But Crawford didn't dwell too long on this or the other ones who don't make it. The majority turned out great, Crawford said, and went on to better things.

"That's the one thing that I'm thankful for. At least I got them a place where they could start," Crawford said.

For Information

The Upper Darby Recreation Gym is at 7241 West Chester Pike in Upper Darby, second floor, rear entrance. To learn more, call 610-352-9770.