THE MOTHER in me is worried stupid about Paul Kroll. I want him to quit boxing because, at 20, his whole life is ahead of him. I don't want him to jeopardize it with blows suffered in the ring.
I mean, have you seen Concussion?
But the long-ago boxing fan in me is like, "GO, PAUL! MAKE US PROUD!"
What can I say? I was once so enamored of the beauty, bravery, and athleticism of the sweet science that I spent hours, solo, attending bouts at the elegantly decayed Blue Horizon boxing hall. To this day, I can't drive past the shuttered old palace on North Broad Street without feeling a pang in my gut (or maybe all the boiled hot dogs I consumed there are still repeating themselves on me).
Besides, Kroll has no intention of quitting. So I'm all in for the North Philly welterweight boxer, whose dream is to box for the U.S. Olympic Team.
Last year began the ramp-up. Kroll placed third in the U.S. National Boxing Championships, second in the National Golden Gloves, and first in Philadelphia's qualifying rounds for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
At those trials, in Reno, Nev., in December, his first-place win stunned everyone who thought the 152-pounder from Philly would be obliterated by his opponent, 2015 USA Boxing National Champion Ardreal Holmes.
"No one really knew Paul," says U.S. Boxing spokeswoman Julie Goldsticker. "His name wasn't on everyone's mind. His win was definitely a surprise, and he didn't do it the easy way."
That's because Kroll came back after an initial loss to win his spot, a feat that requires seven straight wins in the trials, which are double-elimination brackets. He is one of only six boxers to have done so in the history of the U.S. Olympic Boxing trials. Among them: Floyd Mayweather, Evander Holyfield, Gary Russell, Gary Russell Jr., and Roy Jones.
That's awesome company.
"After I lost the first bout, I was, like, 'I didn't come here to lose,' " says Kroll, who exudes genial intensity. He lives with his fiance, Ajhanae Williams, a dental hygienist, and their toddler, Jorden, in North Philly, not far from his parents and three siblings at 29th and Lehigh. "I went into my 'Eye of the Tiger' and that was it."
I will never, ever again make fun of that cheesy theme song from Rocky III.
Kroll has three chances to win one international bout in order to qualify for the XXXI Olympic Summer Games in August. If he doesn't nab a spot in Argentina in March, he'll still have a shot in Bulgaria in May and/or Azerbaijan in June.
He's training like mad to qualify in Argentina so he can get into prep mode for Rio.
Listening to Kroll describe his daily, four-hour training regimen makes my own muscles ache.
Every day at 4 p.m., after a lean meal of chicken or fish with salad, he heads to Rivera Rec Center at Fifth and Allegheny to work with his coach, Derrick Gooden.
He jumps rope for an hour, then shadowboxes for six rounds. That's followed by five rounds of pad work, 1,000 sit-ups, 50 pull-ups, 50 dips, and 500 push-ups.
After stretching a little and toning with light weights, he then lies flat while Gooden repeatedly drops a medicine ball on his stomach, to strengthen it for hits in the ring and to get him used to "that kind of pain."
Kroll then heads home for a bowl of pasta and a nap. At midnight, he laces up his running shoes and does a fast loop from his home to Aramingo Avenue or Front Street and back, punching and jabbing, Creed-style.
It's probably the most important part of his training, this contemplative run through now-quiet streets, his mind focused, relaxed, and clear.
"I know for a fact that most boxers are asleep at that time, and it builds my psychological advantage," says Kroll, who even planned to run in the blizzard that was to begin Friday. "I tell myself, 'While everyone is sleeping, I'm still working.' "
Joe Hand Jr., the Philly boxing and mixed-martial arts promoter, says Kroll's modus operandi is typical in the sport.
"If Paul was a Heisman winner on a college football team, we'd never hear the end of it," says Hand, who is delighted that Philly once again has a potential Olympic boxing contender to get excited about. "Team sports have an entire marketing and promotional organization behind them. But boxing is an individual sport - the only cheerleader a young boxer has is himself. So anything they can do to give themselves a little mental edge, they'll do it."
Kroll's edge, more significant than his run, has been his family.
His dad, Paul Kroll Sr., is a salesman in an electrical-supply store; his mother, Emma Freeman, is a private-duty nurse. His two older brothers - John, 25, and Patrick, 23 - are in the Coast Guard. And his little sister, Taylor, is a college freshman.
"My family have been my biggest supporters, every step of the way," says Kroll as he ticks off the travel expenses his parents have cobbled together to help get him to Las Vegas, and Reno, and Miami. If he makes it to Rio, he says, they'll all figure out a way to get there, come hell or high water.
"They love me. They're the first people I want to tell when I have good news, and they're always posting stuff about me on Instagram and Facebook. They're so proud of me."
They also knew to steer him to Rivera Rec Center when he was 13. He liked science and math, but was bored with reading and was starting to get into trouble. One day a friend handed him a pair of boxing gloves, and the two sparred at Rivera.
"I fell in love with it," he says. "Coach Gooden told me to get my parents to sign permission forms to fight. I've never looked back."
His dad, he says, told him to get his grades up or he wouldn't be able to box, so he knuckled down and by 10th grade was a straight-A student. He graduated with honors from Truebright Science Academy Charter School and went to work for a friend of his dad's, an electrician, with whom he still works today. He rises at 6 a.m. after that midnight run, gets to the work site by about 7, and is back in the gym at 4 p.m.
Where the training starts all over again.
"Paul comes from a wonderful family. They've taught him to go for what he wants, and these days, whatever he puts his mind to, he gets it," says Gooden, a retired boxer who fought 108 amateur fights and won five as a pro.
"I see so many kids with talent, but they don't have the support at home. Paul has that support. I think he can go all the way and win a gold medal for Philly."
Even better, says Hand, would be if Kroll also develops as a bit of an entertainer - an outsize personality with opinions and idiosyncrasies that make people want to watch him in or out of the ring.
In boxing, "People are always asking, 'Who's the next guy? Who's the next big personality?' " says Hand. "Who knows? Maybe it's Kroll. Wouldn't that be fun?"
Yes, as long as he protects his head - which Kroll promises me he's sort of already doing.
"I try my best to get hit as least as possible," he says. "Boxing is like playing Tag - but hard: I hit you, I let you rest, I hit you again. You've got to be serious and be careful, so you can have a long, fun career of beating the other person up."
Sounds like a contender to me.