'); } -->
Three nights a week, Reggie Brown walks into a West Raleigh gym and pulls a pair of boxing gloves over his hands - the same fists that got him kicked out of Enloe High School for fighting, the same fists that sent him to prison.
While he bangs them together, he tells the story of a smart kid who sank into a pit of guns and gangs, who dropped out of school and who almost killed a man over a petty, fleeting street beef.
But for all those wasted years, when he wasn't behind bars he was fighting with Second Round Boxing, a Raleigh program that tries to make disciplined athletes out of junior gang-bangers, some of them only 10 years old.
At 24, Brown is about the oldest of the 200 kids who line up in neat rows on a concrete floor every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, who count push-ups out loud, who pound their fists into leather bags to keep from pounding on each other. Technically, Brown is past the target age.
But here, when Brown boxes, he rises beyond his violent past. Here, when people look at him, they see more than his record of robbery and assault, more than a judge's warning to keep out of gangs, more than somebody who statistically should be back in prison.
Here, he can be a new person, the well-spoken, mile-a-minute talker who promises you'll watch him fighting on HBO someday.
"I love to fight," he explained, banging his gloves on the table again for emphasis. "It helps me understand myself. You've got to dig deep down to see how much you can take. You've got to find that deeper you, and once you do that, you're a different person."
Run by the nonprofit Haven House Services, Second Round has seen young boxers turn into Golden Gloves champions, but for most of them, it's a chance to channel the anger that lands them in front of a judge.
Most of the kids are 14 and 15, and to train, they've got to show a report card. If they get in trouble, they've got to apologize in front of everyone.
"They hate doing it," said program director Matt Schnars. "But everybody claps."
Many here go to Longview School, which handles middle and high schoolers judged to be "at risk." Some already see probation officers.
They can't just walk into the gym on West Morgan Street and pick up some of the $87,000 worth of equipment. Before anybody gets in the ring, they have to make progress in school, communicate better with their parents and slowly earn the trust and respect of the trainers.
They hit for a reason
One of those coaches, Matt Alexander, fights professionally around the world - in New Zealand, for example - and once appeared on "The Contender," a reality TV series hosted by Sylvester Stallone and "Sugar" Ray Leonard. Working with them, he sees years of pent-up frustration.
"They don't have a chance to hit nothing," he said. "In here, they hit it out. They're hitting things very hard and we don't know why. But they know why, and when they get home, they're not mad anymore."
Jaime Galo Humberto Diaz Maldonado, a senior at Mary Phillips High, an alternative school off Raleigh Boulevard, he has already spent several years in jail. He rattles off a shudder-inducing list of past crimes.
But here, he's the one Schnars picks to counsel newer boxers, to show them the endgame behind drugs and gangs, to speak with authority about life waiting inside a cell. When he graduates, Maldonado talks seriously about fighting for a living, about getting paid, like Matt Alexander, to throw punches for applause.
"You actually can hit people without getting in trouble," Maldonado says, grinning.
Living with a purpose
Out of prison for three years, Brown talks about life with a new intensity. He hasn't found much work on the outside. Most employers see his record and show him the door.
But he keeps trying, hoping somebody will want a good worker who's moving past his mistakes. He reads the dictionary for fun. He picked up a book and discovered the Harlem Renaissance, and he talked about that burst of creativity like it could happen in his own life.
Boxing, he explains, is like chess, and you've got to be patient.
Whatever happens, Brown is proud to be living life hard, and with purpose.
When you look at a tombstone, he suggests, you see a birth date, a death date, and a little slash representing everything that came between.
To him, the only thing that matters is what you do with that slash.