Boxing coach Cornell Harris has never felt in control of his life

by MATT PEIKEN

St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 29, 2001©

Choosing Cornell Harris answers the back door of B.T. Bombers boxing gym in a T-shirt, jeans and bare feet. It’s about 11 a.m., and Cornell has just risen from some blue tumbling mats laid out on the other side of the room.

The gym is dark but for a television set atop a soda vending machine and a sliver of sunlight sneaking around the edge of a towel tacked over the window in the front door. Cornell’s girlfriend is lying on the mats with a blanket over her, a cigarette burning in one hand and a remote control near the other. Her head rests on a red foam pad, the type Cornell straps onto his forearms every afternoon when he trains boxers in the ring.

Cornell walks back over to her and asks if she wants anything. She hands him a plastic bag full of quarters left over from a night at the casino and asks for cigarettes and something to eat. Cornell would normally walk from here, but he accepts a ride around Frogtown to make his rounds — the liquor store for cigarettes, the Wendy’s drive-up for two double-stack cheeseburgers meals and the plasma center on University Avenue. He visits the clinic as often as it allows — twice every week — and comes away with $50.

Cornell is 45, but has never really felt in control of his life. He grew up in a drug- and violence-addled neighborhood in Washington, D.C., that claimed the lives of his father and brother. Cornell’s memories of service in the Army are haunted by time he spent in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. And long after his release from a two-year prison sentence for a crime he says he didn’t commit, Cornell still feels locked up.

He has children close by but no semblance of family. Jobs are elusive and so are his modest hopes. For now, everything Cornell counts on day to day is encased in the cinderblock walls of B.T. Bombers.

He stashes his belongings there, sleeps there more often than he’d like and lives for the afternoons, when he tunes out his hardship and focuses on the kids who come to learn, train and fend off their own troubles.

A Positive Punch

Everybody who walks into Bombers has to sign an attendance sheet. Clem Tucker, the gym’s owner, likes tracking who’s coming and going, and he shows the numbers to potential financial supporters.

On this day, Cornell is the first to sign in, writing the gym’s address and phone number as his own.

He stands about 5 feet 7 inches and his body is more rounded with muscle than chiseled. His eyes are round and soft, and they light up whenever he talks about boxing, coaching or kids. Usually, they’re ringed with woe.

Cornell is training three boxers in the gym’s tiny ring, facing one and then another, holding up thick pads as targets for left-right combinations. He squares up to a 17-year-old named Hozan, peering at him from between the pads. Cornell’s only been at it for 10 minutes, but his shaved head is already awash in sweat.

“Ahh, Hozan, gotta be quicker than that,” he says.

Hozan snaps two punches to one pad and a right cross to the other. The punches come within inches of Cornell’s face, but he doesn’t flinch.

“That’s it, make it pop,” Cornell says.

After a few go-rounds at the pads for each boxer, they lie face-up on the ring’s tattered canvas. Like a jackhammer, Cornell pummels each of their abdomens with a medicine ball. Cornell lies down and gets the same treatment.

For much of the year, Cornell has considered a 14-year-old named Martis as his “No. 1 project.” He’s big and tall for his age, but timid. The first time Cornell strapped on the pads and stepped in the ring with Martis, the boy cried.

“He wouldn’t hit harder than a tap,” Cornell recalls.

More than anything, he figured, Martis needed some uplifting attention. Cornell walked him through the basics and helped him shed some of the awkwardness that accompanied his every move.

By the fall, Martis was ready to spar.

“It took a lot of courage for him to get there,” Cornell says. “The big thing is, I want him to feel good about himself.”

Cornell could use the same encouragement. For much of the fall, he tried shaping up for a “tough man” competition in Rochester, Minn. These events don’t discriminate by age — everyone’s thrown into a last-man-standing pool — but Cornell shakes off the suggestion that they’re no place for a 45-year-old.

More than the prize money, he says, it’s a last shot at glory.

“I’ve got experience, and with age comes wisdom, I like to think,” he says.

Cornell moved to Minnesota during the mid-’70s to play football at Rochester Community College and later married a local girl. The couple had a son and daughter who are now teen-agers, but the relationship crumbled long ago.

The kids live with their mother in Blue Earth, Minn., and Cornell doesn’t see them as often as he would like.

That, in part, feeds his motivation at Bombers, where positive attitude and work ethic go a long way with the kids. They’re as young as grade-schoolers, and some don’t have fathers at home.

Every coach who’s ever worked at Bombers has spent time behind bars, but no coach has earned the trust of Clem Tucker, the gym’s owner, as has Cornell.

Cornell filled in Clem about his past and present before Clem could even ask. Clem then watched him work with some kids, and his first thought was a question: Why hadn’t another gym snatched him up? Clem pays Cornell whatever he can — sometimes $50 a week, sometimes $100, sometimes nothing — for being the gym’s No. 2 man. He also lets him crash at Bombers whenever he needs to.

“I’m not used to coming to my own gym and having the kids ask where Cornell is,” says Clem, a retired St. Paul police officer who opened the gym in 1989.

“In the past, if I didn’t come in for a couple days, the kids would stop coming. But right away with Cornell, I just saw a love of the kids,” he says. “The way he talks to them, his patience, his energy — I wish I had more coaches like him.”

A Dangerous Dance

It’s a Friday night at the VFW Club on St. Paul’s Concordia Street. Yellowed room lights mixed with some Christmas lights bathe the room in an unsettling glow. Cornell sits in the club’s DJ booth, spinning songs on his own equipment.

On the long table behind Cornell are two empty packs and a fresh pack of Newport cigarettes. Cornell fades down the music and speaks his velvety baritone into the microphone.

“Welcome to the VFW. You’re listening to the sweet sounds with Cornell Harris,” he says. “I’d like to have you up dancing, but if you just want to chill out and listen, that’s all right with me, too.”

Cornell fades up on a ballad from the R&B trio LeVert and turns off the mike.

“I’m real proud of myself,” he says. “I used to sit back here and drink those godfathers — Chivas and amaretto. Now it’s just 7-Up for the most part. Now if I can just stop smoking.”

A muscle-bound man dressed head to toe in skin-tight black steps into the booth, puts his arm around Cornell and leans into his ear.

“Hey C — make ‘em dizzy,” he says, twirling his finger in the air. He wants to hear something more upbeat.

“In a little bit,” Cornell says with a smile. The guy pulls out a $20 bill, folds it in half lengthwise, takes his time ironing the crease with his thumb and forefinger and eases it into Cornell’s hand.

“Make ‘em DIH-zee,” he says with a bit more force. He lets the message sink in, then smiles and puts his hand on Cornell’s shoulder before heading out of the booth. Cornell fades into another slow song as he watches the guy leave.

The two met in prison, and Cornell says the guy introduced him to Clem and Bombers.

“He’s my best friend,” Cornell says. “We just been through a lot of the same things, you know.”

Cornell DJs every weekend at the VFW and makes $60 every night — his main source of income. Clem knows Cornell needs the cash, but he wonders whether it’s worth the toll on Cornell’s spirit. Clem wants to help him find a steady job, away from people and places that can only trip him up.

“He’s got a heart the size of a mountain, but maybe he’s got too big a heart,” Clem says. “He should be careful about having the wrong people around him. I’ve seen too many wonderful people brought down by some lowlife, and it would break my heart if that happened to Cornell.”

Cornell knows he could do more to put himself in better environments — work better clubs, put himself around good people and find a place of his own. There’s just so much baggage he has to stow away first.

“Trust is very difficult for me. When you feel like the people who could help you always wind up doing the opposite, well, you just expect the worst,” he says. “But I don’t give up. I just gotta learn how to fight the fights I need to fight and let everything else go.”