Calvin Zirkle has been boxing since he was in high school. Back in Kankakee, Ill. it was something to do.
It would lead him to a Chicago Golden Gloves title.
Now a junior at Knox College, he found a home away from home in Galesburg. Going to school some three hours away from home could have put a damper on his training, but his coach put him in contact with Carlos Duncan, who runs his gym on Simmons Street.
When Duncan first saw Calvin come in, he knew he wasn’t just meeting another gym rat. He was looking at a potentially electric talent and model pupil.
“Carlos defined my skills [at his gym],” Zirkle said. “A lot of people come to Carlos for a good workout and to gain discipline.”
Besides running a gym for people interested in learning the Sweet Science, Duncan was a boxing standout. Once rated as the 10th best welterweight in the world, Duncan moved on to be a Level IV Elite coach for USA Boxing. He would often travel with them to the World Championships and even went to the Olympics in 1996.
But his work with Galesburg-area boxers defines him these days.
“Calvin is a good example of what I like to see in the gym, for the younger kids,” Duncan said. “He works hard, always has a smile on his face. We went to Kankakee for the Junior Olympics, and all the kids were over there hanging by him, because he’s a lot of fun.”
Though a stunning athlete, perhaps the best one at Knox, Zirkle doesn’t box for the violence. He’s on the Knox football team playing defensive back and uses Duncan’s gym for his training instead of going to the weight room for his workouts with the rest of the team.
On top of all that, he happens to be a darn good fighter, too.
“[Carlos] got me my first matches my freshman year [in college],” Zirkle said. “Just little events. The Golden Gloves tournament was set up by my coach in Kankakee.”
Zirkle fought in the novice division of the tournament, as a light heavyweight. Scheduled for four fights over a period of a month starting March 11 and ending April 9, he fought three because his first opponent backed out. It was a 16-man field in his weight class.
“I stopped every guy,” Zirkle said. “I didn’t go to decision, I stopped the first guy in the second round, the second guy in the first round.”
Zirkle will be the first to admit that boxing is a good time. Ask him why he likes boxing, his answer is simple.
“It’s fun,” he said, with a grin.
After winning the novice division, Calvin is now eligible for the Open Division, where you can win the readily recognizable Gold Gloves and a belt. As it is right now, it’s a trophy, but it’s more than that, too. Calvin learned a lot about himself.
“I like the feel of moving around the ring, the freedom of it,” he said. “The training was really hard, though. With Carlos, it’s nonstop, you feel like you’re going to die. I don’t like that feeling.”
When not coaching boxing, Duncan doubles as a teacher at Carl Sandburg College, a job that he finds even more fulfilling than coaching.
“We can’t do everything, but I like to think of giving [the kids] not only the in-ring combinations, but the out-of-the-ring combinations,” Duncan said. “Communicative skills, how they’re doing in school. I’ve been in education since 1993 … and I feel we have an opportunity to mold them right now, not just in the boxing, but we can impact and influence them for their entire life.”
He found the right person to carry that message in Zirkle.
“It’s really increased my intensity and my versatility,” he said. “Having this routine and staying disciplined, it’s good for you. There’s like a companionship up there with the trainers and the kids. It’s a fun time, we just kick back and have fun. It’s a great way to resolve problems, fight with gloves rather than bare fists.”
The way Zirkle and Duncan talk about it, boxing could be a key to building a more well-rounded person. Sure, some say that it’s a brutish practice, but Zirkle doesn’t see it this way at all.
“It started out brute, but the rules make it much safer, and I really think it’s a sport that defines a person’s leadership quality and their hard work and dedication,” he said.
Duncan and his pupil both just want to help create a better person with tough love and discipline, and maybe have a little fun while they do it. Zirkle got a trophy out of the deal, and could get a nice necklace or belt next year.
“Sports is about two percent of a person’s life,” Duncan said. “Let’s work on that other 98 percent that’s going to be more important. If we can change a couple of these kids and make them better citizens, more responsible for their own actions, I feel like I’ve done my job.”
Note: This story, originally published in The Register-Mail on April 30, is being reprinted with permission.