International Boxing Organization light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver took time out of his training schedule to speak to students at the Royal Theater Boys and Girls Club Arts Academy in Midtown on Friday, encouraging about 40 students to rise above their circumstances and promising to support the academy.
Tarver, 39, a Tampa resident, grew up in an inner-city Orlando neighborhood, and credits the boxing program at the Boys and Girls Club with giving him an alternative to the gangs and drugs that surrounded him.
"If it wasn't for the Boys and Girls Club, I wouldn't have found that outlet in sports at all," he said. "I got to experience what life is like outside the concrete ghetto."
Tarver said many of the kids he grew up with ended up in jail, and he wants his success to serve as an example that young people don't have to succumb to
"I was a kid who had every excuse in the world to lose," he said. "But no matter what, you can't let today dictate what you do tomorrow. You have to hold on to your dreams and don't let anyone tell you that you can't achieve them."
Tarver spoke for about 20 minutes, sharing experiences from his childhood and boxing career. He told the audience to set goals and then pursue them with determination.
"I wasn't going to be a trapped plant under the concrete," he said. "I stay in the right place and when opportunity knocks, I open the door."
Several Arts Academy students performed before Tarver spoke. Their presentation included singing, drama and dance. Tarver praised their efforts.
"These are beautiful people, man. We need to give them every opportunity to let their talents shine."
Jimmy Williams, 80, Tarver's trainer and mentor, said the students' performance brought tears to his eyes, and what he saw reflects the mind and spirit.
"I wasn't looking at the bodies. I was looking at the minds inside," he said. "You can't bully yourself through the world. You think yourself through it."
Tarver, who will return to the ring at the St. Pete Times Forum on April 12 when he takes on International Boxing Federation champion Clinton Woods, is no stranger to the stage. He played Rocky's nemesis, Mason "The Line" Dixon, in the 2006 film Rocky Balboa.
Tarver pledged his support to the Arts Academy, which hosts after-school programs in dance, drama and music, and a 13-week summer arts academy, as well as providing tutoring and homework help.
Herbert Murphy, director of the Arts Academy, said Tarver's support comes at just the right time.
"It's a godsend, especially right now facing tough funding with state and city budget cuts," he said. "Him walking in the door as an advocate on our behalf, especially with fundraising, is something that keeps our hope alive."
The Antonio Tarver Foundation, an organization Tarver created to provide services to educate and empower youth, will donate a portion of the proceeds raised at its Celebrities 4 Charity Weekend May 16-17 to the Royal Theater Arts Academy. The weekend will include celebrity golf and poker tournaments and the Denim to Diamonds Fashion Gala.
Tarver said programs like the Arts Academy are vital in the lives of young people and he hopes others will get behind his efforts.
"We've got to raise funds to keep the lights (on) in this building," Tarver said. "People and government in this community should pave the way for these children."
For information on the Antonio Tarver Foundation, visit www.antonio-tarver.com.
Michael Maharrey can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or firstname.lastname@example.org.