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Apr. 18—Minutes into Thursday night’s Hamilton County school board meeting, District 3 Representative Joe Smith approached the podium to recognize the recent athletic accomplishments of TJ Arnold, a high school senior at Lookout Valley.

“What an honor to stand before my peers and do what I’m about to do,” began Smith, who has known Arnold for the past six years. Then he handed the 17-year-old boxer a certificate from the board to salute the silver medal he recently won in the 123-pound division at the USA Boxing National Championships in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Said Smith’s son, Andy, who has coached Arnold in the YCAP boxing program since he was 12: “When I first met TJ, he was a scrawny kid who didn’t have a lot to say, who was struggling academically, struggling in a lot of ways. Who knew a punching bag and a pair of boxing gloves could change the trajectory of a young man’s life so dramatically?”

This is how dramatically: Before someone in Arnold’s neighborhood recommended him to the Smiths to join YCAP (Youth and Community Action Program), he was, in his own words, “A bad kid with bad grades.”

Now carrying a 3.5 GPA, Arnold has so impressed the principal at Lookout Valley, Lee Ann McBryar, that she said of him: “TJ’s a gentleman, always behaves, makes good grades and his peers all look up to him. He’s doing things they can only dream about.”

In some ways, the story is an all too familiar one, especially among our financially disadvantaged youth. Father abandons his family when the child’s a toddler. His neighborhood is filled with folks who aren’t the best role models. Mother has to work too hard to make ends meet.

“I was angry all the time,” Arnold told the school board. “Sometimes about stuff I couldn’t control, stuff that happened before I was born, stuff like growing up without a father in my life.”

The national statistics on that front are unsettling, to say the least. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, at least one-fourth of today’s children under the age of 18 — more than 19 million total — grow up without a biological, step-, or adoptive father in the home.

“Like a lot of kids we see, TJ had anger issues when we first got him,” Andy Smith said. “And it’s understandable, all he’d gone through at that age. But we always tell the kids who come into our program: ‘Outgrow the adult in your life who failed you. Don’t let your past define your future.”

So Arnold started going to the YCAP boxing facility on Central Avenue on a daily basis, started listening to the Smiths and others talk to him about his actions, about his responsibilities, about how discipline and hard work and respect for others could turn his life around.

“Once I started going to YCAP and started boxing, everything changed in my life,” Arnold said. “I could lose all my anger in the gym.”

He could also find all of his considerable athletic talent. Though an outstanding basketball player, Arnold’s frame — he’s 5-foot-7 and 132 pounds (when he’s not fighting at 123) — worked against him becoming the next Kyrie Irving (the Brooklyn Nets point guard is his favorite player) on the hardwood.

But the boxing ring has been a different matter. Strong, quick and supremely coordinated, he could one day become a slightly shorter version of Sugar Ray Leonard, blessed with smarts, quickness and charm.

“Oh, he can be the best,” Andy Smith said. “If TJ will stay the course and stay out of trouble, he can go as far as he wants to go. When you’re 17 and you’re already knocking grown men down, TKOing them, you can’t teach that. That’s just God-given talent.”

That climb to be the best was on display throughout his five matches in Shreveport before narrowly falling to Julius Ballo in the final. That earned him an alternate spot on this fall’s Pan American Games squad that will compete in Colombia. Before that, he’ll spend time in Colorado Springs this summer with the USA Boxing program.

But to return to the nationals in Shreveport, Arnold’s efforts captured the hearts of his entire high school, from Principal McBryar on down.

“The faculty started a chat room about his matches,” McBryar said. “We were keeping up with each bout, cheering him on. It was all the buzz at school. Everybody was so excited for him.”

It was exciting. Especially for TJ’s mother, Kenji Arnold, who shared texts with him after every win.

But it was also grueling, both the bouts and preparing for the bouts, because Arnold’s weight had to remain at 123 throughout the tournament.

“I couldn’t eat anything much but grilled chicken and salad,” he said. “They weigh you every day. No (chicken) wings, no hamburgers, nothing. And when you can’t eat, everything sounds good to you.”

So what did he eat after his last match?

“Whataburger,” chimed in Andy Smith of the Texas-based chain that’s slowly moving east of the Mississippi River. “They don’t have them here. They’re the best burgers going.”

At some point, whenever his boxing career ends, Arnold said he wants to be both a personal trainer and a boxing coach who can help others travel the same path to success that YCAP showed him.

But what he most wants is to help children of all ages avoid the road he fears he would have taken without YCAP.

“I’d probably be dead or in jail,” Arnold told the school board. “It saved my life.”

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.