EDITOR’S NOTE: Tim Ellsworth, who was in Beijing Aug. 6-16, is continuing his coverage of the 2008 Olympics for Baptist Press. Ellsworth, director of news and media relations at Union University, has been assisted with photography by David McIntyre, a freelancer based in Asia. In Beijing, he interviewed Joe Smith, manager for the U.S. boxing team, for this story. Baptist Press will provide further Olympics coverage on Monday, Aug. 25.
BEIJING (BP)–Joe Smith had it all planned out — or at least he thought so. He forgot one detail that proved to be his salvation.
A suicide note left for his wife? Check.
A loaded .45-caliber pistol? Check.
A special location selected to put a bullet through his head? Check.
Enough gasoline in the truck to get him to that special location? Not exactly.
Smith got out of the truck, slammed the door and kicked it.
“I had messed up everything in my life,” he said. “I’m trying to take my life, and I even messed that up.”
At 32, Smith’s life was a mess. “I lived to use and used to live,” he said. “Drugs and alcohol absolutely destroyed my life.”
The bank had foreclosed on his home and he was facing federal indictments for embezzling money from an insurance company. Smith decided the only relief he could find would be through death. The drugs didn’t provide him the relief they once did.
His wife Paula, however, loved him and prayed for him throughout his struggles. “She should have left me, is what she should have done,” Smith admits.
Perhaps an empty gas tank was God’s answer to Paula’s prayers. As Smith walked down the road to get some gasoline, a man came by and gave him a ride.
“Are you OK?” the man asked as they rode along.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Smith replied.
“Why do you have that pistol in your pocket?” the man asked.
“I just told him,” Smith recalled. “I told him what I was getting ready to do.”
The man took Smith to a physician friend named Charles Clay, a Christian man who put Smith in a drug rehab program.
“I was there for 90 days and God saved me,” Smith said. “I haven’t been the same since. He removed all the desire for drugs, all the desire for alcohol. He totally changed my life. I made every mistake a man could make, but God loved me anyway.”
That was 1987. Since then, Smith, a member of Memorial Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., has devoted his life to working with troubled youth -– people who are just like he was more than 20 years ago.
One way he tries to change the lives of young people is through his job with the Chattanooga YMCA, where he runs their programs for at-risk youth. He also spent 20 years working as a bivocational youth minister.
But another way Smith reaches young people is through boxing. Smith is the manager for the U.S. boxing team competing in the Beijing Olympics.
“I can get to street-tough inner-city kids and develop a relationship with them through this sport,” he said. “Once they begin to press me a little bit, then I’m able to minister to them. I have seen a whole lot more kids saved through the boxing gym than I have through any of my youth ministries. It’s amazing how God could use a pair of boxing gloves to draw somebody to Himself, but He does.”
One of the people whose lives Smith has touched is Luis Yanez, a member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team from Duncanville, Texas, who, as Smith observed, also was “a very troubled young man.”
“Most of our kids in this program come from very poor socioeconomic backgrounds,” Smith said.
For the last three years, the U.S. boxing team has had a residential program in Colorado Springs, Colo., for Olympians. Once a boxer makes the team, he moves there for training.
“That was tough,” Smith said. “We were asking 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids to give up everything they had.”
Yanez, one of the boxers in the program, got tired and homesick and decided to go back to Texas. When USA Boxing officials demanded that Yanez return to Colorado, he refused. They responded by dismissing him from the team.
Yanez called Smith and was apologetic about his behavior. Smith helped Yanez appeal the dismissal and, in a controversial decision, Yanez was reinstated to the team.
“Luis came back a week before we came [to Beijing],” Smith said. “He was very remorseful, very apologetic, working hard. It seemed like he was a different individual. I had tried sharing the Gospel with him before. He was pretty shut off. But this time he was willing to listen.”
On July 25, Smith’s message finally got through to Yanez.
“He prayed and invited Jesus into his heart,” Smith said. “Now already, we’ve seen evidence of that. I always tell young people, the first thing you’ve got to do is go tell somebody. Go tell somebody what you just did. And he did. That’s not easy for a 19-year-old that from a reputation standpoint is a pretty tough kid.”
(In Beijing, Yanez won his first match, against Jose Kelvin de la Nieve of Spain, but lost a close 8-7 decision in the second round to Serdamba Purevdorj of Mongolia, who will compete for the gold medal Sunday. The lone U.S. medalist in boxing is heavyweight Deontay Wilder of Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
Tough kids like Yanez are the reason that Smith has stayed involved in boxing over the years. Smith, who “never boxed a day in my life,” first started in the sport when his son was 9 years old and wanted to try boxing.
“So, being the good dad, I went with him to the local gym and tried to help as much as I could as a parent,” Smith said. “Four years later, he quit boxing and started pursuing other things. But I stayed in it, because what I found is through this sport I can reach a lot of troubled kids that I can’t reach any other way.”
Smith’s role at the local boxing club gradually grew. He eventually became vice president for USA Boxing, the national governing body for amateur boxing, and also served as president of the USA Boxing Foundation. This year, USA Boxing selected Smith to serve as the Olympic team manager.
In that role, Smith is primarily responsible for the administrative tasks of the team -– confirming schedules, getting the boxers where they need to be, exchanging film with other countries.
“And then working with these kids in being a dad, more than anything,” he said.
The U.S. team qualified nine boxers for this year’s Olympics and brought an additional six training partners to Beijing. Most of these are in their late teens or early 20s. So Smith sees himself as a dad for 15 kids.
That’s not a new role for him. In addition to raising two children of their own, Smith and his wife Paula have housed 19 foster children for various periods of time -– sometimes as many as eight or nine kids at a time.
“They really try to get the ones that are the most needy,” said David Price, Smith’s pastor at Memorial Baptist Church. “When Joe does something, he does it all out. It’s an inspiration to minister with him.”
In trying to minister to the boxers with whom he works, Smith points to the value of relationship and trust.
“I don’t want to preach a sermon. I want to be a sermon,” he said. “The most powerful way I reach them is being what God called me to be, and that’s a child of the King. As they witness that, that becomes contagious.”
It certainly did for Yanez, as it has for others as well. As much as Smith recognizes the honor bestowed upon him as team manager for the Olympics, and as much as he is enjoying his experience in Beijing, he remains focused on the most important task before him -– one with eternal ramifications.
“I know why I’m here,” Smith said. “I know why God put me in this position. I don’t want to lose sight of that. He didn’t put me here because I’m such an expert on amateur boxing. But I do love people, and I don’t mind sharing with people what’s changed my life.”