Going the extra mile

by Tris Dixon, BOXING NEWS, 2010-02-12
Teddy Atlas endures a hectic schedule as an expert analyst and trainer but his principle calling in life is not even boxing-related, as Tris Dixon explains.

EVEN though he is a tough guy who pulls no punches and says what he thinks, Teddy Atlas is a big softie under that hard, scarred veneer. His work with The Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation to help those in need, which he set up in his father’s memory, is testimony to that. And if not enough on its own, the joy he gets from giving the underprivileged hope and happiness is. The tough Staten Islander, whose uncompromising views are the hallmark of ESPN boxing broadcasts in America, has also commentated on three Olympic Games (Sydney, Athens and Beijing) for terrestrial channel NBC and penned a fabulously-gripping autobiography in which he discusses his break from Mike Tyson’s old camp in the Catskills, his intriguing relationship with Michael Moorer and the implosion of his association with former light-heavyweight champion Donny Lalonde.

The book, Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring, a Son’s Struggle to Become a Man, also highlights the community work his father did. “He travelled all over Staten Island, taking care of people, no matter what time of day or night,” wrote Atlas in its pages. “If patients couldn’t afford to pay, he didn’t charge them, and when he did charge them the most it would be was about five dollars.” Going above and beyond the call of duty was not too much trouble for Dr Theodore Atlas, who even founded and built two hospitals. It was the norm. Sometimes poor clients paid him in pies and cookies.

“Even with all the difficulties we’d had,” Teddy continued in the book when describing the relationship with his father, “I’d always felt it important that my dad not be forgotten. I didn’t think he ever got paid enough on this planet for what he did.” So in 1997 Teddy started the Foundation to keep his father’s good name alive. His dad was a general practitioner and so Teddy thought he would try to do similar work. He wanted the fledgling organisation to make house calls but not just for medical problems. He wanted to help anywhere there was a need. In doing so, he created a charity that The New York Times has called, “Hands-down the best in town.” The paper added: “Every dime you donate reaches the people for which it is intended. None of it disappears into the rabbit hole of three-martini lunches or padded salaries. All of it goes to the downtrodden that fall through the bureaucratic cracks of the established charities, some of whom deliver a mere dime on a dollar to the needy.” The number of requests for help from the Foundation instantly grew and now, 12 years on, as many as 40 cases, which need emotional and financial aid, await Atlas each week. “It does take on a bit of its own life some days,” he says matter-of-factly. “I wish I didn’t have to talk about it and we don’t talk about 90 percent of the cases, we talk about 10 percent. But we have to talk about 10 percent for a reason, because if we don’t get the word out we can’t continue to get the resources to do what we do. It’s the business we’re in.”

The word is certainly out in the boxing community. And the Foundation has a whole host of celebrity endorsers from numerous walks of life including Bill Parcells, Eric Mangini, Chad Pennington, Curtis Martin, Gary Sheffield, John Franco, John McEnroe, Pete Rose, Harry Carson and Stephen Baldwin. Funds are raised through golf days, charity functions and the annual “Teddy Dinner”, the marquee event in the calendar. But those glitzy, high-profile gatherings are the antithesis of what the Foundation is all about. They are the big money-raisers that allow the day-to-day volunteer work to be carried out. And it is the efforts you don’t see or hear about that have seen the Foundation taken into the hearts and minds of those in the New York community.

I heard one story recently that the Foundation buried a four-year-old girl and paid for her headstone as the family could not afford it. No names were mentioned and it was done in a straightforward, ” unobtrusive way.” The Foundation was a crutch the family could lean on. And for many who come calling for help, it really is a matter of life and death. “It scares me,” says Atlas, a hardened 53-year-old New Yorker. “I get scared sometimes and people get kind of surprised when they hear me say that. They say, ‘You’re scared?’ and I say ‘Yeah it scares me because I care about it’. I try to be realistic in this world and it [the demand] is getting larger and larger and if we don’t keep up with it or try to stay ahead of it there will be a day when we won’t be able to fulfill the things that so far we have been able to do. So it makes me nervous sometimes. “Last week the stack of requests was unbelievable for machines for sick children, for families to be flown out of state to try experimental treatment for a child. Sloan-Kettering in New York – which is a tremendous, tremendous cancer hospital ­– couldn’t treat this particular type of cancer for pediatric and there was a place in another state and the family couldn’t fly there so we flew them there. “Then there’s a family whose home burned down and they don’t want to go to a shelter; can we get them an apartment? We took care of that. And there are simple things, where utilities are being shut off where there’s a single mother with four children and she’s working, she’s trying, but it’s beyond her now. We come in and make sure the gas and electricity doesn’t get shut down and we pay those bills. “It just doesn’t stop and it scares me a little bit. You look at that stack of paper and it speaks to you, it really does. And you read these heartfelt letters and sometimes you don’t even think down the road. You think ‘Can we get past this week?’ And we know we can but when it’s that strong, there are that many and to that extent you think, ‘What’s next month going to be like?’ And it’s the nature of it. I’m not surprised by it and I’m not daunted or scared off by it, I’m just nervous because – if you’re smart and honest about it – it’s not something that’s going to go away because the world is getting bigger, it’s not getting smaller, and the problems with that are going to continue to be there.”

It is a 24/7, 365 days a year Foundation which, of course, finds itself firing on all cylinders during the holiday seasons. Nearly $20,000 was spent on food last year – stored at the Foundation’s own food pantry – and, for Thanksgiving, they gave away nearly 9,000 turkeys with all the trimmings. That meant 9,000 jars of cranberry sauce, 9,000 cans of yams, 9,000 stuffing parcels, 9,000 bottles of apple juice, 9,000 jars of coffee and more. “The office car park looked like a USO airdrop,” smiles Teddy with pride. “There was piles and piles of boxes of food.” But it’s not just about loading up the transport carriers and driving to deprived areas. The Foundation identifies where there is a real need for its help. It means it’s always gratefully received and therefore nothing is wasted. “I’m not just out on the corner handing out turkeys or on the truck throwing turkeys to anyone in a crowd and then you find out some of them got thrown off an apartment block roof. We’re going to the projects and we’re going to the right places,” Atlas explains, with typical intent. “They’re going to be on the table, they’re not going to be thrown off the frickin’ roof, they’re not going to be rolled down the road. We make sure of that, because you have to take the time to go along and find out where they’re going if you truly care about these kind of programmes.”

Atlas feels obliged to go above and beyond other organisations, the same way his father used to go above and beyond a standard doctor’s remit. “If we’re going to do it I have a responsibility to the people who give me the resources and who trust me to make sure it’s not just a token thing and that it’s not just a symbol that you just bought turkeys and that’s it,” he says. “There’s got to be a little more work with that. It’s making sure they are going to the right places.” Then Christmas came and 7,000 toys were given out to children who otherwise might not have been visited by Father Christmas. “That’s a lot of toys,” says Atlas, stating the obvious while emphasising the volume of work, “because we go out and buy them and one of the things I feel best about is we take the time – with due diligence – to make sure the toys go to the right place. We’re not just buying toys. We’re identifying the schools, the shelters, the hospitals, the group homes, the community centres where a lot of these kids – and I couldn’t give you an accurate percentage but it’s a large percentage, much bigger than it should be – and it’s the only toy they get. That makes you feel good because we’re identifying the right places. We’re not just doing it because we should do something. We’re doing it because there’s a need to do it specifically in these areas.

“I’ve got to tell you this one story,” continues Atlas, and for a man with so many you know it’s going to mean something at the end. “We went into these poor schools and we had all the toys, we had Santa Claus there and we buy the children gender-appropriate toys – one school has 1,200 kids and we get the number of kids, the number in each class – boys, girls and age – so we get age and gender appropriate and each kid gets something that makes sense for them to get and we have them wrapped with like 50 volunteers wrapping them for three straight days. “So we were in the gym and it’s packed and the youngest kids were in kindergarten and they’re just waiting, they’re waiting to get going because – like I said – for a lot of these kids this present is the only one they’re getting. “And there was this little Mexican kid, I’ll never forget it – it was a few years ago already – but I always remember this kid. He’s five years old and he’s got these fat cheeks and the teachers are doing everything to hold him back and he keeps escaping, running up to Santa and they’ve got to keep putting him back and he escapes and they grab him and put him back and I’m watching him.” Teddy laughs, feeling the youngster’s excitement. “And he’s got this smile on his face and it’s just pure, you know? And all of a sudden the teachers say, ‘Now you can go’ and he runs up to Santa Claus and he looks right at him and says, ‘I’ve been looking for you all my life’. “And I gave him a hug, you couldn’t help but hug the kid and it was terrific. Then I remember this little girl who’d had a bad situation, as most of these kids do, and she asked if she could open up her present. So I asked the teachers and they said it was okay. She was about six and it was a pair of sandals, like glass slippers, and she put them on and said, “Do I look like a princess?’ And I said, ‘You sure do.’ And she turned to the teacher and she said, ‘My momma told me Santa wasn’t coming this year.’”

Teddy Atlas is not a saint. But he does a saint’s work. The good word continues to spread about the Foundation. For each success story there must be a dozen more letters that hit the Atlas desk. It’s hard to keep up with it all, nigh on impossible to stay ahead of it, but the Foundation works on. It goes above and beyond the call of duty, just like the man it was named after did: Dr Theodore Atlas. For more details on Teddy, The Foundation and its work, visit www.dratlasfoundation.com