Suggs loves the pastor, the Rev. Thomas A. Bailey, who is both a PhD zoologist for the Environmental Protection Agency and a man of the spirit. On this Sunday morning, as Bailey preaches about God’s grace when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, Suggs is thinking about saving his sons.
Little Anthony, the natural boxer, the boy who had a football scholarship to one college that he didn’t take, who lasted one semester at another before he came home to Alexandria to be near his friends, has stopped showing up at the gym. He missed the Henderson Hall July Justice tournament because he’d jammed his fist into a wall in frustration over a girl and broke his hand. He said he’d start training again for another Olympic qualifying match in the fall but hasn’t shown up for practice at Henderson Hall. Suggs fears that Travon, who has always lived with his mother, Suggs’s former girlfriend, has fallen in with a bad crowd.
Time and again, Suggs has told his boys his life story as a cautionary tale. He has told them to be better men than he was. Like others of their age, the boys have seen how crack destroyed so many in their parents’ generation. Instead, they’ve both gotten caught up in this generation’s drug of choice: the marijuana blunt. “I feel helpless,” Suggs will say later. “They’re like so many kids you see in the streets, hanging out, trying to be cool. They’ll wake up one day and see their lives were wasted.”
Tahkina Sellers, 20, Suggs’s daughter by another former girlfriend, is a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University. He rarely sees her. For that, Sellers blames Suggs’s attachment to Ashley, the infant daughter whose death Suggs says sent him into a free fall. “I think he wanted me to be her,” Sellers said. “He could never see me.” Little Anthony has his dead sister’s name tattooed in red on his left inner forearm from the elbow to the wrist. “To remind me how different life would’ve been if she’d lived,” he explained.
After church, Suggs and Travon head to Great American Steak & Buffet on Richmond Highway, as they always do. They heap their plates with fried chicken and sweet potatoes smothered in brown sugar and melted marshmallows.
They start talking football. Travon, a senior, plays cornerback and linebacker for the T.C. Williams Titans. Suggs asks about one gifted player.
“Out on bond,” Travon says. “Underage drinking.”
Suggs asks about another.
“Didn’t make 2.0 GPA.”
Suggs rattles off a list of other talents.
“Not playing,” Travon answers.
“On the streets?” Suggs asks.
Suggs stiffens. And then, as it always does, the lecture begins.
About how Travon mumbles when he talks. How he’s impulsive and needs to think before he acts. That he’s no good at lying and that it’s time to stop hanging out in the streets. He needs a plan for the future. To talk to a college counselor.
“I’m lookin’ at the big picture, and you ain’t even seeing the next step,” Suggs says.
Travon, dressed in a baby blue collared shirt, his hair cropped close, leans forward and listens earnestly. He caught his first drug charge as a sophomore, when he cut geometry class to smoke weed with friends and police officers passing by saw smoke rising from the bushes. Travon takes periodic drug tests as part of his probation. He keeps failing them, which landed him in a shelter care program for a while. Little Anthony, too, has had weapons and drug charges, though they were later dropped.
“You think you slick, but you ain’t slick,” Suggs tells his son between mouthfuls. “I tell you this all the time, but you ain’t never listen.”
He tells Travon that he should think about the military — that he regrets to this day that he never joined the Marines’ exhibition boxing team when they asked him to.
“I heard they sending people out the country,” Travon protests.
“Man, you already in another country. I’d much rather you catch a bullet overseas, doing something that mean something, fighting for your country, than catch a bullet here because you stepped on someone shoes or looked at his girl funny. How you like that? ‘Travon died because he stepped on someone shoes.’ What a waste.”
Travon will say later that he wanted to tell his father that he gets lonely at night, alone in his mother’s apartment, that that’s why he goes out. He wanted to tell his father that he feels stuck and doesn’t know how to get unstuck. He wanted to tell his father that he does listen, but then he forgets. Instead, Travon says nothing.
“You lost, Travon,” Suggs says. “You don’t know what you want or where you going. There’s a place that’s full of lost people. It’s called jail.”
By the spring, after nearly a 10-month hiatus this time, Little Anthony had begun training again, first on his own and later with Suggs. In April, Suggs took him to a Golden Gloves tournament, where the 114-pound Little Anthony was beaten by a fighter six pounds lighter. He got a job cleaning Metro trains and quit boxing again. Travon, who sat out half the football season with a broken finger, had run away from home for a time. But he had just been released from probation, was set to graduate from high school and had been accepted into Northern Virginia Community College, though he hadn’t told his father any of that. And Suggs had become fixed on the notion that writing a book is now what will take him up and out of his life.
On a rare day off from his job detailing cars at First Choice Body Shop in Arlington, Tony Suggs hunches over a wide-ruled red spiral notebook in the quiet of the public library in Old Town Alexandria. He is holding the pen so tight his knuckles lighten as he writes. His spelling and his grammar are shameful, he says. Suggs has never read a single book in his life. But the one he’s writing is called “The Beast Within. Still the Champ.”
“Right now, my story is all I have,” Suggs says in the hush of the library.
Suggs’s friends have been pushing him to open his own boxing gym to recruit fighters other than his sons to fulfill his dream of training an Olympic boxer. But Suggs always finds some reason he can’t: He needs to work two jobs to pay child support or to stay out of trouble; he’s writing his book or busy trying to save others in his community from his fate. Suggs chairs the youth sports ministry for his church. He coaches late-night basketball at the Charles Houston Rec Center. He is surrogate father to his imprisoned brother’s six kids. Every month, he goes with his church to the Alexandria jail to tell his story. He gives a presentation he calls “Shattered Dreams” and has started Boys to Men at the rec center, teaching boys how to tie ties and set the table properly. How to be men.
Some worry that Suggs won’t move on because he can’t let 1987 and the “glory days” go. Dennis Porter was once Suggs’s corner man in the ring. Now, Porter, who heads the Alexandria Boxing Club, won’t let him through the door. “Let’s just say he ain’t the only one got ‘Shattered Dreams,’ ” Porter says. “I had shattered dreams. If he’d a made it, I’d a made it.”
LaShon Suggs, Suggs’s second wife, divorced him in 2008. She has known Suggs since he was 12. “He’s over the drugs, but he’s definitely not over the past,” she says. “He keeps saying he feels God has something better in store for him, but I don’t think he even knows what that is. I really think he thinks big things are going to happen with that book. But he keeps rewriting the same thing.”
The sun streams in through the big picture window in the library. Today, Suggs is writing about his father begging him for crack and how he couldn’t stand to see the man he looked up to so desperate. He writes about being so sick of his life that he pleaded with God to help him up and out of it.
Suggs writes for an hour. When he finishes for the day, he’s on Page 303, where it’s still 1992.
Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She previously wrote for the Magazine about women with ADHD and working mothers’ efforts to manage their time.