Fighting for His Dream, And for His Little Girl

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

HOUSTON, Aug. 22 -- He fingers the dog tag dangling around his neck, the one engraved "Daddy's Baby Girl" that was given to him by the child's mother, and Deontay Wilder has a purpose: He is going to be somebody. He gazes at his daughter's visage, now worn almost invisible from the constant rubbing of his thumb.

"If a man has something to fight for he's more unbeatable than if he's fighting for himself," he said.

He talked Wednesday in the lobby of a splendid hotel, and who could have imagined this? That he, Deontay Wilder, a win away from the Olympic Games after a third-round victory in the U.S. boxing trials? And as a boxer? He wore a red baseball cap turned backward and a smile. Then he touched the dog tag again.

"I feel like I've got a big heart, man," he said. "I feel like there's nothing I can't do."

In a sport of improbable stories this might be the most amazing at the trials. Two years ago Wilder was a 19-year-old Budweiser truck driver in Tuscaloosa, Ala., his football and basketball dreams set aside when doctors told him the child his girlfriend was carrying had spina bifida. He had a choice: Keep pursuing a basketball season at a local junior college or go to work and support his baby. The moment he held the tiny girl, prematurely born, in the palm of his hand that decision became simple.

Then on a whim he walked into a boxing gym. Now he's on the brink of an Olympic berth after just 20 career fights.

But it's not so much that Wilder, who at 6 feet 7 towers over the other fighters here, is a natural -- he didn't know any of the punches when he first started. He's just determined to be something important.

Jay Deas noticed it almost right away when Wilder walked into the tiny metal building just outside Tuscaloosa where he runs his boxing gym. At first he didn't know what to make of the giant man who said he wanted to be a boxer. He handed Wilder a jump rope, showed him some moves and told him to practice. For days he barely acknowledged the newcomer, assigning him tasks and then walking away. But even from the other side of the gym he would sneak glances at the tall kid, just to see if the will was there, if Wilder would finish every drill he had been told to do.

After about two weeks, it was obvious Wilder wasn't going away. And once he got into the ring his power amazed. In his first fight at the novice level, he knocked out his opponent in three punches. Two fights later, the Golden Gloves people told Deas he had to move Wilder to a more advanced level. Not long after he was the national Golden Gloves champion and then the winner of the U.S. championships in Colorado Springs.

"If he's not learning something new he gets bored; you have to keep it fresh," Deas said. Then the coach paused for a moment. "You know how everyone has got their thing? When he came in our gym I think it hit him: 'I've got my thing.' If he goes to the Olympics they will be getting a great representative for boxing. Nobody's going to outwork him."

Maybe they are perfect for each other. Deas, 38, grew up around the gyms in Alabama where his brother Tommy worked as a trainer. But he went to college as a baseball pitcher. After school he became a television reporter in Tuscaloosa and in Panama City Beach, Fla., covering crime where more than one date ended with him getting a page and having to drive the girlfriend to a fresh murder scene with uncovered bodies still lying at his feet. He is now a boxing promoter who only began working with amateurs when too many of his professionals retired.

Nothing, though, could have prepared him for Deontay Wilder.

There is a lifetime of memories that swim in Wilder's head of all the people who told him he could not do something. He still hasn't forgotten the words of a ninth-grade football coach who screamed at him after he cut short a passing route: "You aren't [expletive] and you will never be [expletive]." This still eats at him, so much that he almost wants to make the Olympics just to find that coach again and say, "Hey, look at me now, I'm on top of the world!"

But there are more important things to worry about now. His little girl, Naieya, is 2 and after many surgeries she can move around and play and do almost all the things the doctors said she never would. Deontay is not surprised. "I feel she's got a part of me," he said.

Every time he sees her, he tells her he loves her. He does this three or four times a day. It's important to know her parents, even though they are no longer together, love her, he said. Just as it's important that he continues to get up at 5 a.m. to get into the cab of the Budweiser truck and begin the route around Tuscaloosa that will take most of his day. He does it for her. Just like the Olympics are for her.

Someday her daddy is going to be somebody, he said. Just you wait and see.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company