Heavy D

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January 14, 2006. The organist played softly, as people gathered in the sanctuary of Progressive Baptist Church for the funeral of Darryl “Heavy” Johnson. Together with his friend and colleague Frank Smith, Heavy had long been the soul of the Stateway Gardens boxing gym–a sanctuary of another sort for many of those exchanging condolences and embraces in the aisles of the church. A place inhabited by Heavy’s spirit and quality of attention.

People flowed into the church for more than an hour. As the beginning of the service approached, emotion built. The sobbing voice of Heavy’s teenage daughter Brittany pierced the murmuring of the organ. “No, Daddy, no.” She came back to the coffin several times, as did Frank Smith who bent down to kiss his friend’s forehead.

“He touched a lot of kids,” Frank remarked. “Grown men have been calling me for days. Crying.”

The coffin was closed, and the service began. Before the eulogy by Heavy’s older brother Rev. Milton R. Johnson, Jr., pastor of Bread of Life Ministries, there were several short speeches.

Among the speakers was Robert von Hallberg, professor of English at the University of Chicago, who had trained at the Stateway gym for a number of years. He and Heavy had become close. Von Hallberg spoke as a friend but also as a fellow critic and teacher.

“Heavy had a great eye. If you worked with him, you knew he had a great eye. If you went to the gym, you heard a lot of criticism. It’s a tough place to be. Not because people are beating up on other people. But because people are saying, ‘You’re wrong. You’re a fool. Why are you acting like that? Why are you doing that?’ You have to be tough to take negative criticism, a whole lot of negative criticism.

“Boxing is a discipline of the spirit. And when Heavy saw, with what I believe was a very exceptional eye, what somebody was doing wrong, it hurt to hear it. But the point of saying what’s wrong was: Just fix that. Fix that one thing. Lift your left hand. Step to the left. Do that one thing. And life will be great!”

What made Heavy such an exceptional critic, von Hallberg said, was his spirit. “He had a great eye for the positive thing. And his spirit was strong enough that he could get up and celebrate the value he saw wherever he saw it. That is to say, he didn’t have fatigue.”

He recalled a conversation he had with Heavy a few days before his death. “We were talking after dinner at the table about one of the boys who has wandered. He said, ‘We have to go to his house, we have to go to his cousin’s house, we can’t just say he doesn’t want it anymore, we have to get him to the gym, we have to get him because he’s in trouble, and we have to keep doing it, we can’t stop, we can’t just let him go.’

“He didn’t fatigue. He didn’t give up. He persisted.”

The time came for the eulogy. Before he said a word, Milton Johnson picked up a saxophone and began to play. The moment was at once unexpected and necessary–the soul of the memorial. It was as if Milton’s sax gathered all the emotion in the room, concentrated it, then gave it release.

This is a documentary of that moment. It was conceived and designed by David Eads, with the help of Jason Reblando. The photographs are by Patricia Evans (black-and-white) and Jason Reblando (color).

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