ELKHART — Nothing like a third-grader knocking a world-famous boxer to his knees, and in the same breath giving a relatively anonymous journalist his moment in the winner’s circle.
As Sugar Ray Leonard and yours truly walked into Donna Misura’s third-grade classroom at Beardsley Elementary School on Thursday, Aug. 15, one curious student asked in total sincerity, “So, which one’s the boxer?”
Down goes Leonard. Up rises Anderson.
Hey, it’s easy to get us confused.
Leonard was named Fighter of the Decade for the 1980s. Me, I’m not sure I engaged in any fights during the ’80s, let alone won any.
Leonard was the first boxer to earn $100 million in purses. Me, let’s see ... I’m not that good at fractions.
Most of all, Leonard, 57, looks like he could still go several rounds right now. Me, 51, well, I do have him beat in poundage, and to my own shock, maybe even in height, as that 5-10 he used to be listed at looked suspicious in person.
Obviously, Misura’s was one of the classes, among the 10 that Leonard dropped in on overall, that did not happen to watch a biographical video about him earlier in the day.
The beautiful part was that Sugar wasn’t one granule offended. Like myself, he even Tweeted about it later.
Further, as for that instant that it happened, he pointed emphatically at me and tried to sell the kid that I was indeed the boxer. His playful eyes gave him away, however.
Thing is, that’s who Sugar Ray Leonard was not just in that moment, but throughout his Beardsley stop — playful, interested, engaged.
He was in town for a charity event benefiting the Boys & Girls Club of Elkhart later in the evening at The Lerner Theatre, an appearance that the club was hopeful would net around $100,000.
His handlers were emphatic that Leonard would only be able to give a half-hour in the afternoon to Beardsley.
He was there for well over an hour, stopping in the classrooms, and then at the Boys & Girls Club facility within Beardsley.
Not once did Leonard seem in a hurry. Not once did he seem distracted, not once did he act like he was more important than anybody else.
When he stopped to sign a T-shirt intended to be given later to an ill fan, he took extra care to stretch the shirt out so the words wouldn’t smear and asked a couple questions about the individual.
Typically, when I interview celebrities, it’s before or after something, so I don’t always get full firsthand exposure.
Thanks to the graciousness, though, of both Ryon Wheeler of the Boys & Girls Club and school staffers, I was able to accompany Leonard throughout his Beardsley tour. Me going the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard, if you will.
Not only was Leonard a hoot during some of the classroom exchanges, but as he walked the halls with principal Val Priller and other adults between those stops, he asked questions about things like state education standards, the city of Elkhart and more, then listened intently to the answers.
He shared some of his own childhood experiences, not all of them pleasant, as if he were talking to friends.
As Leonard walked into the first classroom, he was introduced as a “famous boxer.” He quickly corrected that the better reference might be to say “I was on ‘Dancing With the Stars’” in 2011. That way, at least some of the kids might recognize him.
One teacher shared with her students that “my dad made me watch him when I was growing up.” Then she seemed to feel bad about the way that sounded, but Leonard laughed it off.
Though each classroom stop consisted of just a few minutes, most of the children warmed to Leonard quickly.
In one classroom, he danced with the students to music, and showed he still has those elusive moves. In another, he accommodated a boy by feeling his bicep. In another, he had the children showing him their missing teeth.
He typically encouraged the kids to do their best in school.
“Why I decided to come here was simple,” Leonard said later, referring to both Beardsley and the Lerner engagement. “I’m a parent. Whatever celebrity I have, if it can be of impact, it feels good.”
While Sugar Ray Leonard is far from perfect — his own autobiography will tell you that much — there was no doubt that he was a champion, Elkhart’s champion, Thursday.
“Come back tomorrow,” one child casually called out as Leonard exited a classroom.
He just might be back sometime. At the Lerner, he shared how dazzled he was by both Beardsley and the efforts of the Boys & Girls Club of Elkhart, and offered, “I’ll come back. I’ll look forward to coming back.”
Contact Anthony Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.