Christian Bale grabbed an Oscar for his portrayal of Dicky Eklund in The Fighter. Bale played the role of the charismatic but slightly daft brother and trainer of junior welterweight contender Micky Ward. On Friday, Eklund visited Leo High School in Chicago.
Founded in 1926, Leo is an all-male parochial high school that draws its 150 African American students from an economically devastated neighborhood in South Chicago. But Leo has been working wonders. According to the president of Leo High School, Dan McGrath, 97 percent of the class of 2011 went on to college. One stellar student, Eder Cruz-Alvarado, was awarded the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship. Leo is also one of the few secondary schools in the land that boasts its own certified on-campus boxing program.
On the way to the school, Eklund's car hit a curb and popped a tire. Bystanders pointed out the problem and true to the character in the movie, Eklund stuck his head out the window and fired back, "Thanks. I know it's flat but only on the bottom." The former boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts has been in demand both as a coach and speaker since the blockbuster story of the lives of him and his brother flickered on screens in the U.S. and abroad. For months now, Eklund has been crisscrossing the country and he was understandably exhausted when he arrived in Chicago. After the mishap with the tire, he slept all the way to South Side, but once he arrived at Leo High the lights went on.
In fighting form, Eklund bounded up to the third-floor boxing gym. Students were jabbing him with questions about the movie and the possible sequel, but Eklund was hyper-focused on passing on some of the moves that helped him in his own 1978 bout against Sugar Ray Leonard, as well as in tutoring his brother Micky. The Massachusetts maestro barked, "Move your head. Double up the jab and don't pull your hand back all the way. Keep your elbows in." Once inside the squared circle, Eklund was in his element and it was hard to drag him out. Cameras were clicking. One underclassman sprinted down the hall as though with an urgent question. Almost breathless he asked, "Did you really take that fall out of the second floor window?" Eklund chuckled and responded, "Yeah and that's why my back is killing me right now."
To the delight of the students, Eklund kindly hung around for the Leo Football pep rally. Afterwards, walking down the locker-lined halls, Eklund confessed that he himself could not sit still and was not much of a student. He burbled, "Maybe I would have done better at Leo. I love this school. There is something so genuine about it. You can just feel it -- everyone cares. And how many high schools have a boxing gym where kids can settle a difference with the gloves on rather than in the streets?"
Mike Joyce, a lawyer and former professional boxer, graduated from Leo in 1986. He now coaches the Leo boxing team. Joyce was elated about having Eklund at his alma mater. "He is magic with the kids -- so witty and funny. And then he is this encyclopedia of boxing knowledge and they really listen to him. They loved him and keep asking me when Dicky will be back." And the good news is it won't be long. Eklund said that he plans to make regular stopovers at the Leo High.