Now he's 10, with a fight coming up next week on Pensacola Beach against a 14-year-old who's 16 pounds heavier. Nothing new. Big Roy's always throwing him in over his head, daring him to be a man, preparing him for the cruel sport that he, not Big Roy, has chosen. Didn't Big Roy give him a shotgun at Christmas when he was six, have him driving a tractor when he was seven? "Thought I'd pass out cold when I saw that," the boy's mother, Carol, says. Once when the two Roys were fishing, wading in surf up to Little Roy's chest, Big Roy shouted, "Sharks! Two of 'em!" and the boy dropped his rod and went thrashing for land. "What are you doin'?" the father demanded. "Where's your rod?" Trembling, the boy pointed toward the water. "Go get it," Big Roy said.
In crept Little Roy, certain he was about to be devoured for a fishing rod. Oh, he couldn't swim? A year later, when the boy was eight, Big Roy heaved him into the Gulf of Mexico, water two feet over his head—that'd learn him. He thrust Little Roy onto a horse, then a bull. "Ride 'em," he said. The child, at first, couldn't quite cover his panic. "You're too much like your mother," Big Roy would grumble when Little Roy ran into her arms. "You'll never do nothin' if you're scared."
Eventually he learned to protect himself. When his father slept he would tie to a fence a horse that others wouldn't ride, and he would conquer it alone. "After a while I didn't care about gettin' hurt or dyin' anymore," he says. "I was in pain all day, every day, I was so scared of my father. He'd pull up in his truck and start lookin' for something I'd done wrong. There was no escape, no excuse, no way out of nothin'. Every day it was the same: school, homework, farmwork, trainin'. Gettin' hurt or dyin' might've been better than the life I was livin'. So I turned into a daredevil. I'd do anything. Didn't make much difference. Used to think about killin' myself anyway."
The 10-year-old boy feels so alone. Some children are too intimidated by his father to come around but most just live too far away. He makes his alliances with animals. With the dogs that snarl at everyone else. With the bull that he has learned to ride. With the Shetland pony, Coco, that he has taught to rear up, just like the Lone Ranger's Silver. With the goat that followed him onto the school bus in second grade. With the blue-feathered gamecock his father will soon give him. He's always on to the next thing, the little boy, with a restlessness that the open country and the brutal sun can't leach from him. When the train rumbles through the trees not far from his home, Little Roy dreams of leaping onto it and letting it take him...where? Somewhere far from the cinder block house where his father will be returning soon from another day's work as an aircraft electrician at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Somewhere the belt and the switch, the PVC pipe and the extension cord can't reach. "The whippin's didn't last that long," Little Roy's younger half brother, Corey, says. "Maybe 20 minutes."
Big Roy's a monster, right? Look closer. Smell again. Soon Big Roy will be inviting kids from all over into his makeshift gym. Kids with no playgrounds, no direction, no fathers. Kids from trouble. Soon Big Roy will make sure a retarded boy named Chris gets his turn on the bag and in the ring, will make certain no one insults or bullies him—it's the same impulse that earned Big Roy the Bronze Star in Vietnam for rushing through a veil of bullets to save an ambushed mate. "You could give your two-week-old baby to that man, go on vacation and not think twice," says Doris Grant, an old family friend. "Big Roy'd take care of it." Soon he'll be wolfing down dinner, training the boys from 5 p.m. till 10 or 11, doing the farmwork till midnight, rising at five to go to work again. Soon his paycheck will be vanishing, gone to buy the kids boxing shoes and speed bags and vitamins. Soon he'll be working extra jobs on weekends to finance the kids' trips to tournaments in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia. Soon he'll be selling the tractor and the hogs so he'll have more time and money for the kids. Going to the dog track with his last two bucks, praying he can turn it into $50 or $60 so they can box on Saturday in Biloxi. His vacations will be a dozen kids jammed into a van, a dozen bologna sandwiches crammed into a bag, creeping home 10 miles under the speed limit so the gas tank doesn't go dry, relying on a piece of wire to hold the door closed so the kids don't all tumble out. He'll be poring over their report cards, patting their heads for A's and B's, cooking crabs and oysters for them on Friday evenings. "Seemed closer to the other kids," says Little Roy, "than he was to me." He'll be selling the farm, moving into Pensacola—giving up his biggest prize, giving up distance. He'll be running the Escambia County Boys Club boxing program in an abandoned building, rigging wires to the power lines outside to pirate electricity, herding everyone to the H&O Cafe a few blocks away when the boys need water and a toilet. Asking folks all over, asking his own sister, for contributions to keep this crazy, cobbled crusade alive.
That's the hardest thing of all for Big Roy. Asking. Needing. How many years has he gone without seeing a doctor? You're only hurt if you think you're hurt, he keeps telling his boxers and his five children. How many days did he let that pain in his right side go before he staggered into his father's house in Pensacola 14 years ago and sagged to his knees, moaning, "Just tired," waiting for someone to force him into a car and take him to a hospital before his appendix burst?
There's only one cure for needing: distance. Needing ate you up when you were one of 12 children growing up in a small house under a hard old man like Tippy Jones; needing could possess you, suck your lifeblood away, so move away from it. Where did Big Roy go the day they buried his mother? Four hundred seventy miles away, to Tampa, with one of his boxers. Where did he go at 17, after Tippy challenged him to fight and Big Roy swung a two-by-four at him, then flung it aside and ran rather than swing at his own blood again? To the Job Corps, to Indiana, then to pick fruit on farms all over the West and down to Mexico to box. To fight in small arenas for a few hundred bucks, in barrooms for a twenty, trying to work what was left of the needing out of his blood.
Where did Big Roy go when his father died? Oh, he nearly crumbled that time. He walked toward the funeral home, heart pounding with memories of Tippy stepping over the bodies of his children asleep on the floor each dawn, going off to work in construction all day and then cutting lawns till after dark. Memories of father words nearly identical to the ones Big Roy uses with his son: "I thought you were a man." Big Roy blinked at the mourners trying to ease him inside the funeral home...and somehow, at the last moment, saved himself. He remained outside. Nearly burned up with fever the next day, but nobody saw him cry.