So he was dealing well with his past, but he still didn't have a future. What gave him one was the appearance of former heavyweight champion Pinklon Thomas, himself a former drug abuser, who came to address the participants in the Phoenix South program. Tarver approached Thomas after his speech and, out of the blue, announced that he intended to resume his boxing career. Thomas, who might have heard hundreds of such revelations after his motivational talks, must have sensed a special desperation and sincerity, and he gave Tarver his card.
The two got together after Tarver completed the drug program and, beginning in late 1990, started following a full-blown training regimen. Out of the chute Tarver won the Florida light heavyweight championship. However, after just that one tournament, it was clear Thomas and Tarver had different goals. The former wanted the latter to turn pro; Tarver, perhaps remembering those shelves of glittering trophies, wanted the grand-daddy of all glitter—an Olympic gold medal. "The one thing I knew, even at the age of 20, 21, is that you ain't going anywhere as a pro after winning some state championship," Tarver says. "If you planned on being successful in this sport, you better have gone through these Olympic steps. In the end, I got rid of Pinklon Thomas. He couldn't see my dream."
He next turned to coach Lou Harris—"the great Lou Harris," Tarver calls him—at the Frontline Outreach Boxing Club, part of a larger complex in West Orlando that had been founded by a recovering drug addict as a place for troubled kids to channel their aggression. Harris recognized Tarver as a talent but does not, even in hindsight, tell you he recognized a future Olympian. The thing that most impressed Harris was that Tarver was always the first one at the gym, waiting for the doors to open. "Sometimes it's enough," Harris says, "if a kid just keeps hanging out at a place."
Tarver progressed so rapidly that the 1992 Games were a distinct possibility. However, he lost twice to a fighter named Richard Bonds, in the nationals and at an Olympic qualifier. And although he believes he thrashed Bonds at the Eastern Olympic Trials (the videotape shows Tarver collapsing in disbelief at the decision), he was equally sure that he was done with amateur boxing after the loss. "I went into that nutshell," he says. "I'm thinking about quitting. I'm thinking of my little boy, how to support myself. Thinking about my age. Thinking about how the U.S. boxing association must not like me because I'm from Florida. I had all kinds of reasons, believe me." He also was still trying to support Antonio Jr. (who is now eight years old and lives with his mother, Sharlease Banks, in Daytona Beach, but he is very much a part of Tarver's life). A familiar and helpless despair set in.
But rather than return to drugs, he returned to the gym. Harris teased him out of his nutshell, telling him the 1996 Olympics were "right around the corner." Tarver bought it. He kept boxing, and by '93, after he had won the national championship for the first time, an amateur career again made sense. The prize money from tournaments kicked in, Operation Gold sponsorship helped, and Tarver even hooked up with an Olympic sponsor, Home Depot, which also employs him as a part-time cashier. His money worries evaporated, and there was no longer any excuse to even think about fighting for $100 a round while trying to work up the pro ranks.
It hasn't been completely smooth sailing since. Tarver lost his national championship in 1994, when he was defeated by Anthony Stewart and, wouldn't you know it, went "back into my nutshell." But he didn't stay long, returning to beat Stewart at the '94 Olympic Festival and two more times after that, including the Olympic Box-offs last weekend in Augusta, Ga. Tarver hasn't lost to anyone since '94.
Tarver's international experience is so solid that he views the missteps that delayed his Olympic appearance by four years as a gift. In the 1995 Pan Am Games, to name one memorable bout, he opened a 6-1 lead over Diosvany Vega, got dropped by a hook, shook it off and spent the next two rounds in what The Washington Post called a "barroom brawl" before winning an 11-10 decision, the first U.S. victory over a Cuban boxer in the Pan Am Games since '87. "I'm seasoned mentally and physically," he says. "And as far as being old at 27, well, maybe it's time we didn't send boys to do a man's job."
He will appreciate the Games more than he could ever have as a headstrong and willful lad of 23 when, to spite someone, he might have dropped his gold medal in a backyard hole. "If I win a gold medal," he says, "I won't bury it, except deep in my heart."