"But there was always a pocket that wouldn't go, the money for me and my family to live happily ever after on," says Foreman. So out of that pocket, a low-six-figure income, came funds for his youth center, which he operates with Roy, funds for scholarships, funds for whatever the kids needed.
"I had it going real good, but each month it was starting to eat into my principal a little more," Foreman says. He thought there was plenty of principal left until one day his attorney came down to the center, stood over by the basketball hoop, and said that Foreman would have to let this place go because he was a lot closer to becoming Joe Louis than Father Flanagan. "I almost cried. Well, I said, I'll just start supporting it more. And I took on speaking engagements, booked myself around the country, just preaching.
"So this guy near Georgia invited me out and told me he would pay me so much for three nights. He'd donate it to the center. Well, O.K. He told me he already had the money, but when I got there, he started collecting. He didn't have the money. He looked at the collection and said, 'Now look here. George Foreman is doing so much for these kids, they're your kids, help him with this program.' He counted it again and then said, "Wait a minute, you can do better than this.' Man, I never felt so hurt and embarrassed in my life. And I made a vow. I said, I'll never do this again. I know how to make money. I went back and put on my boxing trunks."
Why be a 40-year-old champion? The short answer is, So you can sleep nights.
This latest life change is the least of Foreman's remarkable transformations. He used to be one of those kids he now aims to help. Not the kind who might shoot up a gas station. That would have been a considerable upgrade for his character. He was quite a bit worse, even if unarmed.
Lester Hayes, the Los Angeles Raider defensive back and another famous athlete to survive life in the Fifth Ward—a gritty section of small frame cottages on the north side of Houston—was six years younger than Foreman but hardly removed from his reach. Hayes, like everybody else, was a member of a gang, one of about 12 in the neighborhood, each representing a specific interest. There were fighting gangs, of course, but there was also a dancing gang, whose members spent the day fast-stepping down the gravel streets. The great spectator fun came when a dancing gang accidentally shimmied into a fighting gang. Hayes's gang specialized "in doing mischievous things." Like? "Oh. pillaging the neighborhood 7-Eleven, things of that nature," Hayes says. But Foreman's Hester House gang—George was the lead enforcer in a gang named after a nearby athletic center—wreaked a more practical kind of mischief.
"First time I met George Foreman I was in the seventh grade, hanging around a neighborhood store." Hayes says. "Up walks George Foreman and he asks me to loan him a nickel. I was eating a greasy-spoon hamburger, too, so he asks me for a bite of that. He took the entire burger.
"The next time I saw George, the idea of a nickel was null and void. I loaned him a quarter. It seemed to me huge inflation was taking place. Of course, I would have gone home and found a quarter for him if I didn't have one on me. He was a very, very big kid and had a reputation for savage butt kickings. That was his forte. So by the early age of 12, I had met George Foreman twice and I found both occasions extremely taxing."
Foreman was "the neighborhood small-change collector." Hayes says. "Anybody on George's turf had to pay a silver coin toll, tax-free income, and then take a terrible beating. I will say this of George: He was a smart gangster in that he would tax you first and then kick your butt. But he wasn't a very nice thing."
Foreman and a small circle of friends used these coins to get a start on the day's serious mugging. They bought cheap wine and then, emboldened, found victims of more financial means than pips like Lester Hayes. When Foreman tells the story, it is not to marvel at his meanness but at his ignorance. "We didn't even know this was wrong," he says. "I remember once, two boys and myself, we robbed a guy. Threw him down. I could hold the guy because I was strong, and the sneaky fella would grab the money. And then we'd run until we couldn't hear the guy screaming anymore. And then we'd walk home as if we'd just earned some money on a job, counting it. We didn't even know we were criminals."