Friday, October 22, 2004


Peter Gelzinis

Veteran prizefighter pitches in to KO addiction

As heavyweight title fights go, it was brief, bloody and brutal. It took place in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens some 41 years ago and lasted all of four rounds.

Those who can still recall it might think Tom "The Arlington Avenger" McNeeley's disastrous encounter with Floyd Patterson was the toughest fight of his life. But they wouldn't know the half of it.

Tom McNeeley will be appearing at a benefit for the Gavin House and other local treatment facilities Friday night in Dorchester.

"The toughest guy I ever went up against," McNeeley recalled, "was that ol' John Barleycorn. I'll tell ya, next to the bottle, Floyd Patterson was a piece of cake."

He recalls the day of his last drink - Christmas, 1985 - the way most of us rattle off our birthday. But then, this congenial man will tell you his life didn't really begin until that Christmas Day. Since then, he begins each new day on his knees, thanking the Almighty for one more morning, and asking that He continue to bless him with the strength he never had as a young brawler.

It is little wonder that tonight Tom McNeeley will lead a legion of boxing greats in the Friday Night Fights For Recovery at the IBEW Hall on Freeport Street in Dorchester at 7 p.m.

Just about everyone from Carmen Basillio to Tony DeMarco, from Micky Ward to Johnny Ruiz, Peter McNeeley, Vinnie Pazienza, Gerry Cooney, Goody Petronelli and, of course, our bulldog state auditor, Joe DeNucci, will be there.

It is a fund-raiser for a trio of human lifelines: the Gavin House, a recovery home for men in South Boston, the Cushing House, one of the few teen treatment homes in the state, also located in Southie, and the Edwina Martin House, one of fewer way stations for women, located in Brockton.

"Recovery is a kind of metaphor for the fight game," McNeeley said. "So many of us have learned the hard way that our greatest struggles have all been outside the ring.

"You know, it's a funny thing, but I actually attended my first AA meeting in 1958, three years before the Patterson fight. But I wasn't ready," McNeeley said.

"I went up there to Toronto with this vision in my head," he laughed. "I could see the parade they were going to have for me when I came back from Toronto with the (heavyweight) crown. It's the dream all fighters have. I wanted to make the city proud. And when I failed . . . oh, man, did I take it hard.

"Oh, yeah," he sighed, "I went into the bottle pretty good after that fight. It wasn't the reason by any means for what happened to me. I don't want to leave you with that impression. But everything contributes. You look for reasons, any reason, to reach for the bottle."

So, when a guy like Paul McDevitt, a mental health counselor and rehabilitation specialist, called and asked for McNeeley's help, the response he got was simple: "When and where."

Tickets to this event are $50, hardly cheap. "But what choice do we have?" Paul McDevitt asked. "More and more kids are dying from cheap heroin and things like OxyContin. They're losing themselves to alcohol younger and younger. And we don't have a fraction of the (recovery) beds we need to treat them.

"These places are truly in the business of saving lives, slowly and quietly, one day at a time. It's up to us to sustain them. That's why we're rattling the tin cup, so to speak."

Father and son fighters Peter (left) and Tom McNeeley will be joined by an all-star lineup of veteran boxers, including Micky Ward, Carmen Basillio, Gerry Cooney, Tony DeMarco, Vinnie Pazienza and state auditor Joe DeNucci. ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas will be master of ceremonies for the event.

"Nobody knows better than me what it takes to get people into recovery," said McNeeley, who was quick to include the memory of having to commit his own son, Peter, to a detox facility.

"It tore my heart out to see him looking back at me through the bars of a cell down at Bridgewater," he said, "but then, there came that Christmas when all my sons were together and Peter, he whispered to me, 'Thanks, Dad, for saving my life.' "

This article was published in the Boston Herald on 10/22/2004.