Boxing
Mark Kriegel, ESPN 26d

'Pat saved my life. And now I'm praying God saves his'

Editor's note: This story was published prior to Patrick Day's death on Wednesday, Oct. 16.

It was the summer of 2006 when he walked across the street -- Buchanan Street in Freeport, New York -- and into his neighbor's garage. Patrick Day was 14, and attracted to an old Everlast heavy bag. He'd never boxed, and the bag, it turned out, was like hitting concrete. Still, Day began tapping out a rhythm, losing himself in the beat, when the neighbor caught him.

"You always go into someone's house without permission?" the guy asked.

Day was explaining how he'd seen other kids in the garage when the neighbor interrupted him again, telling him he wasn't punching the bag so much as slapping it. It was clear the kid wanted to learn, which, after all, was why the neighbor -- a retired firefighter named Joe Higgins -- always kept the garage door open.

Day came back the next day and the day after and the day after. Finally, Higgins told him: "You're having too much fun doing this. Time to go to the gym."

He meant the Freeport PAL, which Higgins ran with the assistance of Sal Giovanniello, a business manager for the roofer's union, and his son, Joe Jr. It was fine by Day. But his mother would need some convincing.

Day was the youngest of four sons born to Haitian immigrants. His father was a doctor who'd boxed as a kid. But his deeply religious mother, Lyssa -- a translator at the United Nations -- did not approve of violence in any form, sanctioned or otherwise.

Boxing?

She walked across the street to grill Higgins, who recalled his own pugilistic education. At Lost Battalion Hall in Queens, they put you right in, sparring on your first day. It wouldn't be like that for Patrick.

"I promise you," he told Mrs. Day, "your son will learn something."

What he didn't tell her? Higgins was a mess. Both Higgins -- from Ladder 111 in Bed-Stuy -- and his brother, Timothy, from Company 252 in Bushwick, had been among the emergency responders on Sept. 11, 2001. Tim had arrived in the first wave at the World Trade Center. It took many months before they found his body.

"My brother was found on top of a civilian woman, and we think he was trying to save her," Joe Higgins once told Yahoo's Kevin Iole. "There are stories I've been told from people who were there that saw him that he saved 20 people's lives."

Then Higgins went back to digging at the cleanup site, where the Twin Towers' smoldering remnants had been excavated into a massive crater.

"As bad as the pile was, I think the hole was worse," Higgins recalled. "The excavation was finer. You could see the metallic dust in the lights at night. It was going right through our masks. You could taste it."

It was killing him. Higgins was sure of it. But he kept digging. "Nothing could drag us out of that hole," he told Yahoo. "We stayed to the very last day."

And when it was done, Higgins went back to Freeport and retired. He had two throat surgeries, an assortment of esophageal ailments and PTSD. Guys he knew from the cleanup were already dying of cancer. Higgins figured it would get him, too. He didn't eat much, just waited for the inevitable. What killed his brother was only killing him slower.

Then he met Day. And each day Day came to the gym, Higgins became a little less of a mess.

"That kid from across the street," his wife, Jesse, told him, "he makes you feel better."

Actually, looking back, Day made him feel great. To see Higgins at a weigh-in or a fight or a hotel lobby was to see a man buoyed by a kind of ecstatic pride.

"Have you met Pat Day?" he would ask, beaming. "This kid is special. I'm telling you. Twenty-six years, he's the closest I'll ever come to a championship."

Before Day, the best prospect to come out of the Freeport PAL was a light heavyweight, Seanie Monaghan. "Seanie was the typical boxing story: a kid who looked like he was on his way to prison," Higgins recalls. "Then he came to us."

Day was something different, a boxing anomaly: his mother fluent in French and Spanish, his father an OB/GYN with a practice in Brooklyn. Day stayed in school even as he established himself as a top amateur. Not only did he win the New York Golden Gloves, the National PAL Championship and a U.S. National Championship, he earned an associate's degree in nutrition and later, after turning pro, a bachelor's degree in health and wellness. He had options, but Day felt he had to be a fighter.

"I'm not the stereotypical boxer story," he told the ESPN broadcast team in June at Pechanga Resort Casino. "I love to fight. What's in your heart doesn't depend on your socioeconomic status."

Still, there were better ways to earn a living, right?

"I need to be great at something," Day said. "I cannot die and not accomplish nothing. I am in my prime, and I need to work hard. My dad says these are the years I should be sleeping the least and working the hardest, so I can rest and enjoy the fruits of my labor later."

And your mother?

His mother didn't come to the fights. She didn't watch them, either. "She doesn't condone it," he told the broadcast team. 

The next evening, Day -- ranked No. 10 by the WBC at 154 pounds -- lost a one-sided unanimous decision to the heavy-handed Carlos Adames.

"Tuff night," Higgins texted. "See you at the next one."

It wasn't long before Day and Higgins started angling for another big fight, something that would get them back on track for a title. It turned out to be Charles Conwell, a 2016 Olympian from Cleveland.

Conwell clearly controlled the fight Saturday at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago. "But it wasn't an ass-whupping," said Lou DiBella, Day's promoter. "Pat won rounds in the middle of the fight."

Nevertheless, Day went down in the fourth, the eighth and finally, in the 10th, when his head bounced off the canvas. Day would remain unconscious, suffering seizures in the ambulance on the way to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he underwent brain surgery and remains in a coma. 

There's no intimation that anyone did anything wrong. Unless, of course, you're of the belief -- as perhaps, Day's own mother was -- that there's something inherently wrong with boxing.

"Truth is," DiBella said, "there's not a lot of ways to justify this business."

On Sunday, the Day family arrived at the hospital.

"I'm dying," Higgins wrote in a text to ESPN. "I feel like I'm responsible, like I let him down. My special kid."

Later that day, Higgins sent Coach Sal and Joe Jr. home with specific instructions: Shutter the Freeport PAL, change the locks, make sure no one can get in.

"In honor of Patrick Day, no one's going to hit the last bag he hit, or spar in the last ring he sparred in," Higgins said Monday afternoon. "I'm not even donating it. That stuff's going somewhere no one can ever find it again. That's just the way I feel. I'm never watching another boxing match. I'm never training another kid. I'm never going to put another kid in danger of a punch. Ever."

In boxing, it's not all about the kids you lose, though. What about the ones you save?

"Pat saved my life," said Higgins. "And now I'm praying God saves his."

Higgins could see himself coaching another sport. Or maybe he'd work with the local church, Holy Redeemer on South Ocean Avenue.

He just couldn't see himself driving down that block again on Buchanan Street. "Our families are intertwined," he said.

The Days and the Higginses.

"Boxing sucks," said Higgins, his voice starting to crack. "It's a bloodsucker sport."

Day's mother had been right the whole time. And now, Joe Higgins was terrified to face her in the hospital.

But there was no reproach when they did. Just a hug from Day's mother.

"I love you," she said.

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