Ex-Boxing Champion Floyd Patterson Saves a Lad, Gains a Son : Youngster Escapes a Bleak Past
Floyd Patterson spent much of his youth avoiding the light. He loved the night, hated daytime. He craved solitude, avoided people.
So when he saw 13-year-old Tracy Harris heading down a similar dark, lonely path, it was only natural that Patterson would try to steer him in the opposite direction.
Patterson, the former two-time heavyweight boxing champion, saw a lot of his younger self in Harris.
It wasn’t just that Harris hung around Patterson’s gym in New Paltz, N.Y. Nor was it that Harris took immediately to boxing, falling easily into the bob-and-weave peekaboo style that propelled Patterson to the top of the heavyweight division in 1956.
No, there were other kids in Patterson’s gym like that.
What attracted Patterson most to Harris was what the youngster did when workouts were over. Which was nothing. He just continued to hang around.
“That told me that he had no place to go,” Patterson said. “He was a loner. Just like I had been.”
Patterson found a place for Harris--in his own home. He gave him shelter, a purpose to his life, a career and, ultimately, his own name. Tracy Harris is now Tracy Patterson, Floyd’s legally adopted son and a professional fighter in his own right.
A featherweight, Tracy has a 16-0 record with eight knockouts. He will fight again Friday night at the Country Club in Reseda, an eight-round match against an opponent yet to be determined.
And as always, when he comes back to his corner between rounds, Tracy will find Floyd, there to offer advice and support and to keep away the demons of loneliness and depression.
Floyd Patterson spent years battling his own demons.
One of the 11 kids that Thames and Annabelle Patterson had, Floyd grew up in the crowded tenements of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area, a child of the night.
“I can remember my father always being tired,” Patterson said. “He had different jobs--he was a construction worker, a sanitation worker, a longshoreman--and I can remember him coming home and giving my mother all the money he’d made.
“That gave me guilt feelings. We didn’t starve, but there was never enough food for everybody. I figured I could make things easier by leaving.”
So at 10 and 11, Patterson would run away from home, sometimes for weeks at a time.
“There was another reason, too,” he said. “I hated school, because I felt like I was the dumbest one there. Plus the clothes I had to wear were nowhere near as good as the other kids had.”
Sometimes, Patterson’s mother gave Floyd one of his father’s shirts to wear to school. She pinned the collar up so no one would notice it was three sizes too large. One day, the pin came loose as Patterson was entering a class. He was greeted with howls of laughter from his classmates.
He looked down at his collar, realized what had occurred and bolted from the room.
As a runaway, Patterson became a night creature.
“I loved the night,” he said. “I would sleep all day and then roam the streets at night.”
Even during the day, Patterson found darkness. Deep in the subways of New York, he discovered a small enclosed area atop a ledge above the tracks. There he slept, hiding from the troubles of his little world.
When hunger pangs began at night, he often broke into stores and stole food. Caught on one occasion, he was hauled before a judge.
The judge demanded to know what was taken.
Just some soda and cookies, he was told.
What about the money in the cash register?
It wasn’t touched, Patterson told him. He was only after food to survive.
The judge took pity on him and sent him to a shelter for kids for a month’s stay.
That didn’t help, though. Eventually, he was sent home. He ran away again, was caught stealing again. . . . It became a cycle in young Floyd’s life. Every time he was caught, Patterson was eventually sent home, from which he eventually ran away again.
Finally, he wound up in the Wiltwyck School for Boys, where he put on boxing gloves for the first time.
A light went on in his dark world.
He took to boxing and went on to win an Olympic gold medal in the 1952 Games at Helsinki, Finland. Four years later, at 21, Patterson beat Archie Moore, becoming the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight championship. That record stood until just a few months ago, when Mike Tyson won the title at 20.
Patterson lost the championship to Ingemar Johansson of Sweden in 1959, but then came back a year later, at 25, to regain the title from Johansson, becoming the first heavyweight to win back the title. That mark was eventually equalled and surpassed in the ‘70s by Muhammad Ali, a three-time champ.
It was all so ironic. Patterson, who had sought the shadows, wound up making his living in a spotlight.
“I just didn’t have confidence in myself,” Patterson says now. “Boxing forced me to meet people. As I got better, I gained confidence.”
But even then, the old demons occasionally surfaced. When lost big fights, such as the two defeats administered by Sonny Liston, Patterson donned a phony beard or some other disguise to avoid facing his public.
“If it happened now, I could face it,” he said. “I would still feel just as ashamed, but I could face it.”
These days, Patterson is helping his adopted son prepare to face many of the same obstacles he encountered.
“If Tracy lost, I would tell him things I had wanted to hear, but no one would tell me,” Floyd said. “I would tell him it’s natural to feel the way you do, but to realize you did your best and it just wasn’t enough. It’s natural to be ashamed.
“To you, it’s the worst thing that ever happened, but others may not feel that badly. It may not be 1/10th as bad as you think. I would tell him to walk out the door and face his fans, but not to judge that door until he opens it.”
Patterson walked out on boxing in 1972 at 37.
It wasn’t easy.
“I missed the sacrificing, the excitement, the challenge,” he said. “It was hard to settle into a life of quietness. But it was inevitable. I realized you can’t fight the inevitable. I tried to for years.”
To ease himself into life out of the ring, Patterson served on the New York State Athletic Commission for seven years and trained amateur fighters in a gym he set up on his 25-acre property in New Paltz.
The original idea was just to get the kids in the gym to work out and become physically fit. Over the last few years, hundreds have come through the program.
“After a while, they weren’t content with just working out,” Patterson said. “They didn’t want to sweat in vain. So I taught them to box.”
Tracy became enamored of boxing at 11, watching Sugar Ray Leonard win a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. So he went to New Paltz, 80 miles northwest of New York City. One of six brothers, he had grown up without a father. And when his mother, Annie, decided to go back home to Alabama with her children, Tracy, then 14, resisted. He had found a home in the ring.
Patterson offered him the chance to keep it, and then, along with with his wife Janet and their two daughters, Jennifer and Janene, offered him a spot in Patterson’s home.
Tracy took it.
He became a good amateur fighter, winning 97 of 104 bouts, 35 by knockout, and two New York Golden Glove titles before turning pro at 19.
The similarities between the Pattersons are sometimes eerie. Though there is no physical resemblance, the bob-and-weave fighting style Tracy has adopted is almost identical to Floyd’s. Their personalities are similar, too. Both are so quiet they can sit at the same table for hours without speaking.
“I was always quiet,” Tracy said. “I didn’t respect anybody. But once I was around Floyd and saw how he treated people, something just clicked. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be a better person.”
Tracy wants to emulate his famous mentor out of the ring, but says he’s not worried about the pressure of doing so in the ring, of about the expectations that might come with the name Patterson.
“I’m not trying to walk in his footsteps,” Tracy said. “He wears a size 10. I wear an 8 1/2. I’m trying to make my own footsteps. I feel I’m a leader, not a follower. Followers always finish last.”
Today at 52, still holding firm at 180 pounds, a little below his fighting weight, Floyd Patterson seems content with his life. He can look back at his accomplishments and smile, look ahead at what he thinks will be Tracy’s accomplishments and smile again.
“When my time comes I’ll have no regrets. No shame,” he said. “I’m happy with myself. I wouldn’t change any of my life, because if I did, I might not have what I have today.
“And you know the strangest thing of all is that I don’t like the darkness now. I have trouble sleeping at night until I see the dawn. Then I fall into a comfortable sleep. I can’t wait for daylight.”