When Jimmy Deoria Jr. helped start Phoenixville’s Police Athletic League (PAL) with his father in June of 1999, he could hardly have imagined how it would take off in the community.
It’s fitting that the organization turns 15 this month, just in time for father’s day, since it was started as a project between Deoria and his father, the late Jim Deoria Sr., as a way to stay involved in the sport they loved together as coach and athlete.
“My father and my old trainer, John [Mulvetta], they wanted to keep training kids,” Deoria explained. “I was done fighting, but it’s in their blood, boxing, and they wanted to keep training.”
After a lengthy amateur boxing career and a professional career in which he went 20 and 7, Deoria had taken a full-time position at his current job as a Schuylkill Township police officer. That’s what gave the three men the idea to start a PAL in Phoenixville.
Deoria said they had been familiar with seeing PAL boxers in his amateur days – pulling up in PAL vans with all their equipment – and being an officer himself now, with his own boxing experience and the beginnings of a coaching staff interested in helping kids, it just made sense.
And that attitude is what helped PAL expand to the varied program it is now. Thanks to good connections Deoria made with the Pickering Valley Golf Course and the old owner of Classic Billiards, he was able to start up golf clinics and billiards lessons. Both programs were not widely available to kids in the Phoenixville area, and golf is an expensive sport, so it made sense to offer these two programs at little to no cost for the kids.
The wrestling program was another no-brainer, Deoria said, explaining that the PAL liability insurance minimum at the time covered many more kids than they had. So it was natural to work together with the youth wrestling program to offer it through PAL.
Since the Phoenixville area already offered great baseball and basketball programs, among other sports, Deoria didn’t need to offer those programs through PAL.
“There’s like 300-some [PAL] chapters across the United States. They all have their different programs that fit the needs of the community,” he said. “So we feel that here in Phoenixville, the programs we offer kind of fit the needs of our community.”
But Deoria and his other coaches emphasized that it’s not just about the sports – the PAL is about connecting with kids and having a positive impact on their lives.
“There’s nothing like when you see the look change in their eye, and they get it, and they’re confident,” said Joe Rowan, one of PAL’s boxing coaches. “It ain’t about boxing. It’s about taking a boy and turning him into a man.”
Rowan’s name is another one that’s likely familiar to area boxing fans. His father, Joe Sr., is in the state boxing hall of fame and ran the Valley Forge Boxing Club for years. After the senior Rowan passed away and his gym closed, and Jim Deoria Sr. lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2007 at the age of 53, the younger Deoria asked the younger Rowan to come and take a look at the PAL gym.
Rowan liked what he saw and has been a trainer with the program ever since.
He’s seen kids come and go, and some don’t last. But for those who stay, he shares the love of boxing his father shared with him, and teaches the values that were passed to him.
“My dad used to say, a punch in the nose hurts. Not everybody’s going to do it. The thing is, sooner or later they straggle back in, because once it gets in their blood a little bit, sooner or later they’re coming back in,” he says. “You might be a tiny little part of somebody’s life; you might be a great big part of somebody’s life. You’re not going to make no money. It’s not about money. It’s about, somebody done it for me when I was a kid like that. You gotta pass it on. Pass it forward.
“And one of them may become a good fighter, who knows? But that’s not really what it’s about.”
That impact is evident when the students talk about the program.
“Learning how to box, it kind of brings into other aspects of your life,” Samuel Berman, who has been with the program for four years, says. “For instance, school work and other things like that, you tend to organize yourself a little bit better and find out, just like in boxing, your weaknesses and strengths, and you capitalize on your weaknesses.
“I didn’t have any work ethic before I started boxing,” he adds. “And once I started, I just couldn’t stop.”
For Kevin Garcia, what started as an extracurricular to keep himself in shape and out of trouble, has become a vehicle for personal growth.
“Just being around all of the trainers in here, you learn a lot inside of the gym and outside of the gym,” he says. “You’ve got to learn respect amongst others, especially when you’re in the ring. I’ve definitely grown as a person, definitely became more mature, learned a lot about myself, about determination. This isn’t an easy sport, but you’ve got to love it, you know?”
Having started with 15 kids signing up off the bat in the summer of 99, and growing to seeing 80 come through the boxing program alone last year, Deoria says his father would have been proud to see how far the PAL has come. Deoria Sr. saw some of the new programs get off the ground before his death, and he was excited that the PAL was “expanding its wings.”
“He was a proud person, he was a very good boxing coach, and he was also a good role model to other kids,” Deoria says. “So, in other words, I picked up on that from him. If he was still here today, he’d be proud of how far we’ve come.”
He adds that while it’s been rewarding for him, personally, to see the PAL grow from something he helped start from scratch, the credit really belongs to his volunteers and the local businesses that support it financially.
“I don’t do it alone, believe me,” he says. “It’s through a lot of other people that help and believe in me and believe in the program and believe in what we offer to help me offer the programs like this. But really, it’s been successful because of the good people I’ve met along the way.