SUNSET PARK — A retired NYPD officer who runs boxing gyms for teens and young adults is ready to fight his way back to Sunset Park after he was pushed out several years ago.
Pat Russo, 52, a onetime member of the NYPD’s boxing team, founded Atlas Cops and Kids Boxing Club in 1985 at a multi-purpose room in the neighborhood park's recreation center. He offered boxing instruction for more than two decades, he said.
The free programs ran successfully until about 2007, when the city Parks Department forced the nonprofit to vacate the rent-free space at the Sunset Park Recreation Center to make room for an expansion of an afterschool program, according to Russo and a Parks Department spokeswoman.
“We fought to keep it open,” said Russo, who eventually moved his gym to Flatbush and expanded to Staten Island. “That was my first gym. It was really emotional for me,” he said.
The nonprofit, which coaches young people ages 13 to 21 years old, began as a way to draw youth away from the gangs and drug violence that once infested the neighborhood, said Russo, who spent his career in the 72nd Precinct and retired in 2000.
But now Russo said he wants to get back into Sunset Park's rec center, after being contacted by community members who say they miss the program. They started a petition asking elected officials to support their cause.
Atlas Cops and Kids Boxing Club is funded by and draws its name from the Doctor Theodore A. Atlas Foundation, a nonprofit created in honor of boxing trainer and ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas.
Running another gym would require more money than Russo currently has from the nonprofit and he isn't planning to shut down his other Brooklyn or Staten Island clubs — but he said that won't stop him.
“I don’t know how we’d do it, but we’d come up with the funds,” he said. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to get back in Sunset Park,” he said.
For those involved with the group, it’s about more than just boxing. Students learn about discipline, learn job skills with help from a tutor and can even prepare for the NYPD police officer entrance exam.
“When you work hard and train hard, the fight is easy,” Russo said.
The club is coached by active-duty and former police officers, including Russo, which helps improve community relations between young people and members of the NYPD, the retired officer said.
“They’re just regular people like you,” said Aureliano Sosa, 45, who was a teenager when he joined the Sunset Park program years ago and then went on to box professionally. Sosa is now a coach for the Flatbush club.
Sunset Park, where Sosa has spent his entire life, is teeming with talent waiting to be unleashed.
“You know how many Mike Tysons there are on the street?” Sosa said.