Toledo firefighter, boxer fights off adversity

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Dre Ware forgot his keys … and it changed his life.

It was Aug. 22, 2011. A late-blooming athlete, Ware always was competitive and, after a couple years of football at the University of Toledo, he took up boxing.

Ware had just left a session at a local gym, and headed to his grandmother’s house to mow the lawn there. It was a cool day for the late summer with plenty of sunshine — and perfect for mundane yard work.

But Ware forgot his keys, and it threw off his timing for the entire day. It was a minor irritation — or at least until his phone rang.

It was his mother. She was frantic. There had been gunshots at the family’s house, she said. It was Christopher Lawrence, officially Ware’s stepfather but more like a real father.

It wasn’t good, she said. He was . gone.

Ware rushed home, but there was nothing to do be done. According to a police report, Lawrence was sitting in his pickup truck outside the family’s house when a bullet struck him in the back of the head, killing him.

Police told the family when the bullet hit Lawrence, the force caused his right foot to hit the gas, revving the engine of the parked truck.

The family was devastated. “Country Chris” always had been interested in keeping the neighborhood kids occupied — sports teams, impromptu tournaments, and a boxing gym. Always things to do and places to see. Without him, many of those kids who depended on him went their own ways.

“It changed everything,” Ware said. “Some guys got lost out here.”

Had Ware had his keys, like normal, there is a good chance he would have been there and, who knows what could have happened.

He tries to not to think about it, but it’s hard to avoid.

Ware never imagined being the kid whose father was lost to senseless violence.

Still, the case is unsolved. Somebody knows who was involved, but nobody talked. The family thinks it was a case of mistaken identity, but their guesses are all they have. They don’t expect a resolution.

The pain isn’t like it was at first, but it’s still there, and they aren’t sure it will ever go away.

“I still have a heavy heart over it, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be over it,” Ware said.

Lawrence always had told Ware he was going to be different in his life. As the emergency personnel pulled away from the house, it seemed surreal. This is going to be hard, Ware thought.

For him, it usually has been.

As a high school student, Ware’s classmates weren’t sure what to make of him. He was quiet and usually kept to himself, rare to speak out and rarer to trust someone he didn’t know well.

He played sports, but wasn’t really on anyone’s radar his first three years. Longtime basketball coach Ed Heintschel knew of Ware, but thought Ware would not make varsity cuts as a senior. Then Ware had a breakout football season, and Heintschel couldn’t shake Ware as a basketball player.

At 5-foot-9, he wasn’t exactly the type basketball coaches fawn over, but Ware seemingly could defend anyone. He seemed to live for shutting down the opposing team’s best player.

“He just had this survivor mentality that he brought to sports,” Heintschel said. “He had this smile that would light up the place, but when it was time to compete, boy, it was time to compete.”

In Ware’s senior season in 2005-06, he seemingly came out of nowhere to become a catalyst, however, and the team made a surprise run to the state final four.

Against Canton McKinley, the eventual state champion, Heintschel trusted Ware to guard Raymar Morgan, who became an All-Big Ten player at Michigan State. Morgan was a foot taller than Ware, but Ware held his own.

Like Lawrence had said, the quietest boy in St. John Jesuit’s halls had something different within him after all, and sports brought it out of him. But with the exception of Heintschel and a select few others, most didn’t know Ware’s real story.

In his neighborhood, it was a means of survival to keep your mouth shut, but stay ready to fight if need be. By the time he was in junior high, seeing drug deals was normal. It became a state of being. It wasn’t necessarily better or worse, it just was — each and every time out of the house.

“That was an everyday thing, even when I was at St. John’s,” Ware said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to step with them and be cool, or stay on my path and keep doing everything I was supposed to be doing.”

For the most part, Ware stayed quiet. Ware said he stayed in a shell for his first three years at St. John’s, and people who didn’t know him thought he was mean, so they left him alone.

Ware opened up as a senior, as a person and an athlete. He said the private school experience at St. John’s was a culture shock, but one of the best things he ever did.

Ware is mellow and laid back by nature. But beneath the surface, there was a hardship few had the chance to know.

Ware, whose full name is DeAndre, grew out of survival as much as anything. Even as a still-young man, his life has been full of enough sadness for multiple lifetimes.

He has watched people in his life disappear to incarceration, and felt like he became an unfair target to police because of it.

In addition to Lawrence, Ware’s biological sister died suddenly. During one two-week span after high school, Ware lost his grandfather, was involved in a serious car accident, and saw the family house badly damaged by fire. At a certain point, it became human to ask why.

Jumping from one life crisis to another, Ware promised he was going to stay the course even if it killed him.

“I’ve always came out and done everything I was supposed to do no matter what happened,” Ware said. “I always had it in my mind to keep pushing.”

Ware, who is a firefighter, has a full-time career he loves. He said it’s the best job in the world, blending camaraderie with a crucial public service.

Lamar Wright knows as well as anyone: Ware does not need boxing. Wright, Ware’s trainer at Glass City Boxing & Fitness, said he would be happy for Ware even if he walked away from the sport tomorrow. Ware picked up boxing after knee surgery to stay in shape and improve his footwork with the full intention of going back to football.

He never returned, and for good reason. In Ware’s first fight, he dropped his opponent in 30 seconds. At Ware’s first national tournament, he fought the No. 1 boxer in the world and went toe-to-toe with him. The Glass City crew is convinced Ware should have been given the decision, but he raised eyebrows nonetheless. One year in, Ware was on par with the top amateur fighters.

“I was like, man, we got something,” Wright said.

Within two years of picking up boxing, Wright said everyone in USA Boxing knew of Dre Ware. Wright has a personal reminder: Ware broke Wright’s hand during a training session. Wright, who wore a size 10 wedding band previously, now wears a 13.

At age 26, Ware turned professional at the end of 2014, and the super middleweight has yet to lose. He is 8-0-1 with six knockouts. Ware has a long reach for his height, and he punches like — and often spars as — a heavyweight. Given his blend of brute strength and natural athleticism, opposing fighters aren’t sure what to do with him.

Ware and Wright want a perfect 2017, then they hope for even more in 2018. They want Ware to fight for a title in 2018, and Wright thinks it could happen.

Boxing has become a second career to Ware, who will work a 24-hour shift at the fire station, leave work at 7 a.m., and find his way to the gym by 11. To have found success in not one but two careers has amazed many in Ware’s life.

“It’s inspirational. It motivates you to want to do more,” said Kamal Parker, a fireman on Ware’s crew. “It’s amazing to see where he got to right now, considering what he’s been through.”

It’s rare for a 20-something to waltz into a boxing gym and look for serious training.

Wright said Ware came into the gym and changed everyone else. Even in a boxing world that can be unforgiving, Ware’s story is special, Wright said.

“Even as his trainer, I look up to him and admire what he’s been able to overcome,” Wright said. “He’s our success story. Anybody that comes in off the street, we can say, ‘Look, it doesn’t have to be like that. Look where Dre’s at.’

“He’s the perfect role model.”

Ware’s trajectory is not the typical one for a successful boxer, or for anyone. However, it is uniquely his.

Through the hardest times — the tears and funerals, the pain and fear — Ware said he trusted his hardships were God’s will, and he would make it, no matter what.

“I’ve had a lot of adversity through my life,” Ware said. “But I feel like I’ve always beaten the odds.”

For those who knew the quiet boy at St. John’s, it is easiest to avoid thinking about how he made it to this point, and just be thankful that he did.

“He’s one of the great success stories here, and it’s all on him. He’s the one who did it,” Heintschel said. “He’s got in his own soul a tremendous strength that’s pulled him through.”

Ware turned 29 in January, and he is living a life now that did not seem possible 10 years ago. He is engaged and has a healthy, vibrant 4-month-old daughter. He has two full-time careers, he’s a professional athlete, and he has a whole community rooting for him.

It’s everything he could want.

After years of struggle, now could be the start of more for Ware. If everything breaks the right way, he could be Toledo’s next champion.

“I’m happy where I’m at right now, but I can’t say I’m proud yet because I’m not done,” Ware said. “I still have a lot that I want to do, and I’m not going to be satisfied until I get it done.”


Information from: The Blade,