Tony Gonzales has been knocked down many times in many different ways in his 42 years.
There were punches to his head when he was a contender. On the streets, when he was without a home and hallucinating, he fell into unconsciousness after injecting heroin.
Lesser fighters would have thrown in the towel. But on this morning, Gonzales will be back on his feet, a testament to perseverance, healing, and helping hands. He, in turn, has learned to assist others, giving them hope that they too can recover.
"I think of myself as so blessed, when I think about where I was," Gonzales said.
He works a 1 a.m.-9 a.m. shift at Catherine Lane, a home for a half-dozen mentally ill men and women in Grass Valley. A Christmas tree stood in the living room of the home, which is owned by Turning Point Providence Center, the nonprofit mental health care provider for Nevada County. Gonzales provides whatever residents might need, and makes sure they are safe.
"There is no better job than helping people," he said as his shift came to a close the other day. "All you have to do is be nice. How hard is that?"
Gonzales didn't know much about nice in his early life. He grew up in many places, Inglewood, San Diego, San Bernardino, and barely knew his father, who was in prison for selling drugs. He lived in foster homes, and a boyhood friend died in a drive-by shooting.
He also learned to fight. In the world of amateur boxing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gonzales stood out, becoming amateur flyweight champion in 1988, and amateur bantamweight champ in 1989.
In 1990, a news account in the Los Angeles Times reported that two Southern California boxers were helping the North American team dominate Europeans in U.S. Olympic Cup competition. One was Oscar de la Hoya, who later became the great champion. The other was Tony Gonzales.
Gonzales long ago lost the medals and trophies he had won. But he recently came across a CD of a fight with Eddie Cook, circa August 1990. He popped the disc into the television and we watched. The announcer says Gonzales is a smart fighter. I see how quick he is. Gonzales remembers how hard Cook hit.
"A tank," Gonzales said.
Gonzales beat Cook twice before, and twice after. But on this day, Cook won. The announcer sounded surprised at the decision, and the crowd booed.
Cook later turned pro and became bantamweight champ.
Robert Coons, who runs the United States Institute of Amateur Athletics in San Diego, was Gonzales' boxing coach and foster parent, and compared Gonzales to the very best of the day, de la Hoya included.
"Tony was right there," he told me by phone. But something was amiss. "There is skill, timing and lifestyle, and there is luck. He had so many obstacles to overcome."
Gonzales turned pro and made good money, but it didn't last. By age 25, he concluded he'd never become champion, and turned to the family business, selling drugs. He consumed too much of the merchandise and began wandering from city to city.
In the next 10 years, he figures he was jailed 50 times or more. He'd get loaded, swing at cops, and invariably get taken down hard. He has a scar on his forehead from being clubbed with a pipe. Heroin became his drug of choice because it kept him from hallucinating.
He collapsed from an overdose on the Portland waterfront. As paramedics worked to keep him alive, he says he prayed, telling God that the overdose was a mistake because he feared he would die and be condemned to hell for committing suicide. He woke up in a hospital and left without being discharged because he needed a fix.
He drifted to Sacramento, where he used and sold drugs, and did time at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center, and Placer County jail.
Along the way, he met a woman, Heather Peterman. He credits her for his salvation, though the relationship didn't start well. They used drugs, had a son, and got arrested when a second son was on the way. The prospect of losing custody was her wake-up call. He needed more.
In 2008, Gonzales was in jail, again, this time in Nevada County. Given his history of brain injury and mental illness, a Nevada County judge directed that he get mental health care upon his release. A Turning Point caseworker met him at the jail, brought him to its Grass Valley office, and signed him up for counseling and psychiatric care.
This time, he followed the rules, and his head cleared. Turning Point saw potential and gave him a job as a janitor. Last year, Turning Point hired him as a caseworker, what they call a personal service coordinator. He helps run group therapy sessions.
On the side, he coaches boxing, mostly as a volunteer.
"He is a fantastic role model for his peers," said Carol Stanchfield, the Turning Point executive who oversees the Nevada County effort. "He shows us all what is possible." He was part of the original crew that opened the Catherine Lane home in October 2010. If it weren't for the home, some residents would be on the streets or in locked facilities. At Catherine Lane, they live with the least possible restrictions.
If all goes as planned today, he will leave Catherine Lane at the end of his shift, and head home. Peterman will be waiting with their sons. Gonzales never got Christmas presents when he was a kid, and thinks his sons get too much. But he did his part by picking out toys that boys love, remote-control helicopters.
Gonzales is confident he won't have a relapse, or take a dive by returning to drugs. The fighter has too much to lose. He has sons to help raise, and a job helping others who are down like he was.