SEOUL, South Korea — They never found the men who killed Damon Hembrick. Whoever did it robbed him and stabbed him and threw his body in the street in front of the McDonald’s where he was working. And they got away. This was two years ago, they are still out there somewhere, and Anthony Hembrick, Damon’s older brother, thinks about them all the time, even here, at the Olympic Games.
“I try not to,” he said, leaning back in a chair inside the Olympic Village, the callused hands of a boxer dangling loose by his side. “I know what I am capable of. I know what kind of terrible things I could do to people. I don’t want to go that way, I want to live the right life. But I think about what happened and if I ever found them, my mind wants to do devastation.”
He did not blink. He stared off into space. Here is a Detroit kid with a Detroit story and unfortunately, too often, that means somebody got it. The thugs were looking for money that night in 1986 and Damon was between them and their goal and so they took him out. That is the way it works in the street and that is the way it works in the ring. The difference is, you go for only knockouts in the ring and when it’s over you wave at the cameras and they put a medal around your neck. Anthony Hembrick, soldier, athlete, captain of the U.S. Olympic boxing team, planned to own one of those medals when these Games were finished — for himself, for his mother, and for Damon.
But then the U.S. coaches — misreading the schedule, coach Ken Adams said
— thought Hembrick’s was the 11th bout of the day Sunday night, at 1 a.m. Seoul time Monday. They came to the arena at 10:30 p.m. to be early. But his bout was the seventh. He showed up late at the ring — arriving in cap, trousers and sweatshirt — and South Korean Han Jong Jo was awarded the bout in a walkover. Another sense of loss for Hembrick, who earlier spoke of the loss of his brother. “He was a big, strong guy, a humorous guy, we were always laughing and hanging out together,” Hembrick said, his voice almost frighteningly even. “Now, when I go home, I feel like everybody I’m talking to is a potential suspect in my brother’s murder. I don’t trust nobody. I don’t care about nobody.
“Here, all I think about is the gold. I go to bed thinking about gold. I wake up thinking about gold. I walk around thinking about gold.”
He turned and stared at his questioner.
“I think about it so much, the only thing that will give me satisfaction is getting gold.”
When the aristocrats invented amateurism to keep the lower classes out of the Olympics, Anthony Hembrick was no doubt the kind of kid they had in mind. Tough, poor — and he could beat the blood out of them. He has wicked boxing potential, hard puncher, fast puncher, a middleweight whom his coach once called “a heavyweight waiting to happen.” A paratrooper in the U.S. Army, he has twice been the Armed Forces champion (that’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines). Which is small potatoes for Hembrick; during flight school he suffered a broken leg on his third jump. You need five jumps or you’re out. So he kept his mouth shut and jumped two more times, broken leg and all. You try that.
People love Hembrick, 22, they call him “Hollywood,” he has that seductive appeal that the best boxers seem to find in their shoes. When he spars, he uses an explosive voice that can light up a room, especially when he is feeling strong and quick and yelling in the ring, pa-pow, pa-pa-pa-boom! He will box with tiny American flags tucked in his shoes and his round, boyish face will burst into a smile when he is declared a winner. Charisma. Ego.
But then, later, outside the ring, he will go limp, barely awake, as if his hard body has turned to rag and gentle conversation is a maximum effort.
It is in these moments that he talks about his brother.
“His death changed my life. I was in Lake Tahoe at a box-off for the world championships, and the coach called me in and he told me what happened.
“I was devastated. I felt something like that could never happen in my family. You know, we never did anything cruel or rude, we try to live the right way. I flew home the next day and the first thing that was in my mind was to find out what happened, catch the guy who did it, and take out some revenge upon him. . . . ”
He paused and rocked silently in his chair. There are unwritten codes on Detroit’s East Side and one is you can die at any time, from anybody’s bullet, and another is that you take care of your own. Damon, who was 18 when he was murdered, was Anthony’s kid brother — the same way Anthony is Tim Hembrick’s kid brother. When Anthony was growing up, he adored Tim, he was protected by him; Tim was the one who started Anthony boxing and who dragged him to the recruiting office to join the Army. Tim did what an older brother should do, and Anthony would do that for Damon, right? Except that boxing took Anthony away, he wasn’t there to protect Damon, and then suddenly, one April morning, the call came and they had to put Anthony’s kid brother in the earth.
“I was a different person after that. I used to be kind and lovey-dovey and I liked everybody. If I was walking down the street I’d say, ‘What up?’ even to people I didn’t really know. But now, if someone says something to me I don’t pay any attention. I keep walking.”
“Why?” he was asked.
“Why? Because you have to be cruel and hard these days, because something precious can be taken away from you at any time. . . . I don’t want to be that way. I know the Bible says you’re supposed to love everyone, and I don’t want to be hateful to everybody. . . . ”
His face was soft now, his charismatic smile hidden by lips pressed tightly together.
“My heart is hurting. . . . I’m hurting now and if someone does something to me, I can do something to them, you know? I can make them hurt, too. It just doesn’t matter.”
Back when they were kids, Anthony and Tim Hembrick were playing on the roof of their house when Tim fell off and was knocked unconscious. And young Anthony, because he didn’t know what else to do, lifted his brother into his wagon and rolled him into the garage and covered him in newspapers and waited for their mother to come home.
Somewhere between that make-believe burial and the real one that came years later, a boxer was born, and with the horror of a single knife, the boxer turned angry and mean. These are the dominoes of the inner city, violence will lead to more violence, you can count on that, but Anthony Hembrick is lucky, he has found an outlet, he growls behind the white and red gloves and when it is over, he can leave the anger in the ring.
“I’m not doing this for Damon. I can’t say that. I’m doing this for me. But I got a special torch that I’m carrying alongside me for him. When this is over, I’m gonna visit his grave and maybe sit there and contemplate on the things we used to do together. . . .
“It’s done me some good, this whole thing. Maybe I was too nice before this and then maybe I became too mean. I’m trying to be something, you know, in between.”
Hembrick was not the favorite, and he could have lost at any point. But Anthony Hembrick is here, an Olympian, he is a Detroit kid with a Detroit story that for once had a chance at not ending in a sad mess. But it did. You are looking at a contradiction: the body of a knockout fighter, and the soul of a child who carried his brother home in a wagon.
There are 13,000 stories in this Olympic Village. This is just one we can relate to: There is no bringing back Damon Hembrick, or any of the countless others dead in our streets. But when something terrible happens, when there’s a hole in your heart, you can only try to fill it in and build on top of it.
“If they ever do catch the guy who killed my brother,” said Anthony Hembrick, “they don’t need to tell my family about it. They don’t need to let us know nothing about the guy. Just take him and put him away, that’s all.”
He clenched his fist, then let it open harmlessly.
“It’ll be better that way,” he said.
CUTLINE Anthony Hembrick limbers up before a workout. He is charismatic around the ring but quiet and angry when speaking of his younger brother’s murder.