Sometimes, we pay attention to the wrong people. A true hero walks down a street in his hometown but nobody recognizes him because he’s not loud or crass, because he hasn’t danced with the stars, because he doesn’t move through life like a human spotlight.
So he’s ignored. Until the day all any of us can do is say goodbye.
Vernon Forrest was buried Monday. A quote from Abraham Lincoln shown during the memorial service perfectly capsulated Forrest and grounded us all: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that’s important. It’s the life in your years.”
He was 38 and is gone too soon. He was shot during a robbery by delinquents who have no idea what it means to really fight for something.
Forrest grew up in the projects but found his way out. He learned to control his anger, using it as fuel in a boxing ring. He surrounded himself with positive people. He earned a scholarship in the U.S. Olympic Boxing and Education program at Northern Michigan University, where he completed his diploma, turned into one of the top amateurs in the country and eventually represented the U.S. in 1992.
That’s what real fighters do. They don’t steal a wallet, hide in the shadows and then shoot somebody in the back. Cowards do that.
Over 1,000 people showed up Monday at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Some were famous. Lincoln would have approved.
Forrest won championships. He won friends. He won hearts. A two-hour service alternated between celebrating his life and conveying the anger over something so senseless.
“Whatever it takes to get justice for you, Vernon,” Alfonso Forrest, one his brothers, said as he pounded the podium with his fist. “Legally, Vernon. I won’t do anything wrong, I promise you.”
You sensed emotion was pulling him one way. His brother was pulling him the other.
Bishop Eddie Long gave an impassioned sermon on Forrest’s life and also denounced the violence. He punctuated his remarks with: “Success in life is the ability to play a bad hand well.”
Forrest did that. He was the relative exception in a sport too often scarred by champions who end up destitute or on some crime blotter. He gave to charitable causes. He helped create, “Destiny’s Child,” which assists those with psychological and emotional disabilities. He helped those who needed it. He paid back those who helped him.
Buddy Davis, the long-time president of the Georgia Amateur Boxing Association, remembers when Forrest was preparing to turn pro in 1992. He would train at the old Holyfield Arena in West End. When his workout was complete, Davis said: “He’d stick around and work with the kids. Nobody asked him to do that.”
Forrest was a native of Augusta. He lived in Atlanta. How many of you didn’t know that?
If last week, you were asked to list some of the top sports stars in our city, how long would it take before you would get to Forrest? Ever?
There is something wrong with that.
He did it the hard way in boxing. He refused to sell his soul to Don King or Bob Arum. As a result, he won four world titles at the junior welterweight and welterweight levels in relative anonymity. Finally, 10 years into his career, he was given a shot at “Sugar” Shane Mosley, one of the sport’s stars. He won the fight, and then the rematch. Finally, he was given his due in the sport, even if he remained low profile outside of it.
He loved life. He was real. “People wanted him to be more flamboyant,” his friend, Les King, said. “They wanted him to trash talk more. He didn’t need that. He didn’t want that.”
Some family members wore white hats saying, “The Viper,” as they walked into church. Eight young boys wore his title belts.
LaVert Forrest mentioned his brother discussed plans two weeks ago to build a school in Augusta. “That will be his school,” LaVert Forrest said. “We will never let him die.”
The recognition is well-deserved. And overdue.