Boxing's 'Gray Dogs' are as inspiring as they are lovable

New London — There they are: Marco, Groucho, The Fox and The Doc, among others, taking out their frustrations on various punching bags. This is three mornings a week now at Kent Ward's spiffy new "Championship Rounds" gym on Broad St., the "Gray Dogs," as they call themselves, sustaining Archie Bunker's timeless quote, "just because there's snow on the roof don't mean there ain't no fire in the furnace."

They're quite a site, the Gray Dogs, this north-of-age-50 group of serious guys beating up bags while boxing, but not-so-serious when it comes to needling each other and laughing away mornings in the spirit of camaraderie.

Put it this way: The sports world poked fun at the old bout between Gerry Cooney and George Foreman back in 1990, calling it "The Geezers at Caesar's." But this? The Dogs would be instantly lovable — and particularly inspiring.

They are retired doctors, FBI agents, police officers, construction workers, business people. They all have nicknames (hence Marco, after Marco Polo, Groucho and The Fox). And it's a good thing they sweat a lot because otherwise, you might get the idea that all they do is have fun.

"It's a great group of people, a good workout and the camaraderie is enormous," said Ward, who has done more to help kids and others in this city than virtually anybody else. "People retire now without necessarily having a plan in place. Some guys have lost some relevance and purpose. Sometimes they are by themselves. Maybe they become despondent. But this is a chance to come in and be with the guys. It brings them back."

The Gray Dogs, as most great stories do, began innocently.

"I was working out at a gym in Hartford and when I retired I needed a gym closer to home," said Dean Festa, who isn't merely the Gray Dogs' teacher, but their hardest worker. "I walked into Kent's gym when it was on Bank St. We started working out and I looked around and said, "we kinda got the grays here,' looking at all the older guys working out and fighting. Kent comes back and says, 'let's call it the gray dogs.' It took off from there."

Retired dentist Jack Alkon learned of the program through his wife, Catherine Gualtieri, a nurse at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2015. Gualtieri convinced Ward to bring Adaptive Boxing — a program helping people afflicted with Parkinson's manage the neurodegenerative disease in the ring — to Ward's gym.

The program, while helping combat the disease one punch at a time — also opened the gym's doors to people like Alkon.

"I became a coach in the adaptive program," Alkon said. "Kent came up to me one day and said they were starting a program with older guys. At the time, my weight still wasn't good. I started doing it, I guess there were five of us or so, and I realized I was losing a little weight, too. I've lost about 40 pounds now, have kept it off for a year and a half and had to buy new clothes.

"The camaraderie is a big help. I would work out occasionally at home, but it's hard to push yourself when you're alone. Here, you don't want to let any of the guys down."

Festa: "I don't ask anyone to do something I don't. The camaraderie within the dogs is really important. This is hard work, but you are motivated to work hard. It's not antagonistic. You work as hard as you are able."

There are multiple sets of drills aiming to meld footwork, timing, hand speed and power. And when Festa yells "beat up the bag!" oh, how those daily frustrations of life come out rather gloriously.

Ward says he'd love for more "Gray Dogs" in the community to join. He said to call him on his cell (860-235-0212) for more information. You won't regret it.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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