At Syracuse University, Roy Simmons Sr. prepared boxers for fighting - and for life

by Sean Kirst

John Mastrella grew up in Rochester. He was the son of poor immigrants. When the Great Depression came, the teenager went to work digging holes for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a relief project for thousands of desperate young Americans.

College? Mastrella would have been happy with a job. But the CCC had a boxing program, and he often blew off steam by going a few rounds. One night, a dapper man walked over and asked Mastrella if he was interested in a scholarship.

It was Roy Simmons Sr. Mastrella fought as a lightweight on Syracuse University's only national champion boxing team, in 1936. When he graduated, Simmons took him on as freshman coach, which covered Mastrella's tuition for Syracuse law school. The kid with no dream would become a state Supreme Court justice.

"Everything I have," Mastrella said, "I owe to that man."

Simmons died Friday at the age of 93. The news moved quickly through a grapevine of his white-haired boxers, especially those Simmons rescued from the worst of the Depression. The coach prowled gyms and clubs in the urban Northeast, searching for young men with fighting potential. The story goes that he looked for kids with no scars on their faces, features that proved they knew how to dodge a blow.

"We were so proud of him," said Americo Woyciesjes (Woy-SEE-chess), 78, who was NCAA light-heavyweight champ in the Eastern region. "We'd call him the 'Errol Flynn of the boxing world, ' when he'd dress up in a tuxedo and go out after a fight.

"Even at the end he was still young, an optimist, never a loser. He fought to the last minute, and that's the same way he coached."

As a 14-year-old, Woyciesjes earned Simmons' attention at the downtown YMCA. "Rico" beat the daylights out of a star SU recruit. The coach didn't forget. Woyciesjes, who often ran to the Y from a job at a Solvay steel mill, got a full scholarship. He made the most of it. After college, he began a career as a research scientist and discovered a new kind of antibiotic.

"I think the great reason for (Roy's) success was that he wouldn't change your style," Woyciesjes said. "He'd help you make it better. Some of these schools, they all (trained their fighters) the same way. You learned to fight one of them and then you knew how to fight them all."

In 1942, Salvatore "Toots" Mirabito became Simmons' first NCAA heavyweight champion. Mirabito, a retired educator, is now 75. Yet, when he ran into Roy Sr. last year in Vero Beach, Fla., Mirabito respectfully referred to the old man as "coach."

"He had the greatest impact on my life of just about anyone," Mirabito said.

Simmons' experience went much further than just his heyday in the ring. During his undergraduate days at SU, Roy Sr. roomed with Charles Brannock, the man who invented the famous device used by shoe salespeople to measure people's feet. Simmons often laughed about how Brannock kept him up late in their frat house, tinkering with the idea.

Syracuse lacrosse grew into a tradition under Roy Sr., whose son has now coached the Orangemen to five national titles. And after playing football in the 1920s for SU, the elder Simmons served as an assistant coach for 40 years.

But no contribution is more striking than what Simmons did in boxing, where he clearly and profoundly changed young men's lives.

Under Simmons, SU had eight Eastern team champions and one national champion. Crowds of 3,000 used to show up to watch. Before the program was phased out in 1957, he coached seven fighters who won individual NCAA crowns. Another of his pupils, Tom Coulter, is one of the premier coaches in U.S. amateur boxing.

"Without a doubt, Roy Simmons affected everyone he worked with," said John Granger, a welterweight who was Simmons' last NCAA champion in 1955. "He was able to quietly get into your life and get the most out of you."

Granger remembers himself as a "wild kid," fighting for space within a family of 12 children. "I found out if you're going to get along in this world with people, you better be more like Roy Simmons, or you wind up dead," said Granger, who is a retired U.S. Air Force major. "My father died when I was 5, and I always said (Roy) was the father I never had."

Ord Fink had not boxed a single round in his life when Simmons spotted him shooting baskets in the Archbold Gymnasium. That was in 1935. The ring was set up near the court, and the coach asked Fink if he wanted to spar with some fighters. Fink boasted he could handle any of Simmons' "punks." The coach simply smiled and gave him the chance.

Within a year, Fink had earned a spot as an alternate on the 1936 Olympic team. "He put all that time into me," said Fink, who would become NCAA middleweight champ. "He was one of the greatest men I ever knew in my life."

Woyciesjes still lives in Syracuse. He made a point of seeing Simmons from time to time until his health made it hard to get around. A year ago, several of his toes were amputated. He couldn't attend Roy Sr.'s funeral Monday. Instead, he pulled out a worn rosary and said a few prayers.

The fighter received the rosary as a childhood gift from his mother. He always carries it in his left-hand pocket. It was with him when he survived hand-to-hand combat in the Pacific during World War II. It has been with him for a string of serious operations.

He has it because of Roy Simmons Sr.

The story goes back to his days at SU, when the boxing team traveled to Michigan State. Woyciesjes knocked down his opponent six times in the first round. They stopped the fight, and the winner casually slung on his long boxing robe. The fighters were in a cab, heading back to the hotel, when Rico reached in his pocket and the rosary wasn't there.

"Turn the cab around," Simmons said.

The coach rousted a janitor, who opened up the darkened gym. They found a way to switch on some lights. Then Simmons got down on all fours, in the sand beneath the ring, and started searching. "He could have left," Woyciesjes said. "He could have said we didn't have time to go back."

They found the missing rosary. Fifty years later, the old fighter used those beads when he missed the funeral. But he knows SU is planning an open memorial service for Simmons. "I'll be there, if I have to crawl," Woyciesjes said.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Post-Standard