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Gene McPherson, always in his son's corner

Mark McPherson delivers a punch to Duane Thomas

Mark McPherson delivers a punch to Duane Thomas during their junior middleweight fight in 1985. (Credit: Courtesy of Mark McPherson)

It was the biggest fight of Mark McPherson's life. The junior middleweight from Lakeview was 17-1 and facing the Kronk's Duane Thomas on ESPN for the USBA title.

This was the fight that in 1985 would launch McPherson into stardom. It was going his way in a great, give-and-take fight. A lifetime of training was about to payoff. Then, in the 10th round, McPherson found himself in trouble against Thomas. He was fighting his way through it, following his instincts to survive.

In the corner, Gene McPherson had seen enough. He stopped the fight. He was a father first, trainer second. He loved his son more, the glory less. He valued Mark's future more than he valued victory.  Every fighter should be lucky enough to have had Gene McPherson in their corner. 

Gene McPherson died on Monday at the age of 78 in San Diego due to complications following a stroke. His wife, Margaret, and their five children — Debbie, Miles, Mark, Margaret and Donald were at his bedside when he passed.

"We all spent the night with him," said Mark, "It was peaceful. He was our hero."

Gene McPherson was born on the island of Jamaica and moved to Brooklyn in his teens. He boxed briefly and played on the Air Force football team while serving during the Korean War. He was a detective for the New York City police department for 20 years, he was an investigator for Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes for seven years and did governmental background checks in Washington D.C. for another five years.

But the job he loved most was being a dad.

All of his sons excelled in football. Miles was the first player at the University of New Haven to earn All-American honors and played four years for the San Diego Chargers. Don won the Thorp award as a quarterback at West Hempstead High School, starred at Syracuse, where he was a Heisman runner-up in 1987 and played for the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2008, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Just as his brothers did, Mark was a youth football star while playing for the West Hempstead Generals. But boxing was in his soul. Having known him for 20 years, I understand Mark's passion for the sport.

"When I was a kid, my dad took me to the fights at Sunnyside Garden," said Mark. "He was hoping that seeing the punches up close and being in that rowdy and crazy atmosphere would scare me. But it didn't. I loved it even more."

Thus began a career during which Mark reached the Golden Gloves finals and earned a top-10 world ranking as a junior middleweight. His father was in his corner for every one of his fights.

Figuratively, he was always in the corner of his five children. That the McPhersons were good athletes ranks behind the more important accomplishment that Gene and Margaret McPherson raised good people.

"There was a time when me and my brothers went down to visit my dad in Florida," recalled Mark. "Miles was still in the NFL. I was still fighting and Donald was playing at Syracuse. We were carrying on laughing and it was getting pretty late. So from the other room, my dad says, 'Boys, go to bed.' We talked a little while longer and then we heard his voice again, a little louder this time, 'Boys, go to bed!' None of us said a word. We all just got up and went to bed."

The next morning at breakfast they all laughed about it. 

Thinking back upon that story, Mark finished it by saying, "What else can I say about my dad? We all had that kind of respect for him. He was the greatest man I ever knew. None of us would have been anything in life if he didn't sacrifice and spend the time he did with us."

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