CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — They call him Coach Rat.
It's a name tagged onto the Port of Corpus Christi maintenance man during his drag racing days.
His name is Israel Garcia.
His game: fighting — to keep kids off the streets by teaching them to box with gloves in a ring.
He's winning with the successful education of hundreds of kids the past 15 years.
"Coach Rat taught me to set goals and pushed me to take the next step in whatever I want," said Pete Guerrero, 22, a respiratory therapy student at Del Mar College. He has been under Garcia's boxing wing since age 14. One of the Gollihar Neighborhood Center Boxing Club's top ranked amateur fighters in Texas, Guerrero is the club's present great hopeful to go professional.
Four nights a week Garcia, 53, and coach Richard Rodriguez pack two dozen boys, young men and sometimes young women into an aging 30-foot-by-75-foot Quonset hut behind the neighborhood center to sweat, spar and set goals for their futures.
Their efforts have yielded several dozen Golden Gloves and Junior Olympic champions. Some have made military careers, Rodriguez, 65, the club's founder, said.
Rodriguez first trained Garcia's twin sons. Both were 2003 Golden Gloves regional champions, in the 106- and 112-pound weight classes.
"We loved the sport," said Alex Garcia, 26, who works in Austin as a personal trainer and physical therapist. Boxing prepared him and his brother to control their lives as individuals, he said. He now teaches clients to lose weight through cardio-boxing.
They are proud of their father's volunteer youth coaching.
"Through boxing, young people have an outlet to burn off aggression, gain focus, learn respect, discipline and self-esteem while having fun," the elder Garcia said.
For his community service, Port of Corpus Christi commissioners in May presented Garcia the Port's Pocca Award.
"We are honored to recognize Israel for his dedication and guidance of young kids in the Coastal Bend," said Mike Carrell, port commission chairman.
Boxing the past five years with Garcia taught Hamlin Middle School eighth-grader Christian Perez, 13, to listen.
"Listening to coach has kept me out of trouble," Christian said, after dancing inside a jump rope for three minutes. "Now I listen better to my teachers, too."
Boxing nights, Monday through Thursday, begin with handshakes.
Everyone kid who walks through the door, makes the rounds sharing the gesture of respect with coaches, parents, visitors and other boxers.
Then within minutes sweat pours from the youths, splattering the wood-slat floors of the open-air gym.
The young fighters run five laps around the property, then a screeching buzzer signals every three minutes inside the gym to shift their workout regimen:
Each boxer gets a bio booklet, for their $65 annual club dues. Along with their mug shot, it lists doctor checkup approvals, logs their wins and losses and tracks their growth through weight classes. Some kids win, some lose, Garcia said.
"When they lose, they cry," he said. "We tell them by stepping in the ring they're a winner, because they don't have anybody else there to back them up, like a football player does."
He calls one 8-year-old his "Firecracker," for his five wins and no loses.
Before he was "Firecracker," before he was even 8, Justin Ortiz was chomping at the bit to get in the ring, while watching his older brother Johnathan, 12, spar, their dad said.
"Justin starts jacking away when he climbs in the ring," said his dad, Domingo Ortiz, 39.
Both his boys' grades were dropping before boxing and are now improved, he said.
Garcia holds to a policy that if grades go down, kids are dropped from boxing until their schoolwork improves.
Gollihar Neighborhood Center's program is one of about half a dozen boxing clubs in Corpus Christi.
Garcia has about a dozen kids ready to compete this week in the Texas Amateur Athletic Federation Games. In April, five of his nine competitors in Junior Olympics competition reached regional finals, and two won their weight class.
The neighborhood center gets some funding from United Way of the Coastal Bend, but gym maintenance, equipment and competition travel costs fall on the nonprofit boxing club.
Last year its costs topped $7,000, Garcia said.
If they don't have the money, the coaches help kids host barbecues, operate carwashes, or they dig into their own pockets. They also organize bouts at the gym to raise money with ticket sales.
"We have never gone to the street corner" Garcia said. "We work for our money.
"Without community support, this place won't happen," he said, "then these kids would have no place to go."