Death a blow to Forrest's inspiration

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Of all the boxing lessons and impressions Bennie Heard left on Vernon Forrest, he regrets not speaking up about the consequences of pride.

Boxing promotor Gary Shaw and Vernon Forrest celebrate his unanimous decision victory over Sergio Mora in 2008.  AP / File
AP / File
Boxing promotor Gary Shaw and Vernon Forrest celebrate his unanimous decision victory over Sergio Mora in 2008.

Heard was the inspiration for the young Forrest in the Augusta Boxing Club gym and the bond between them survived the nearly 21 years Heard spent in prison for killing a man with a gun.

The circumstances of Forrest's death on Saturday took the Elberton, Ga., native back to the day that derailed his own life and filled the 49-year-old with an ever deeper sense of regret.

"I wish I would have told him if anybody ever tries to take something from you and he's got the ups on you, let him have it," Heard said. "Because you can get that back the next day, man. But you can't get your life back."

Heard knows only too well the fighter's ego that apparently prompted Forrest to grab his own gun and chase after the men who robbed him at a gas station in Southwest Atlanta. Heard only wishes his own experience had guided Forrest's actions.

"I should have told him about that," he said.

In December 1985, Heard was accused of cheating in a card game in his hometown and intimidated by a man named Neal Winn into giving back $200. His ego bruised by the encounter, Heard went back the next day with a gun intending to scare Winn.

But when Heard pulled it out, his friend (and Winn's brother) Raymond grabbed at the gun. It fired, killing Raymond Winn. Heard was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murder and spent the next 20 years in Georgia jails.

"I fell like that. I fell like that," said Heard. "When somebody took something from me, my pride stood in my way. There's some stuff that I should have said to (Forrest) and it hurts me that I didn't."

Before Heard's fall, he was the most promising boxer Augusta had ever produced. He was a four-time Golden Gloves winner and the top-ranked light heavyweight amateur before a broken hand prevented him from securing a place assumed by Evander Holyfield on the 1984 U.S. Olympics team.

Heard was already a star in the Chafee Park gym when a 9-year-old Forrest walked in and caught the boxing bug.

"He used to watch me train in Augusta," Heard remembered of the respectful and inquisitive kid who he used to let put on gloves and whale away at his rock-hard stomach. "I used to train so hard and he always wanted to ask me questions about boxing and questions about why I was doing this or that. He asked me, 'Why are you doing this so hard?' And I said, 'Because I want to be a champion. You can be a champion, too.'"

Heard's championship dreams were knocked out by his criminal mistake just two fights into his pro career. But he kept getting reports of the little kid he inspired in Augusta climbing the heights he never reached.

"This person was a kid when I left the streets, and then when I come back he's a world champion," Heard said. "He was a great fighter. One of the best. Augusta had a lot of good boxers there. Vernon came out being the best."

Forrest humbly disagreed.

"Bennie was a bad man," Forrest said in 2006. "Even though I accomplished a lot more than he did, I would think he was a better fighter than I am."

In a way, Forrest's success lifted Heard. He's seen tapes of Forrest's championship fights against "Sugar" Shane Mosley.

"It was a shock to see how good he was," Heard said.

""It made me feel real good because this person listened to me and he did what I told him he could do. It made me feel so good that I touch one person's life and one person did something."

Forrest eventually had more of an impact on Heard. He kept in touch with Heard in prison and stood by him when he came out.

"I came to be something to him, but he came to be an angel to me," Heard said.

Forrest tried to push the premium boxing networks to put Heard on his undercard every time he fought. But when he couldn't make it happen, he still paid Heard $3,000 or $4,000 each time anyway. He also helped Heard get his current job as a trainer at the Art of Boxing gym in Atlanta where Forrest worked out.

"He really put in a word for me in the place that I train and he helped me get that," Heard said.

"The person that ran the gym came to be my trainer and I didn't have to pay to go to the gym or nothing because Vernon helped the person who owned the gym, too. It's all because of Vernon."

Forrest fought Ike Quartey on HBO in 2006 while Heard was in a halfway house on a work-release program. Without premium television he didn't get the chance to see Forrest win by unanimous decision.

The next morning, however, one of the program's officers came by his room to tell him he'd heard his name called out on the broadcast.

"First of all I'd like to thank God for giving me this victory," Forrest said during a post-fight interview in the ring. "I'd like to dedicate this fight to my son, Vernon Jr., my sister and Benn ie Heard. What's up, man? Welcome home, baby."

Heard was touched by the very public gesture.

"That made me feel good," Heard said. "That made me keep training hard when I was in the halfway house and when I got out I knocked out my first three fighters."

Forrest attended all three of Heard's comeback fights that ran his career record to 5-0.

Heard's last fight was Aug. 1, 2007, at the Bell Auditorium, where he knocked Matt Short out just 42 seconds into the first round. Forrest was sitting ringside, cheering wildly as the man who inspired him put his opponent on the canvas.

They celebrated together after the fight in the locker room.

Saturday will be the second anniversary of that moment, and Heard will be back in Augusta right next door at James Brown Arena paying homage to the young man who never stopped supporting him.

Heard was asked by Forrest's family to be a pall bearer.

He still is coming to grips with Forrest's death. When he first heard the news, he repeatedly called Forrest's cell phone desperately hoping to hear his friend answer. He then called Holyfield and got confirmation of his worst fears.

"I just couldn't believe it because I had been talking to Vernon and he's been coming to the gym all the time practicing for this fight," Heard said. "It just hurt me and my wife so bad."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

Vernon Forrest services

- A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at James Brown Arena, Forrest's family said Tuesday. For coverage of the memorial service, go to augustachronicle.com.

- The Boys & Girls Clubs of Augusta will play host to a drop-in at the E.W. Hagler Unit at 1903 Division Street from 4 -6 p.m. on Saturday to accommodate those that wish to grieve in fellowship after the memorial service.

- The funeral is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, just east of Atlanta. It will be open to the public.


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