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Empty Hands, Full Hearts

An Albany city karate program produces champions — and bonds—that span generations

By David King


‘This is a black-belt school!” shout a group of kindergarten- age children sitting on a floor in the recreation center at Albany’s Hoffman Park. The kids are mostly clad in bleach-white gis. “We are motivated!” they shout again, thrusting their hands in the air. “We are dedicated!” they announce in unison, their voices coming together with an enthusiastic ring, powerful and concise for a group so young, but in a tone they could just as easily be using to announce a present they have received on Christmas morning. Then they burst up and run into the arms of their teachers, full of hugs and smiles.

Just an hour before, 17-year-old karate champion and Arbor Hill resident Brandon Abdullah waited in the near-empty rec center, lazily stretching his arms, yawning, tightening the black belt wrapped around his waist. Brandon says he became a black belt when he was only 12—but that he didn’t deserve it then. “I think about it, and I think, ‘Man, I shouldn’t have gotten it then.’ ” He smiles and laughs. “I sort of sucked back then.”

It took Abdullah seven years from the time he started, when he was only 5, to earn his black belt. But according to him, he truly earned his belt at age 15, when he won a first-place medal in a national Ippon competition. If Abdullah didn’t earn his belt then, he has certainly earned it now. Last month he won a gold medal at the Amateur Athletic Union’s Junior World Championships in Hanover, Germany. He competed in a field of thousands of other karate students from around the world and defeated five opponents in one-on-one competition to bring the gold medal back to Albany. Needless to say, if Abdullah ever did suck, he doesn’t anymore.

It isn’t that Abdullah is cocky—not in the least. But as his parents and his longtime mentor and karate sensei tell it, Abdullah has developed from a withdrawn, undisciplined youth to a poised, caring, responsible mentor.

Abdullah spends an hour a week at minimum in places like Hoffman Park and the Arbor Hill Community Center teaching inner-city youth karate. He trains with his longtime mentor, Shihan (master) Tony Butler, more than six hours each week.

Tonight at Hoffman Park, the kids scamper in and out of the rain, some dressed in sharply arranged gis and blue or yellow belts, others in their school clothes with their sneakers still on because of the dirty floor and lack of mats. Abdullah greets the kids, lines them up in rows, and starts stretching. Toddlers struggle to match the ease with which he accomplishes simple feats of balance. Abdullah notices, walks over and assists them, tightens their belts or pulls their small arms out straight to mimic his position. He then pats them on the back or gives them a hug.

Brandon Abdullah

One mother stands next to her young, blond-mopped son, who stares worshipfully at Abdullah but can’t quite muster the nerve to stand alone while practicing the moves. The boy turns and twists, collapsing on his bottom, his arms outstretched, still dangling from his mother’s grasp. His mother takes him from the group. Then he quickly darts over to Butler, who has just arrived, swallowing Butler’s white-gied legs up in a hug.

Butler—whom, according to Abdullah’s father, the youngster Brandon described as “mean” when trying to avoid going to lessons—stands to the side of the room next to the many gathered parents who watch their children spin punches and blocks into fluid motions, almost like a dance. Butler is employed by the City Recreation Department and teaches karate classes all around Albany. More than 100 kids take lessons in the city’s karate program. Butler works nights for Amtrak and spends his days teaching karate to Albany’s youth. He also teaches at the American Institute of Japanese Karate, Inc., in Albany’s Westgate Plaza, so that he can give his inner-city students scholarships to the dojo. Butler began his program at the Albany School of Humanities, the magnet school where Abdullah began his time with Butler.

“It’s hard for some of these kids to be in a group,” says Butler. “A lot of them aren’t sure of themselves. A lot of them have ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder]. But this is the best medicine. This actually makes the kids feel good about themselves.” He pauses, pointing to Abdullah, who is helping a youngster straighten out his punches. “I’m surprised Brandon even gave you an interview. He used to not want to put himself out there. But he isn’t like that anymore. He doesn’t withdraw anymore.”

Mari and Richard Stamp both sit on the sidelines, watching their young son get ready for practice. According to the Stamps, the issue isn’t how to entice their son into being dedicated to his lessons. Instead, the problem is how to contain his excitement for his weekly sessions. “He looks forward to it every week. He doesn’t stop talking about it, asking if it’s time to go to karate yet.”

According to Brandon Abdullah’s mother Janet, getting her son to attend lessons was not as easy. “Brandon did some screaming and crying,” she says. But Janet and her husband, Mohammed, brought him back day after day. Even Brandon Abdullah admits that when it came time for him to strap on a mask and compete in hand-to-hand combat, he would tear up, at least a little bit afraid. According to Mohammed, they were persistent in making their son attend because “every year we saw development, we saw a drastic change in maturity in Brandon.”

As Butler explains it, the relationship between the parents and the student is the most important part of his program. Butler monitors the students’ homework, and checks with parents to make sure their children are respectful and have been attending to their responsibilities around the house. But he says none of it would be possible if the parents were not involved.

Abdullah has been the subject of a number of television reports and articles featuring his accomplishments, and over the summer he was part of a demonstration held for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Recreation Commissioner John D’Antonio says Clinton was “totally taken aback. She couldn’t say enough about it. She said, ‘It is one of the best programs I’ve ever seen!’ And being on a national level, she has seen so many programs and youth departments. And she was saying that this was one of the best demonstrations she had seen.” D’Antonio says Clinton told him, ” ‘They are so disciplined, so well behaved, so respectful. I’ve never seen anything like this.’ ”

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings is one of Abdullah’s biggest fans. “He’s a good young man,” says Jennings. Jennings helped make sure Abdullah could afford his trip to Germany, and now that he has brought home the gold, Jennings plans to honor Abdullah publicly later this year.

“It’s pretty impressive, huh?” asks Jennings of the city’s karate program. “We have close to 200 kids from all over the city involved. It is a nice, well-respected program. The kids love it and so do the parents.”

Ask anyone who knows Albany’s karate program, and they will tell you exactly why the program is so successful and who is responsible for its success: Shihan Tony Butler. “He’s amazing at what he does, because you can’t find people at this level that care about these kids as much as he does,” says D’Antonio. “It’s not just karate. He stays involved with their lives. There is absolutely no question these kids know he cares about them.”

Butler’s program caught the eye of D’Antonio about five years ago. “We were looking at expanding our karate program,” says D’Antonio. “We heard about the things over at the Albany School of Humanities, and I contacted Mr. Butler. I told him what our vision was, that we wanted to implement a program into the city at our community centers and that we wanted to basically hire him and run a real extensive karate program. He told us that was something he had wanted to do for a long time.”

The program’s success has done more than bring medals back to the city, according to Butler and D’Antonio. Albany has won a bid to host the Amateur Athletic Union Karate Championships, an event D’Antonio estimates will draw around 3,000 athletes from all over the country. Butler still teaches at ASH, and the program is more than a little popular. “It’s like a scene from Enter the Dragon,” says Butler. “I have 90 kids in front of me, and they all respond to my commands in unison. There’s just a sea of white gis!”

On a Wednesday afternoon, ASH Principal Rosalyn Wallace strolls towards the gymnasium, explaining over the shouts of “Kiai” in the distance, “Shihan [Butler] has been here as long as I can remember. Actually, he has been here longer than I have, and I’ve been here for 12 years.”

At the gym, Butler is arranging for a high-level student to tutor a new student to get her up to speed. The two students run off like cadets with marching orders. “I tell the parents this: I am not here to babysit your children. I expect discipline.” And that is what Butler gets. “Kids have to have their homework done before they participate,” explains Butler as he walks past a group of kids with their faces buried in notebooks and workbooks.

The groups at ASH are generally split up by age and experience. In one corner of the gymnasium, a volunteer parent takes a group of younger kids through punch drills. At the other, dozens of older students twirl and thrust their wooden staffs with a precision that is surprising for their age.

Kristen Dawson, who has left home to attend college, has come back this week to help Butler teach at ASH. Butler was so close to Dawson’s family that he was asked to be her godfather. Dawson has been a student of Butler’s for 12 years and has earned a scholarship based on her achievements in karate.

“Brandon looks up to her,” Butler says. “She is like his big sister.”

Butler returns to the gym where Abdullah is now leading a class and looks over at his student, saying, “It’s not just about Brandon. It’s about a family. It’s about a connection between all these kids who stay in touch with each other through the years because they have this connection.”

Butler explains that it’s also about a discipline and poise the students learn, about respect that they grow up learning. In some cases, it means Butler is functioning as a father figure for kids who are growing up without one, or that he is a second dad, as Janet Abdullah describes him.

It also means that these kids have mentors both young and old. They have teenage champions like Abdullah to look up to and athletes their own age who are competing at an international level. “It’s about an investment of time and discipline,” Butler continues as he points to the many different colored belts that are wrapped around his young students’ waists. “Each of these belts represents years of dedication. I only consider promoting them every three or four months.” The most important thing, though, as Butler sees it, is that his students “give it back to where they got it.” Just as Abdullah is doing.

Being a high-school senior, Abdullah has been thinking about college lately. He’s been thinking about going into management, and before that getting his grades up so he can guarantee he gets into the schools he wants to attend. But there is something else on Abdullah’s agenda for the future. One day, he says, “I’d like to open up my own dojo.” And that is news Butler is happy to hear. “I sure hope so!” says Butler, “I’m getting old. I can’t keep doing this forever.”

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