Hands, Full Hearts
Albany city karate program produces champions — and bonds—that
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.
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.”
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.
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has developed from a withdrawn, undisciplined youth to a poised,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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.’ ”
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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!”
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
before they participate,” explains Butler as he walks past
a group of kids with their faces buried in notebooks and workbooks.
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.
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.
looks up to her,” Butler says. “She is like his big sister.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”