Today, Roger “The Dodger” Leonard is a grateful recovering addict and alcoholic of 29 years, a certified addiction counselor, a national motivational speaker and author. He earned recovery by surrendering and changing his behavior. The renewed lifestyle did not occur over night.
Cicero and Getha Leonard nurtured four boys and three girls in Washington, D.C., including Roger. Getha told Roger his father was a knockout artist in the Navy. That one conversation ignited a desire in young Roger. Wanting to be exactly like his father, he pursued boxing.
In his first amateur bout in 1964, Roger fought Stanley Taylor, in the 85-pound weight class at the No. 2 Boys and Girls Club. “That’s where he fell in love,” said Kenny Leonard, Roger’s older brother. Roger floored Taylor in the first round.
He had the touch, but his focus wasn’t always sharp. A year later, Roger Leonard experimented with alcohol, sniffing glue, smoking pot and dropping acid.
In 1969, the Leonard tribe migrated to Palmer Park, Maryland, a suburb of D.C. in Prince George’s County. Roger Leonard was still fighting; he walked around the new neighborhood seeking to take on anyone. With no funds, he cleverly started a boxing team with the guidance of Ollie Dunlap, director of Palmer Park Recreation Center.
Dunlap, his first trainer, kept the center open year round. Roger won the local Golden Gloves title in 1970-1971. He’d demonstrate tricks and dance in the ring, always keeping the adversary off balance. The 1972 amateur boxing team was notorious. Roger, his brother, Ray, Derrik Holmes and Henry Bunch were all destined to make the 1976 Olympic team. Only Ray advanced to win a gold medal and, later, fame as Sugar Ray Leonard.
“(Roger) had a good boxing IQ, but it was mentally tough for Roger when observing the success that Ray had as an amateur,” says Dunlap, an avid golfer, who resides in Toronto, Canada. Many agree that Roger was better than Ray, but drugs and alcohol had become Roger’s priorities and even they eventually gave way to heroin.
Roger Leonard joined the Air Force with Henry Bunch on the buddy plan, in 1974. Bunch fought in the junior middleweight division. Winning over 100 amateur bouts, welterweight Leonard’s toughest foe was Clinton Jackson. Jackson became a nightmare in the 1974 National Golden Gloves in Denver, Colorado, at the World Games trials, the Olympic trials, the Pan American trials, and the AAU finals.
In 1978, however, Leonard, then the No. 2 welterweight contender in the country, whipped Jackson on the Wide World of Sports in a fight announced by the legendary Howard Cosell .
“The name of the game in boxing is longevity, to hit and not get hit,” said Leonard, who earned the nickname, “The Dodger.”
Leonard went on to a successful professional career, going 16-1 with seven knockouts. He had tons of money, a BMW and all the trappings of success.
But he also was a full-blown addict, using drugs the day before or after, and sometimes the day of a bout. He fought his last pro fight in February 1981, losing to Mario Maldonado in 10 rounds.
Seven months later, his brother Ray fought Thomas Hearns and won an invitation to the White House from President Ronald Reagan. Roger Leonard accompanied his brother to the event and immediately after wards, went for a heroin fix at “The Whitelaw,” a historic hotel near the famous U Street Corridor, which had fallen on hard times. Ray Leonard then paid $25,000 to get his brother into drug treatment in Atlanta.
That was the turning point, Roger Leonard said.
He had a couple of relapses early on, but has been clean now for 29 years and at age 58 is an addiction counselor and the author of “In the Shadow of a Champion- Pathway to Sobriety.”
During a recent interview, Leonard stopped to check his emails and shouted to his Gail Palmore, his wife of 17 years, “The book is now in the UK!“
His story of inspiration has been heard in schools, the private and public sector, jails, and treatment centers all over the country. As a counselor, he said, he loves teaching addicts how to stop and stay stopped.
Leonard said he is looking forward to a movie in the works about Robert Duran called,” The Hands of Stone,” which will hit theaters in 2013. Robert DeNiro will play Duran’s coach, Ray Arcel, and R&B singer Usher is set to play Ray Leonard. The director is still searching for the actor to play Roger Leonard.
“I can show the actor how to play me, “Leonard said with a smile.
“I am so proud of him,” said Palmore. They met during his addiction at Palmore’s beauty salon. They broke up in 1983 and reunited in December 1994.
When he entered treatment for the final time, Leonard’s daughter Nikia was 5 or 6 years old. During the recovery process, he would take Nikia to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. “These meetings made my dad want to ‘Keep Coming Back,’ a phrase I remember saying at the end of every meeting,” says Nikia, who is studying cosmetology. “He’s the best father and grandfather a family can ever have.”