The city of Jacksonville, North Carolina isn’t one that pops into anyone’s mind as a vacation destination. For the most part, people don’t know that it exists and often think that you’re talking about Jacksonville, Florida.
When you bring up Camp Lejeune, one of the more recognized military bases in this country, that’s when the light goes on.
Boxing fans who have followed the sport diligently in the last 5-plus years know a bit about one of the people serving at Lejeune: Joe Higgins, who is a local hero on Long Island, New York, for his decades of service in the youth boxing realm, as well as his heroic selflessness as he worked shifts at the site of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, during his stint as a firefighter.
Higgins came on the radar of a wider range of fight fan, outside of The Island and the New York region as the trainer of Sean Monaghan, the light heavyweight who confounded expectations to build into contender status at the world class level. Seanie had elevated from willing pug, to respectable journeyman with a considerable fan base, to top ten-ranked light heavyweight, all while being a humble sort who had no airs, ever, about himself. He’d tell you he got his start as a fighter in bars, where he’d pound beers and then every so often a tavern Rocky.
Higgins also trained and cornered Patrick Day, a rock-solid amateur who started in the professionals ranks in 2013, after being a US Olympic alternate in 2012. Day had nothing but admirers inside the boxing world, as people in the know were impressed how he suffered a KO1 loss in 2015, and re-set himself. Day won six straight fights after that, beating favorites again and again. If you were aware of their union, you knew Joe Higgins, who has an ability to motivate and lift people who are not having a run of the greatest fortune, deserved a portion of the credit for that comeback run.
Higgins has experienced most all the things, feelings and moods that life can produce: laughter, good times, depression, love, inspiration, and pain, to name a few. When you sit and take in all the trials Higgins has experienced, you might shake your head and wonder silently how the hell he has kept one foot in front of the other. When you learn Higgins is a Marine Corps Veteran, that helps you comprehend where that level of toughness comes from.
After active duty, Higgins served as a firefighter for the New York Fire Department, a job he performed with beaming pride, as his father and brothers were also firefighters in New York. The 59-year-old Higgins loved his experiences serving in the military and as a firefighter but boxing also called for his attention.
I served in California myself, and was transferred from CA to Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, recently. I caught wind that Joe Higgins was at Lejeune, doing work, and I immediately knew I would like to chat with him. Upon meeting Higgins, we instantly connected, spent over an hour discussing a range of topics, and it felt like he truly enjoyed it.
With Independence Day quickly approaching, it felt only right to catch up with what Joe was doing, inside and outside of the sport, as he is a military veteran.
As kids, most of us will shout out different occupations as we wonder what we’ll be when we grow up. I wanna play first base for the Yankees. I wanna be a police officer….Or maybe a doctor.
Little Joe had family members serving in the armed forces but none were Marines. When he realized that, Joe tells me, “I thought there has to be a Marine in this family.” The idea started firming when he was in the sixth or seventh grade, and saw his friend’s brother who came home from Vietnam as a wounded veteran. “He was so influential to me,” Joe recalls, “just because he was so proud to be a Marine…and that never left me.”
In the ninth grade, Joe decided that he was going to serve in the Marine Corps and he kept that mindset throughout high school. Once he graduated, he immediately went to see a recruiter but had to get his parents to sign since he was only 17.
It was 1979 and hours after graduating high school, Higgins found himself on a plane towards Parris Island, S.C to attend Marine Corps bootcamp.
“I did not want to hang out for the summer,” he explains. “I wanted to be Marine right away and not waste any time.” Higgins graduated bootcamp, attended the follow-on school and although he was training to become an infantry rifleman, was selected to become an infantry assaultman: “It was a great move, and it was tailored made for me.”
Later that year, Joe deployed to the Middle East on a naval vessel in support of operations to rescue the American hostages being held in Iran. Although he did not see any action during that deployment, Joe spent six months overseas and shortly after returning, was given a new set of orders.
Joe deployed for three months to Ft. Allen, Puerto Rico. The Cuban refugee crisis was playing out, and Higgins was part of a security detachment to make sure that those building camps to hold detainees were not interfered with. “I was honored to be there but,” he stated, chuckling, “I never felt humidity like that.”
During the time he spent with 8th Marines, Joe had an executive officer who not much later would gain massive notoriety in America: Oliver North. Higgins felt that, yes, the man who’d become a celebrity as the Iran-Contra Affair played out was hard on them during the week…but everyone loved North on Fridays, as he’d put in motion an early formation, so that the Marines could get a head start on the weekend.
Higgins had his eyes set on re-enlisting and becoming a drill instructor. His father, Edward, suggested a possible alternative path. What about being a firefighter? Joe accepted the suggestion, took the test and scored a 100%.
Edward weighed in again: “Joe, these tests are every freakin’ four years, the lists run out fast and it’ll be eight years before you get on the job if you don’t jump on this right now.” Joe again listened and followed his dad’s advice.
We moved back to boxing, how it’s been almost two years since the death of Patrick Day. Patrick took up boxing in 2006, and his work ethic and attitude while learning the craft were stellar. He wanted to go all in and grind on, to climb up the pro ranks. After the hiccup that was losing a decision to Alantez Fox on Jan. 9, 2015, and the harsher one, being kayoed in round one by 9-14-1 Carlos Garcia Hernandez at the Aviator complex in Brooklyn, NY on Nov. 20, 2015, Patrick bit down, and got stubborn.
He won both his fights in 2016 (to Courtney Pennington and Virgilijus Stapulionis) and got a career best win, arguably, beating 15-0 Eric Walker in July 2017. He had a perfect 2018, too, beating 13-1 Kyrone Davis and then rugged vet Elvin Ayala.
In 2019, Patrick downed another unbeaten, 11-0-1 Ismail Iliev. Patrick had truly fought his way back from a low place, and earned a step-up fight, against Carlos Adames, then 17-0.
They clashed June 28, 2019, and Adames had his hand raised, UD10. Patrick did well to keep from being stopped in the tenth and final round of the junior middleweight battle.
And no, it wasn’t Patrick’s way to drop down again, get a fight with someone who he’d be a heavy favorite over. He sought tough tests. The offer to meet Conwell, then 10-0, in Chicago, was accepted. Almost four months after the loss to Adames, Patrick took a fight with a boxer that was at the same level or higher than Adames. His body language never once indicated that his spirit dimmed as Conwell sent him to the mat in rounds four, eight, and in the fateful tenth.
I was hesitant to talk about Patrick..but Joe was open to discuss it. When asked if it’s too soon to say “time heals all wounds,” Joe quickly responded.“Time doesn’t heal shit,” he says. “I’m a 9/11 firemen and I still feel that as if it was yesterday. Time don’t heal nothin,’ you just learn to live and find your own happiness.”
Higgins and some cohorts have put together an homage to Patrick, The Patrick Day Project. Their website points out that they are looking to help “create a place that can help youth and young adults to become superstars and givers to society.” Joe does admit that it is going to “take a little while” to get going but he informs us that the village of Freeport on Long Island is going to allow the expansion of the boxing gym to facilitate the end goal of the project.
If Joe has his way, he will fulfill the slogan that has been created for this project, “time, talent and treasure.” He notes that, “The vision has always been the gym being more than a boxing gym.” Some of those things that he feels would take it to the next level are adding another ring, updating the equipment, hiring tutors, getting computers, teaching home economics there, etc. Higgins is fully aware of the downsides of the sport. He didn’t abandon the sport, because he knows the upsides of what boxing teaches impressionable kids outweighs the downside. But, to be smart, to cover more bases, Higgins wants area kids to widen their scope of interests. Master the jab, but also that computer.
The loss of Patrick hit Joe Higgins really, really hard. He kept asking himself, again and again, day after day after day what he might have done differently on that night. Should I have thrown in the towel, he wonders.
Is the grief compounded because Joe lost his brother Tim, a firefighter, who was in a tower working to save innocents, on Sept. 11? Maybe. Tim’s body was found in the rubble long after after the surprise attack; he was 43 years old, and mourned by a wife, and three children. Boxing did wonders helping Joe bounce back from the trauma…but then served as the staging ground for another hard hit to his soul. Patrick stayed alive in the hospital Sunday, Monday, and family and friends prayed for a miracle. Tuesday, more prayers.
Then, Wednesday, Oct. 16, grim reality set in. Patrick was dead. At age 27, his record as a pro would stand still at 17-4-1.
Higgins was quite familiar with the process of grieving. But this one hit a bit different, because he saw Patrick was a member of his family, really, another son. He knew he had to try and make something good out of the tragedy. But grief runs on its own schedule. It isn’t so simple, you can’t muscle your way through the dark fog. A random phone call from a good friend over a year ago seemed to turn things around. Jim McNally, who was the coach of the Annapolis Midshipmen Boxing Team, told Joe of an opportunity that he thought would be perfect for him. Would Joe consider coming aboard as Head Trainer of the Marine Corps MACE Boxing Program? After a long pause, Joe expressed his interest. But first, Joe had to discuss it with his wife, and she said to him, “Joe, if you can do it, you have to do it.”
After submitting his resume, Joe competed against other applicants…and he got the job. Once that happened, he packed his bags and moved to Camp Lejeune last August. Joe, the head coach, has a full staff to assist with training the team. Higgins’ goal? To make Marines into National Champions. The opportunity to do so may or may not come as the program is on a year-to-year basis. Budget restraints could potentially get in the way of Joe obtaining his goal. The immediate goal is to compete locally and regionally while preparing for the Nationals.
This position that Joe Higgins is enjoying, as it helps lessen his grief, was something that came up years ago in a conversation with Patrick Day. USA Boxing had a job opening, and Joe thought about applying, but wasn’t sure if he was qualified. Higgins wanted to be transparent, he told Patrick Day, not yet a pro, about this gig. “Coach, man, you have to take that job,” Patrick counseled. “That job is you to the T. You have to make Marines Champions, I just won’t go pro.”
Right after Patrick died, Joe didn’t try to hide how much Patrick meant to him. He would tell people that he saw Patrick as a saint, in fact. Being so unselfish, deciding to abandon his dream, if and when his coach took that position, who does that?
While speaking to Joe Higgins, you can’t help to think about how complicated life can be. I asked if coming back to Lejeune felt like things came full circle. “Yeah, I certainly do. It’s a different Jacksonville than the one I remember,” he says. “I have always felt like a Marine. Everything I ever did. The tattoo on my body, wearing Marine Corps shirts all my life. Being here makes me feel like I’m back in the Marine Corps. It has really lifted me from the funk that I was in.”
It’s great to see Joe Higgins go from the yellow footprints in bootcamp to now training and preparing Marines for tournaments. He will continue to write his story while making sure that he shares stories about the quality person that was Patrick Day.
You can donate to The Patrick Day Project by clicking here.