VILLA PARK – Doni Erkinov and his best friend, Oybek Aliyev, race down the steps of Trinity Lutheran Church, speeding off into the basement, their bags swinging from side to side. Quickly, the pair strap on their gloves, slide in their mouthguards and slip into a warmup routine as they wait for further instruction from their head coach Anton Logun.
The grounds of the church, especially on a Tuesday night, are quiet. With every punch that Erkinov and Aliyev throw at the bags, the sound – a rhythmic thud – is amplified. A trio of posters featuring the U.S. Olympic boxing team are hung around a mirror on a wall, their faces almost life-size against the young Erkinov and Aliyev. A small collage of legendary fighters such as Muhammad Ali rests beneath the Villa Park Boxing Club’s mantra.
“You’ve only got three choices in life,” the sign reads. “Give up, give in, or give it your all.”
For more than 20 years, the Villa Park Boxing Club served as a safe haven for children and teens across the Chicago area. What began as a youth sports program to help combat gang violence in DuPage County during the early 1990s ultimately carved out room for budding boxers to build character, find confidence and experience camaraderie.
The club, at one point, charged only $25 a year, catering to families in need. Right there, inside that church basement, students came to practice or spar two or three times a week and walked away with a wealth of knowledge. And now Logun wonders where his athletes will go after he shuts the club’s doors Sept. 1.
“I feel sad,” the 36-year-old Logun said as he sat on the edge of a dark blue couch near the doorway. On this side of the church basement, he was surrounded by bookshelves and small craft tables, away from the boxing ring and workout equipment that dominated the other end.
In the past couple of months, Logun received notices from church council members that their youth ministry programs were growing and they could no longer share the basement with the club and sought to reclaim their space.
“It’s a mixed blessing,” Rev. Rob Rogers said, extending his gratitude toward Logun and the work that he and his colleagues have done. “The boxing program has been a great program for some youth over the last 25 years, but we are now at a point where we’re adding on to our youth group to feed our older kid programs.”
Logun said he felt blindsided by the council’s decision. This was a change he couldn’t prepare for. The Villa Park Boxing Club is a nonprofit, meaning Logun finds himself making most of the financial investment to ensure his fighters have a solid foundation.
“What am I supposed to do with all of this?” he said, pointing to the treadmills, weights and heavy bags.
The easy answer would be to move, he said, but with the September move-out date around the corner, he’s unable to lock down a new home.
“At what point do you start to say is this really worth my time,” said Logun, reflecting on the many conversations he had with Trinity leaders and the overwhelming stress he faced to keep the club open. As a coach, he felt responsible for his athletes, including 10-year-old Erkinov and 9-year-old Aliyev.
“Is this really worth the pressure that I’m being put in, in the first place, where all you want is to give back to the community and the program?” he continued.
Logun just wanted the chance to teach and pass down the lessons he learned from mentors before him.
Logun was a little older than Erkinov and Aliyev when he joined the Villa Park Boxing Club. He was 13 when he emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S., first settling in Elmhurst. He had trouble fitting in at school and didn’t know how to speak English, both of which made him a target for bullies. Those years were rough, Logun said. He remembered being in fights, and from time to time, he had to explain to his coach how he got a black eye.
“If [kids] don’t understand something, they just tend to approach it in a different way,” he reasoned.
Logun looked for refuge at the Villa Park Boxing Club, often seeking council from his former coaches Paul Pleticha and wife, Donita.
“In baseball, basketball, football, you’ve got teammates that can cover up any mistake you make,” said Donita, who volunteered as an assistant coach at the boxing club for nearly two decades. “In boxing, you cannot. There’s no teammates.
“We tried to press that upon all the kids that this isn’t just a matter of throwing fists,” she continued. “It’s discipline. It’s self-control. It builds self-esteem.”
Donita described the young Logun as a “good kid,” a “hard worker,” and like most teens, he didn’t get along with his parents and ran into problems at home. But the more he showed up to the club, the more his attitude and outlook on life started to change. Logun is a college graduate, a devoted husband and a new father.
As the years passed, Donita and Paul had no problem leaving the club in Logun’s hands when they decided to retire a few years ago.
“He always stayed in touch with us,” Donita said. “He always calls on the holidays or checks [in]. He doesn’t forget us.”
In a formal letter to the church council, Logun shared what the Pletichas and the Villa Park Boxing Club meant to him.
“This was the best thing I could have done,” he wrote, adding that boxing was a stress reliever and helped him focus “on what is in front of me.”
This place was his sanctuary, and as the weeks draw near to that fateful September day, it becomes harder and harder to let go.
Erkinov and Aliyev are the last of Logun’s students. At this point, he’s shared the dreadful news with most of his older athletes. He said he couldn’t bear to see the boys heartbroken or upset.
“This is like my second home,” Aliyev said.
As the two-hour class came to an end, Erkinov and Aliyev searched for ways to reset. They gasped for air, their shirts soaked in sweat. While the pair knew that days at the club were limited, they could only look forward to the one day of recovery that stood between them and their Thursday night session.
And, for a moment, they were still.
“We were probably one of the best kept secrets in Villa Park,” Donita said.