Isaac Herrera used to be a trouble-maker. The 18-year-old Mountain View native ran with a rough crowd, was mixed up with drugs and violence, and had flunked out of Los Altos High School. But then he decided to turn his life around.
So, he took a swing at a cop.
It may seem like an illogical first step for someone trying to get back on track, but it makes perfect sense to Ron Cooper, a school resource officer with the Mountain View Police Department.
Cooper is the founder and leader of the Mountain View Police Activities League's boxing program. For the past two-and-a-half years, Cooper has been spending three afternoons each week in the ring, teaching young men and women from Mountain View how to jab, slug, bob, weave and fight their way out of a corner.
On the ropes
"You're on the ropes! You're on the ropes! What are you supposed to do?" Cooper cries, as seven sets of eyes look on from the floor into the boxing ring. Cooper's sparring partner, a youth about Herrera's age, shuffles his feet, strafes around the officer and fires a quick undercut jab.
Cooper wears a heavy torso protector and two concave gloves designed to absorb the young man's blows. "Yeah!" he exclaims. "That's how you do it!"
Herrera knows what it feels like to be on the ropes -- literally and figuratively.
He got involved with gangs at a young age -- roaming the streets of Mountain View with his friends, attracting negative attention from the police with his wanton behavior.
"As a teenager you sometimes feel like you're on your own, like there is nobody there for you," Herrera says. "I think that was the main reason I got into it -- for that sense of belonging."
When Herrera was in eighth grade he landed on Cooper's watch list.
"He was always very respectful," Cooper says, recalling his first impression of Herrera. "But he was kind of dabbling in the wrong stuff."
Cooper would check in with Herrera periodically and, slowly but surely, the youth began to improve in school. But then, in the 10th grade, Herrera decided to distance himself from Cooper, after the officer picked up the youth for trespassing. Herrera says he felt betrayed; at the time, he thought Cooper should have let him slide.
His grades took a nosedive and by the end of his sophomore year he had been bounced from Los Altos High School to Alta Vista, the district continuation school.
But Cooper never gave up on Herrera, and in 2009 he convinced the youth to come to the boxing program.
Around the time Cooper invited him to the gym, Herrera says he was beginning to notice that his actions were negatively impacting his life and the lives of those around him. At times, Herrera says, his mother would cry because of things he had done. "I finally realized I was wrong."
He apologized to Cooper, began attending the officer's gym regularly and put his nose to the grindstone academically.
"I basically worked my butt off my last semester at Alta Vista," says Herrera, who had the credits of a sophomore coming into his junior year. He managed to make up that lost ground, re-entered Los Altos High School as a senior and graduated with the rest of his class of 2009.
Back into the ring
According to Cooper, pugilism is a great way to get kids back on track. "It's hard work 90 percent of boxing is cardio. A lot of kids don't realize that," he says.
The sport's physically demanding nature requires discipline, inside and outside of the ring, Cooper says.
"To be a boxer you have to have a healthy body and a healthy mind," Herrera says.
It is also safer than other more common high school sports, according to Cooper.
"No one is getting hit like you get hit in football," he says.
In his two and a half years running the program, Cooper says, he has only seen a handful of bloody noses -- including his own -- and no concussions or knockouts. "It's OK to get hit as long as you roll with that punch."
For his part, Isaac seems to be rolling with the punches just fine. Since graduating from Los Altos, he has enrolled in Foothill College, where he is studying sociology, philosophy and criminal justice. He is considering a career in law enforcement.
According to Cooper, Herrera has taken boxing's most important lesson to heart:
"You get knocked down, you get back up."