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A 'Matinee Idol' turns 50: Czyz reflects on his charmed, tough life
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If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you
Bobby Czyz remembers the two filled bookshelves in his childhood home in East Orange, N.J. It was there that his father, a bright, compulsive individual without a matching academic resume, thought that he could unlock the secrets of the universe and will what he had learned upon his young children.
“We had two complete sets of encyclopedias, volumes one through 28 for each,” Czyz noted. “We had books by Nietzsche, a ton of biographies of great people, great philosophers. And my dad read them all – twice. He was obsessed with being omniscient.”
For those without a handy dictionary, “omniscience” is a word that means the capacity to know everything that can be known. It represents the quest for mental perfection, a state of absolute knowledge that is, of course, impossible for any human being to achieve.
“I not only read Nietzsche, I lived Nietzsche,” said Czyz, who has an IQ of 135 and is a member of Mensa, an organization open to those with genius-level intelligence. “I think what he was looking for drove him nuts. I don’t know how else to put it. My dad was a sociopath. He probably was insane.”
But while the father, a district sales manager for the Yellow Pages, passed along some favorable genes to his kids, all of whom were advanced-placement students, his quest for perfection also extended into the physical. He was determined that his sons would not only be sharp of mind, but of body, even if he had to break them to do it.
“We were forced into boxing, plain and simple,” Czyz said. “It was demanded of us. It wasn’t as if we had a choice. I was 10, Vincent was 9 and Tony was 7. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were going to the gym, and we would box until my father decided we didn’t have to do it anymore.
“His rationale for that was fairly simple, at least in his mind. He likened young boys to malleable steel that needed to be shaped and hammered to mold their character. He wanted us beaten into sharp blades. My father wanted us to come out of the chute as men. We weren’t allowed to just be little boys.”
Technically, the Czyz brothers didn’t begin to be trained as boxers until they moved to Wanaque, N.J., in 1972, when Bobby was 10. But the pain began years earlier, as Bobby recalled. “My father began teaching me the basics of boxing when I was 4,” he said. “I have video of it. He was smacking me in the face. `Get your hands up, do this, do that.’ It was crazy.”
Although all three Czyz boys accomplished much at the amateur level, Bobby was the only one to stick with boxing after their father, somewhat inexplicably, decided in 1977 that they could quit if they wanted to. Then again, Bobby was the only one who had decided that there were places two hard fists and a good mind could take him that a good mind alone might not.
“East Orange was predominately black and Hispanic,” Czyz said. “I was the tough white kid. There were 32 in my class when I was 10 years old, only four of whom were white. Guess who had to fight every day on his way to and from school? But that was no big deal. It was part of my life. I really didn’t care. I actually kind of liked it. When my father told us we were moving to Wanaque, I didn’t want to go.
“We probably never would have left East Orange, but the principal called my parents in and told them my siblings and I were too advanced for the curriculum and that we needed to get into a better school system to maximize our potential.”
But while Wanaque represented a new start for the family, some things remained constant for Bobby.
“Wanaque was a predominately white suburb, but I had the city in me,” he said. “And I was the new guy. So guess what? I got into a lot of fights there, too. Within weeks, everybody knew that I could fight because I had beaten the crap out of everybody who mistakenly thought they could take me.
“You know how these things get started. My hair was a little longer than theirs, my clothes were a little different. Somebody would say, `So, you think you’re a tough guy?’ And I’d say I know I’m a tough guy.’ And the fight would be on.”
Always the stern hand of the father was evident. The Czyz boys had to win, at whatever they attempted. Nothing less than total victory was acceptable in his eyes.
“I remember Vince getting beaten up by a kid the same age as him,” Bobby said. “He came home with a busted lip, a black eye. My father said, `What happened?’ Vince told him he had gotten into a fight with a kid named Jimmy, and he lost. I saw that fight but was not allowed to jump in because they were the same age. That was the rule. If it had been a bigger, older kid, it would have been OK for me to get involved.
“My father trained Vince for two weeks, after which he told him to go to Jimmy’s house, knock on the door and, no matter who answered it, say he wanted to see Jimmy outside because they were going to fight again. And if the answer was no, for Vince to go back every day and say the same thing.
“Jimmy’s mother answers the door and Vince says, `I want to fight Jimmy.’ She says OK. They went out on the lawn and, this time, Vince beat the crap out of Jimmy. And that was enough to satisfy my father.”
He who has a why to live bear almost any how.
Czyz still has difficulty sorting out his myriad feelings toward his father. He said he and his brothers were “tortured, physical, mentally and emotionally,” but, as is sometimes the case, much of the good things in his life, including his boxing career, sprang from misery.
“My father taught me,” Czyz said. “He taught me all the time. He’d say, `Don’t do what I do, do what I say. I’m not perfect. I have flaws. Take my good and keep it, take my bad and throw it away.’ But if you pointed out his bad, he would beat the crap out of you. So it was what it was.
“I had a fear of heights. Still do. But I don’t let that fear stop me from doing what I need to do. I’ve jumped out of airplanes, on purpose, twice, parachuting in Arizona. I did it after my boxing career was over because I didn’t want to risk hurting myself so that I couldn’t fight anymore.
“How did I conquer my fear of heights, or at least control it? My father took me to the tallest tree in the neighborhood. It had to be 80 feet, higher than the tops of the buildings. He said, `Climb the tree.’ I said, `How far up?’ He said, `Until I say so.’
“I’m 10 years old, and I’m holding onto that tree so tight I thought I’d break it. I was shaking and crying. Then my dad looked up and said, `Who won, you or the tree?’ I said, `I did.’ And he said, `That’s right, and it’s because you were more afraid of taking a beating from me than falling out of the tree. Now come down.’”
The same do-or-die approach was used at the community swimming pool where a 12-year-old Bobby Czyz, who couldn’t swim, was tossed into the deep end by his father.
“If you can’t swim, there’s a fear of drowning that comes over you and won’t let go,” Czyz said. “Why was my dad doing this to me? But I paddled, screamed and finally made it to the side of the pool, where I could climb out. He said, `Who won? You or the water?’ I said, `I did.’ He asked me why that was. I said, `Because I was afraid of dying.’ And he said, `Exactly.’”
Some of the elder Czyz’s lessons, however, he didn’t take unto himself. When he took his own life in an act of desperation or madness, his family was left with so many recriminations that it would take a platoon of psychiatrists to sort out.
“When he died, I felt a lot of guilt. I probably drank myself to sleep for four or five weeks,” Czyz said. “For seven years I couldn’t get rid of the nightmares, the horror that was going through my head. My heart would be racing. I’d wake up in a cold sweat. Sometimes it would be multiple times a week, sometimes only once or twice a month, but it always happened.
“I used self-hypnosis to finally get through it. Whenever my dad would show up in one of my nightmares, I programmed myself to subconsciously say, `Wake up, idiot. He’s dead. He can’t hurt you anymore.’ Then I’d wake up, the nightmare would be over and I could get some peaceful sleep. “
Part II deals with Bobby Czyz’s careers in boxing and broadcasting, his love for and mistakes made with his late wife, Kimberly, who died of breast cancer, and his hopes for his daughter, Mercedes, who will be entering her sophomore year at Hofstra University.
Photos / Timothy Clary-AFP and Bobby Czyz