KANKAKEE | Charles Tanner couldn't just sit still in the corner of a gym and watch his older brother have all the fun.
Tanner was too antsy, too eager to begin fulfilling his destiny as one of Gary's most promising professional boxers. That's why he stood on the tips of his toes, jumping as high as a 5-year-old could jump, in an innocent attempt to make contact with one of his wild swings.
"I wanted to hit that speed bag, but I was too little to hit it," Tanner said. "So all the guys used to pick me up and let me hit when they were done working out."
The young boy couldn't get enough. He wouldn't be allowed to enter the ring until three years later, but he became fascinated with fighting way before then.
His father and the older boys who trained at West Side High School in 1985, including older brother Lamont, noticed the youngest Tanner's obsession with the sport. He even knew how to pose like a champion, always putting his dukes up.
Thus he was given a nickname, and Charles "Duke" Tanner was born.
Duke Tanner would blossom into a great fighter, a well-spoken young man and a local celebrity. But he would also become a symbol of a broken dream, a tragic figure of wasted talent.
On Nov. 6, 2006, a federal jury convicted Tanner of conspiring in a narcotics ring and of purchasing what he thought was 15 kilograms of powder cocaine in a controlled drug buy set up by federal agents. He was arrested on Sept. 1, 2004, and is now incarcerated at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee, where he's awaiting a sentence that could be 20 years to life.
Those who witnessed Tanner's evolution from a small boy who wasn't tall enough to hit his target to a talented phenom who earned a pro record of 19-0 by age 24 can only shake their heads and wonder what he could have achieved for himself, for his family and for his city.
"Duke got in trouble, and he still had dates left to fulfill on his contract with ESPN," said Willie Terry, who has known Tanner since he was a young child and began coaching him as a teenager at the Gary Police Athletic League gym. "He was going to be a world champion without a doubt."
After watching Lamont advance through the amateur ranks and win a Chicago Golden Gloves tournament, Tanner finally got the chance he had been waiting for. In September 1988, he had his first amateur fight in Chicago's Washington Park.
"I was 8 years old, and I beat this kid from Fort Wayne, Indiana," Tanner said. "I got his nose to bleed, and he started crying. There was no looking back. I tasted that blood, and I told everyone I was going to be a champ."
With guidance from local boxing trainers Bill Murphy, John Taylor and Terry, Tanner quickly began to make a name for himself. He went on to win the Silver Gloves National Tournament in 1991, then finish runner-up at the same event in 1993 and 1994. In 1996, he qualified for the national Junior Olympics, in which he won a bronze medal, and he advanced to the national quarterfinals of the U.S. Championships in 1998. Tanner finished his amateur career with a record of 96-10, and four of his losses were in championship fights of national tournaments.
By the time Tanner was 13, people started to believe he was a rising superstar, a young athlete Gary could be proud of.
"As any celebrity in a community where there aren't a lot of standouts, especially in a positive manner, Duke was almost like a patron saint," said Jerome Matthews, one of Tanner's closest friends since the two met as seventh-graders at Tolleston Middle School. "Everybody loved him and adored him."
Tanner will never forget the day Chicago attorney Robert Wiseman visited his family's house in April 1993. Wiseman and seven other benefactors, including defense lawyer Robert Shapiro of O.J. Simpson trial fame, saw Tanner's great potential, so they offered to pay for him to attend a private high school.
Tanner, who grew up in Gary public schools, wanted to go to Andrean High School, where he felt he could receive a better education. Tanner said his father, Charles, brothers and male cousins with whom he shared his last name never graduated from high school. His mother, Alene, urged her youngest son to end that trend.
Seemingly on a mission to make his mother proud, Tanner established himself as a "C" student and graduated from Andrean in 1998.
"He wasn't all-world academic, but he worked hard in school and trained at night," said John Szot, Tanner's senior government teacher who's been at Andrean for 29 years. "He was doing the right thing. That's why I didn't know what to do when they indicted him."
On Nov. 27, 1998, not long after he graduated high school, Tanner made his professional debut when he fought David Foster at the Genesis Center in Gary.
"I remember going to his first professional fight, and I was overwhelmed with emotion," said Matthews, now an adjunct professor at Chicago State University. "I was just so happy for him because it's not very often that we get an opportunity to see someone's dreams come true."
Editor's note: This is the first story in a four-part series about the life of Gary professional boxer Charles "Duke" Tanner, who was convicted of running a drug ring in his hometown and has been incarcerated for the past four years. Tanner, who has yet to be sentenced, discussed his life in several jail house interviews during the past few months.