Trainer Who Was a 9/11 Firefighter Paying Heavy Price After Heroic Duty

Yahoo Sports - October 16, 2015

by Kevin Iole

NEW YORK – Joe Higgins has a rule that he has stuck to throughout his career as a trainer: He never takes on a fighter in the pros that he didn’t work with in the amateurs. There are no exceptions.

And so, unbeaten light heavyweight Seanie Monaghan, who fights Donovan George on Friday at the Aviator Arena in Brooklyn in a bout televised nationally on truTV, is his best hope of training a world champion.

Listen to Higgins speak for only a couple of moments and it’s clear he adores Monaghan, who used boxing to overcome a troubled youth.

As he speaks effusively about Monaghan, Higgins lets slip a jaw-dropping statement.

“We have a great team,” Higgins said. “His manager, P.J. Kavanagh, has the business acumen. I have the boxing knowledge. And Seanie has the talent. We’re going after that world title. Believe me, we’re going after that title hard. It’s our dream. I just hope I live long enough to see it.”

– – – – – – – – – Higgins is 54 and says he feels better than he has in years. But he has reason to worry.

He was one of the firefighters who responded to the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. For months afterward, he and his comrades sifted through the rubble searching for bodies. After the rubble was largely cleared, a hole was excavated and the firefighters continued to work there hoping to recover as many victims as possible despite the nauseating odor and noxious fumes.

“I’ve got to tell you, as bad as the pile was, I think the hole was worse,” Higgins said. “The excavation was finer. You could see the metallic dust in the lights at night. It was going right through our masks. You could taste it.

“The first couple of months obviously were bad, but I thought the last couple of months were worse. But nothing could drag us out of that hole. We stayed to the very last day.”

– – – – – – – – – Higgins has been an amateur boxing trainer for much of his adult life, and for a while, was the New York representative on the USA Boxing board. He’s traveled the country giving clinics to coaches.

He always loved the sport, and said what he called “camaraderie things” have defined him.

“Being a firefighter, being a Marine, those are those camaraderie things,” he said. “You become a Marine, you’re a Marine for life and you have a bond with those guys you served with forever. As a firefighter, you’ll do anything for the guys who are fearless and who just want to put themselves in danger to save someone else.

“And boxing is kind of that way, too. To me, there is no bigger pair of balls than being an urban firefighter when the [expletive’s] hitting the fan. You have seconds to make things work and you cannot be the weak link in the chain. And 9/11 enforced that even more. But going back to the gym settled me down and it became my therapy. I wouldn’t change a thing. I had my gym before that, but it’s evolved since then. It’s always been a good, competitive gym, but since 9/11, I’m a different person and I’m a much better coach and trainer.”

– – – – – – – – – Higgins says he wouldn’t change a thing, but he would, if he could. Obviously, he wishes the terrorist attacks never occurred.

His father was a firefighter and his three brothers are firefighters, as well. He served in Brooklyn Ladder Squad 111. His brother, Lt. Timothy Higgins, was on duty for Squad 252 on Sept. 11, 2001.

Timothy Higgins was one of the first firefighters to arrive on the scene and was trying to save people from the moment he arrived, Joe Higgins said. “My brother was found [in the rubble] on top of a civilian woman, and we think he was trying to save her,” Joe Higgins said. “There are stories I’ve been told from people who were there that saw him that he saved 20 people’s lives.

“When the first tower came down, they were still going up trying to get people. Those firemen who were there that day, they were trying to put that damn fire out with everything they had in them. There was nothing stopping them. They actually saved 25,000, maybe 30,000 lives.”

Timothy Higgins gave his own life to save others.

When Joe Higgins began working on the hunt for bodies, he had a general sense of where his brother had last been seen. He dug in that area, expecting to one day uncover his brother’s remains.

It came at great cost. He, like many who worked in the area, became ill as a result of the prolonged exposure during the cleanup.

He had two throat surgeries, developed asthma, had problems with his esophagus and lost a great deal of weight.

“I had a tremendous amount of issues for years after 9/11, and I didn’t think I was going to make it, to be honest with you,” Higgins said. “After I retired, I was working in the boxing gym and I just said to myself, ‘There’s no way I can continue to live on this regimen of drugs they’ve got me on.’ Sometimes, I felt the drug side effects were worse than the illnesses.

“I just got off all that crap and today, I can tell you, I’m in great shape. I’m probably in better shape than I was on the day before 9/11. I’m 54 years old and like I said, it’s scary because I don’t know how long I’m going to live. Quite a few people I know passed away from cancer and other illnesses since 9/11. I was right in the heart of all that, day after day for so long. But I don’t regret one minute of it. If I had to, I’d go back again. All I wanted to do was to find some of the bodies and be able to give the peace and the relief to their families that we discovered their loved ones and brought them back home.”

Higgins didn’t discover his brother’s body. He was an instructor and was needed to train new recruits who would help replace the 350 firefighters they’d lost.

Every day during the training, he said, they’d line up in formation in the morning and tell the recruits a story about one of the firemen who had perished in the rescue effort.

“We wanted the probies to know exactly who they were replacing and why they were so important,” Higgins said.

During training, he got a call that his brother’s body had been found. He said he didn’t feel a sense of closure, but it relieved him in some way.

His brother, like his entire family, was totally committed to the department and its mission.

“No one wants to have that happen to them, but if you go, that’s the way to go, giving your life to save others,” Higgins said.

– – – – – – – – – Now he gives of himself in the boxing gym. Though he believes Monaghan can win a world title, he said he’s not training fighters for money or titles or glory.

It’s a much more basic concept that sends him to the gym every day. He’s distressed by much of what he sees in modern society and is trying to instill fundamental values like respect, discipline and class into those he trains.

“I have this relationship with all of my fighters like a father figure or an older brother, and I try to instill the values in them that maybe they’re not getting at home, or in school,” Higgins said. “That’s especially true of Sean, because he’s been with me for 13 or 14 years. Some of my other amateurs who have turned pro have been with me for eight, nine years. “You’ll never hear my guys spit out curse words or embarrass their mothers, but don’t mistake their kindness for weakness, because they’ll knock the living snot out of you. I teach that because I believe it. It’s the way I am. Acting ethical and caring for people is what’s going to help our sport more than the crap that you see. I get this is a business and there’s a lot of fluff and hype involved, but the bottom line is, these kids are loved like they’re my own children. My coaches are that way, too. This is our family and we teach them the right way.”

Monaghan didn’t start out that way. He was always in trouble and was put on probation. A friend, who was later shot and killed, recommended to him that he reach out to Higgins and learn to box.

Monaghan initially resisted, but Higgins persuaded him to try it and he said it changed the fighter’s life.

“Watching what happened with Sean is one example of why I do this,” Higgins said. “He was a rough kid, very troublesome. But he put his energy into boxing and he turned his life around. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and there’s not a kinder, more generous kid out there than this guy. He’s the kind of a guy you wish he was your own son.

“He’s a ‘yes, ma’am; no, sir’ kind of a guy. Everybody [who] knows him loves him, and if he wins this fight, he’ll get more exposure and I see him becoming a beloved athlete, like a Rocky Marciano type. It’s not just because he can fight his ass off, but he’s a great kid who would do anything for anybody. All those people who [expletive] on boxing, take a look at Sean and the man he’s become. Boxing, I am convinced, got him to where he is today.”

Boxing, and a gruff but caring coach. Monaghan owes Higgins a lot.

But then again, he’s only one of many.