‘Selfless boxing coach,’ Carlos Duncan helped kids find discipline, learn about life

Matthew Wheaton
Galesburg Register-Mail
For over 50 years, Carlos Duncan dished lessons about boxing and life through the Galesburg Youth Athletic Club. He passed away on Saturday, July 2 at the age of 80.

GALESBURG — The mood was somber inside the Galesburg Youth Athletic Club on Wednesday night.

Tears flowed on the fourth floor of the Weinberg Arcade, as Carlos Duncan was no where to be found.

For over 50 years, Duncan dished lessons about boxing and life through the GYAC. He died Saturday at the age of 80, but his legacy is substantial. 

Duncan generally wore a smile. He was compassionate and cared about helping people, regardless of class, race or age.

George Carter Jr. worked under Duncan's tutelage for 28 years. He went 14-3-2 as a pro boxer and the 36-year-old is officially retired.

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About six months ago, Carter decided he was going to follow in Duncan's footsteps. Upon his retirement, the southpaw didn't want anything to do with boxing, but Carter changed his mind much to the delight of Duncan. 

"One of the things I thought about was we're going to shut the gym down, but I knew Carlos wouldn't have wanted that," Carter said. "He's not going to say lay down and cry. He'd say 'keep pushing. Keep doing what you're doing. Keep bringing the kids in there and keep doing that the way you're doing now and you'll push through it.'"

So that's what Carter and company will do. However, it's not going to be easy. 

Former pro boxer George Carter Jr. holds photos of himself with his mentor and coach Carlos Duncan at the Galesburg Youth Athletic Club on Wednesday, July 6, 2022. Duncan, a community leader who also ran the GYAC, passed away on Saturday, July 2.

Duncan was a father figure

Duncan, a 1959 Galesburg High School graduate, was involved with boxing since the age of 7, and the USA Boxing certified coach preached what he learned from his grandparents, his parents and a 29-year career serving in the United States Air Force.  

When "Mr. D" spoke people listened, and what he said resonated with all inside or outside the ring. 

"I grew up to be a young man. He was always there to help me out when I was in trouble. He showed me the rights (instead of wrongs)," Carter said. "As I got older, I started paying more and more attention to him. Now, I come in and do things that he's been doing like recruiting kids, opening up the gym and coaching. Boxing wasn't just about boxing to him. It was about bringing the community together and giving people an opportunity away from gangs and drugs and stuff like that.

"Carlos was a father figure," added Carter, while trying to hold back his emotions. "I'd say 'Hey pops I need help with this. I need help with that,' and he'd say 'sit down and let's talk about it.' On the road when we went to matches, we'd talk. He always gave me inspiration. He just meant everything to me. Words really can't explain it."

For the last 10 years, Jordan Mack has served as one of the GYAC's coaches, and like Carter, the 32-year-old appreciates what Duncan did for him along the way.

Influenced by his older brother, Mack started going to the GYAC as a 5-year-old, stepped away from boxing for a while, but picked the sport back up when he was 11 or 12.

"He meant everything to me. He helped me with everything. There's not too many people that are going to help you no matter what you do," Mack said. "He was a loving dude. He was selfless. It's sad because he was like a father figure to me. I've got my dad in my life, but Carlos was like that second father. 

"When I was a teenager, I used to play a lot and get in trouble. I'd come up to the gym and think it was a game," Mack added. "Carlos would always say 'basketball players play basketball. Football players play football. Boxers don't play.' That stuck with me. I knew it was that deep for him. I knew I couldn't play in this sport with a guy like that."

Along with Carter and Mack, Duncan mentored Jamey Friel, a 1995 GHS grad who now lives in the Boston, Massachusetts, area. Duncan served as Friel's coach for about six months before he left the area to attend the United States Military Academy, located in West Point, New York.

"I had always wanted to box since about the age of 6. I was finally able to do it during the last six months of my senior year after wrestling season," said Friel, 45, who boxed for 11 years and was in the Army for 10 of them. "I appreciated Coach Carlos because I liked how he focused on helping kids find discipline and purpose through boxing. We connected right away, likely because he had a career in the Air Force, and I was embarking on my own Army career.

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Carlos Duncan battled cancer twice in his life. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008 and given three to five years to live. In 2021, Duncan tested positive for COVID-19, and until the end he was affected by it.

"Carlos was an inspiration and the quintessential image I have of a selfless boxing coach focused on teaching skills in and out of the ring," Friel added. "Boxing is an incredible sport, and people like Carlos Duncan helped to ensure lessons in the ring were carried through and applied to life. It takes a lot of courage to face down another caged animal intent on knocking you into oblivion. The experience of stepping in and proving oneself gave me the confidence to face down other 'caged animals' in military deployments and life in general."

Duncan even tempered, composed

Carter spent countless hours with Duncan, and he rarely saw him get angry. Duncan might get agitated but Carter wouldn't know he was. 

"He was just a wonderful person inside and out. I never saw him have any type of attitude. If he was sitting there mad I wouldn't know it," Carter said of Duncan. "When he did get angry with me, it was always with boxing when he knew I could beat a person."

Mack agrees with Carter.

"Since I can remember, he never really yelled and anybody," Mack said. "He might get loud but he would just tell you 'there's the door if you don't want to listen.' He never really yelled."

Duncan didn't have to raise his voice because anyone he crossed paths with respected him especially boxers, as Duncan was a Golden Gloves winner.

Duncan was stationed in Holland for 19 years. While there, he learned to speak Dutch, and Duncan honed his skills as a boxer. He became a Dutch national champion.

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Duncan's health was never a topic

Duncan battled cancer twice in his life. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008 and given three to five years to live. In 2021, Duncan tested positive for COVID-19, and until the end he was affected by it. 

Family, friends and students of Carlos Duncan strike a familiar post honoring the longtime boxing coach at the Galesburg Youth Athletic Club on Wednesday, July 6th, 2022.

One wouldn't know it though.

"He would speak to you every time and say 'I'm doing better. I'm doing good. I'm getting stronger.' Every time, you would not know on the other side what was going on," Carter said. "It really hit him when he got COVID. It didn't help but he stayed positive.

"I had to try to send him home one time because he was stumbling, and I was like 'Carlos you've got to go home.' I called my mom and told her 'come and get Carlos, he has to get home,' and Carlos wasn't going home. He was stubborn," Carter added. "You would think he was healthy. The coughing and that would tell you different, and I knew it was coming but I just didn't know it was going to be this quick. 

"He said if it wasn't for the gym he probably wouldn't have lasted as long."

Boxing runs in Duncan's family 

The GYAC was started in 1946 by Duncan’s father, Howard “Andy” Duncan and his brother, Sonny Duncan — who was also a Golden Gloves champion and went on to serve with the Galesburg Police Department for 21 years before accepting the position of Technical Director of USA Boxing at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Carlos took over as the GYAC's leader in the early 1990s after his retirement from the Air Force. 

Galesburg resident Jim Jacobs, a 1964 GHS graduate, was a lifelong friend of Sonny, and he ended up building a bond with the entire Duncan family, Carlos included.

"Carlos, I always knew him as Chuck. The name his parents gave him was Charles but he went by Carlos because it meant Charles when he was stationed in the Netherlands," Jacobs said. "He meant a tremendous amount to me as a friend. He did a lot for the young people and followed in his father's footsteps and Sonny's.

"Carlos and I were close, and I'd call him up often to see how he was doing. The last year or so his health failed him, and I think he kind of knew that," Jacobs added. "He taught not only about boxing but about life. The boxing was incidental. He knew boxing teaches discipline.

"Carlos emphasized to give back to the community." 

Duncan helped people learn to read, write

Along with his GYAC duties, Duncan once served as an outreach worker for Carl Sandburg College's literacy coalition. He helped people learn to read and write, and he also assisted those whose first language isn't English.

"The work I saw him do was with the ESL students at Sandburg. A lot of people come to this country and to this area and they don't, of course, speak any English, but it's bigger than that. It's a cultural thing, and I watched Carlos engage in a way that made people feel welcome," said Anthony Law, who is Sandburg's Coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion. "He represented the entire community for a lot of the people that came in. He was that outside entity. Carlos made people feel comfortable enough to where they'd be vulnerable and talk about some of the challenges they were facing. Sometimes, it was more than language. He was a resource to those that needed a resource.

"Carlos was short in stature but when you watched him do and live up to his passion he seemed 8 feet tall. Carlos earned and almost commanded some respect in a very humble way," Law added. "I never saw him display anger in the settings I saw but I did see him come into a room and when Carlos needed to speak and, more importantly, be heard, people listened. I think that's what made him a great coach and a great man for young people."

Hinchliff-Pearson-West is handling Duncan's arrangements, and cremation will be accorded. Duncan's visitation will be 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, August 13 at First Baptist Church with the memorial service at 11 a.m. A private family burial will take place in the East Linwood Cemetery. 

Matthew Wheaton can be reached at (309) 315-6073 or at mwheaton@register-mail.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewlwheaton