Meet Mike, or Mike Henderson to give him his full title, 25 years a petty criminal, more than two decades a guest of Her Majesty, today a member of staff with the Dallaglio Foundation. It might have been Timpson the shoe shop, but given the choice, what would you choose, turning lives around as a rugby coach or flogging shoes?
Believe it or not, the offer of work from the shoe chain was a high watermark, the source of immense satisfaction. “Timpson were very interested in me. They gave me an interview, which was a huge confidence boost. Here I am, someone with a 25-year criminal history, and they are offering me a job. Believe me, that was amazing.”
That was three years ago after his involvement with a programme on Sky called School of Hard Knocks, which returns next week for its sixth series. Some puffs are better than others. This is one. What began as reality TV became a registered charity a year ago. That’s all the justification this column needs. Mike was one of Britain’s disenfranchised millions and his story is depressingly familiar; disengaged black kid from a large urban metropolis (Bristol), underachiever at school, low self esteem, angry, hopeless and looking for action, some positive affirmation. He found it in Bristol’s criminal underbelly, a school of seriously hard knocks, and one without a safety net.
“I grew up with a bit of a chip on my shoulder thinking black people couldn’t succeed. I was average in school. I knocked off and wanted to be with the bad boys. Because my parents had worked all their lives it seemed to me from my young perspective that they had nothing. I was done for shoplifting at 12 and incarcerated at 14. I swore I would never go back. By 16 the criminal justice system had me. I was inside for the best part of 25 years. It was a nightmare, detrimental to my family. A truly depressing experience.”
Having moved to London seeking a fresh start, Mike was intercepted by a biggish bloke outside a Jobcentre in Croydon. A day earlier, a day later, a different sliding door would have ushered him down a route leading who knows where? “I see these guys outside the job centre, one happened to be Will Greenwood, though I didn’t know him. They were trying to interview me in front of a camera. I wasn’t interested, I told them to go away and leave me alone. Then he mentioned the rugby. That was one element of my school life in Bristol that was very positive. That got me intrigued.”
Sport as a metaphor for life is hardly an original idea. The application of that concept is as old as organised sport itself, leadership learnt on the playing fields of Eton, and all that. At the other end of the social spectrum the role boxing has played in allowing those less fortunate to make something of themselves has passed into myth. The School of Hard Knocks charity has hardened an idea into a cultural phenomenon by giving blokes like Mike not only visibility but a progression, a way of seeing and doing that both benefits them and those around them, the essence of social inclusion.
“The programme, the people I met, the whole experience was such an empowering thing, in terms of confidence building. One of my traits in life if I failed at anything was to bury my head and give up, to hell with it. There were no guarantees that anything was going to happen at the end of it. It didn’t say you will get a job, but for those 12 weeks, twice a week it gave me the skills and confidence to engage with the world. It might not always go your way but that doesn’t mean you give up. They gave me the fundamental principles that you need to get on in life, to take responsibility.”
Next up we see Greenwood and partner-in-redemption Scott Quinnell working the Glasgow beat. I intercepted the latter on holiday in Menorca last week so keen was he to speak on the matter. “We take it very seriously. When we started off it was more about the rugby side for me and Will. But over the years it has flipped totally. The rugby is still an integral part of what we do but now it is more about the boys themselves, trying to give them key skills through rugby that they can take into work place and life. Rugby is the catalyst. If you have the desire, commitment, trust in yourself and others, you can get anywhere.”
The show has its own case studies, narratives like Mike’s, like Aaron Love’s, like Lewis Skidmore’s, kids from a grim netherworld that we don’t see. The show said good morning to them, asked them how they were, what it might do for them, convinced them they were of value. It was then for them to take the ball and run with it, to build a new reality when the TV cameras had gone. Good luck lads.