Lem Satterfield

By Thomas Hauser

Sometimes the lives of boxing writers are as interesting as the lives of the people we write about.

Lem Satterfield was born in Washington DC on September 2, 1962. His father and mother, Cicero and Freda Lee Terry Satterfield, were born and raised in Mississippi. Cicero was drafted into the United States Army in 1941 and served as an airplane mechanic at the Tuskeegee Army Airfield in Alabama during World War II. Then he moved north, went to college, and took a job as a claims examiner with the General Accounting Office.

Lem grew up as the second-youngest child in a home with twelve children. When he was three, his family moved to Takoma Park, Maryland.

"Basically, it was an all-white neighborhood," he remembers. "There was only one other black family, and their kids had some criminal issues. So there were times when my brothers would be walking home from school and, through no fault of their own, got arrested and my mother would have to go down to the police station to get them out."

"My father worked constantly," Lem continues. "One way he demonstrated his love for us was by providing, and none of us wanted for any material thing. We were never poor; we were middle class. I never experienced what it was like to not have a meal. When my youngest sister was five, my mother got a night job as a radiologist in a hospital. That way, she was on a schedule where she could wake up, prepare dinner, be at work while we slept, get home to give us all breakfast, and send us off to school in the morning."

Satterfield was the first black Eagle Scout in his troop. At Montgomery Blair High school, he wrestled and posted an 18-and-3 record at 138 pounds in his senior year. After a brief stint in junior college, he enrolled at the University of Maryland. There he found trouble.

"I was a solid student," he recalls. "I was family-oriented. My family wasn't dysfunctional. I always had positive parental attention. But there came a time when I didn't want to deal with reality. A lot of stuff happens on college campuses that's just as criminal as what happens on any street corner, and the kids go home and have a family dinner and everyone says they're good kids. I made a choice. Maryland was a pretty wild campus at the time. I allowed myself to be seduced by privilege and attracted by what I misperceived as excitement and drama. I started drinking heavily and getting in trouble. I'd wake up in the morning, and I'd slept through classes and couldn't remember what I'd done the night before. I was arrested three times for stupid things like public intoxication, but there were no real consequences. So my behavior got worse and worse to the point where it became life-threatening and totally irresponsible. I went from drinking to cocaine. That was my drug of choice, although I dabbled with a few others. I got in a lot of fist-fights. I never chose people who were smaller than me; and of course, I always felt that my conduct was justified. But I was a fight waiting to happen. I started losing friends. People started looking at me funny. At one point, I had a thirteen-foot Burmese python that I let slither around my room. I made enemies. I owed people money. I wasn't a bigtime dealer, but I dealt coke in small amounts to support my own use. Getting and using became the focal point of my existence. I won't say I was having a good time, because I wasn't. And I can't say I was in the wrong place with the wrong people because I was the wrong people. It wasn't my parents' fault. It wasn't my teachers' fault. It wasn't my friends' fault. None of it was anybody's fault but mine. I didn't get taught wrong. I chose to go in the wrong direction. I didn't realize how bad it was until I was caught in it. I'd lost myself. I'd become somebody I didn't want to be. I didn't like myself. Thank God, I didn't meet a woman I really cared about or have kids or do anything else that irrevocably damaged someone else's life."

Two events led to a turn in Satterfield's life.

On June 19, 1986, one day after he'd been selected by the Boston Celtics with the second pick in the NBA draft, Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. "That had a profound effect on me," Lem acknowledges. "To a lot of us, it was like Kennedy getting shot. It was a total shock."

Then came a more personal horror. In November 1986, Satterfield got in another fight. He and the man he was fighting with went through a plate-glass window. Lem's thumb was hanging to his hand by threads of flesh. He needed plastic surgery. To this day, his arm is scarred.

Lem's sister Felicia picked him up at the hospital afterward. It was a Sunday morning. She was dressed to go to church.

"In the car going home," he remembers, "she asked me why I was actively pursuing my own death. Then she began reciting scripture to me. There's a passage in the Bible, in the book of Proverbs, about King Lemuel and advice his mother gives him that could have been written for my mother and me. When we got home, the whole family was there; my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. Every one of them who is old enough to remember that day will always remember it."

Later that month, Satterfield sought help through Narcotics Anonymous and entered its twelve-step program. That required a searching moral inventory and the acknowledgment that his life had become unmanageable as a consequence of alcohol and drugs.

Narcotics Anonymous has a strong religious component. "We were raised as Baptists," Satterfield says. "I believe in God; I believe that God has always been in my life; and I lean toward being a Christian. I don't accept the Bible literally. I'm more spiritual than religious, but I was comfortable with the program. I've worn an Narcotics Anonymous necklace and been sober now for eighteen years. When I drink, it's Coca Cola and virgin pina coladas. The truth is, I'm very fortunate to be alive. I'm not ashamed of my past, but I feel awful for some of the things I did."

Satterfield graduated from the University of Maryland in 1987 and took a job stocking shelves at a local Price Club. "My father was disappointed and really pissed," he acknowledges.

Then fortune smiled. Lem had always liked writing. He'd written his first newspaper story in high school; an article for the school paper that examined why no one came to the wrestling team's matches anymore. In college, he'd also written for the school paper.

In autumn 1987, one of Satterfield's college fraternity brothers (who'd become an editor at a semi-weekly newspaper) asked if he wanted to write about high school sports. Lem began at a salary of $13,000 a year. From there, he went to a newspaper in Howard County. In February 1989, he took as job as a high school reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

Satterfield was tutored at the Sun by veteran newspaperman Alan Goldstein. His first major boxing assignment came by luck. On April 29, 1995, there was a card at the US Air Arena in Landover, Maryland. Bernard Hopkins won the vacant IBF middleweight title by knocking out Segundo Mercado. Vincent Pettway stopped Simon Brown for the IBF 154-pound crown. John David Jackson, James Green, Freddie Pendelton, Darryl Tyson, William Joppy, Maurice Blocker, and Oba Carr were all on the card.

"One day earlier," Lem recalls, "my wife and I had moved into our new house. My wife was pregnant; she was expecting in three weeks. On the day of the fights, Al Goldstein found out that Panama Lewis had been barred from working in Simon Brown's corner because of his suspension in New York for tampering with a fighter's gloves. Al told me, 'Lem, I'm covering Brown-Pettway and Panama Lewis. You'll have to write the other fights.' That was my baptism by fire."

Satterfield still writes high school sports and boxing for the Sun. "I don't think I'm a great writer," he says. "But I'm fortunate to sit from time to time in the company of some guys who are. I work hard. I have a great editor. I love my job, and it's particularly satisfying when I feel I've covered all the bases and written a story well."

As for his philosophy of writing, Lem says, "I try to put myself in the position of the person I'm writing about and understand where they're coming from. You won't find me writing someone off as a bad person because of one or two incidents. If that were the case, I'd be a loser forever. I've learned through my own life that any life can be salvaged. And I also know that, when I write about someone, their livelihood and privacy are in my hands, so I try to treat them with the same fairness that I'd want for myself."

"I make an effort to be particularly sensitive when I'm writing about high school kids," Satterfield continues. "I'm paid for my expertise and objectivity. And let's be honest; sometimes a kid blows a play at a crucial point in a game. But high school is a time in a young person's life when image is incredibly important, so I try to strike a fair balance."

As for boxing, much of Satterfield's writing about the sweet science has focussed on local hero Hasim Rahman. The first Rahman fight he covered was Hasim versus Oleg Maskaev on November 6, 1999. It was an inauspicious start. Maskaev knocked Rahman out of the ring and onto the HBO announcers' table for an eighth-round stoppage.

Nine months later, Lem had his first in-depth conversation with Rahman at the Round One Gym in Capitol Heights, Maryland, after Hasim had beaten Corrie Sanders. Then, on April 22, 2001, Rahman knocked out Lennox Lewis in South Africa. That led to a problem.

"After Rock won the heavyweight championship," Lem remembers, "it was discovered that he'd done some things that we hadn't known about. There were drug charges. There were gun incidents. So here we are. Baltimore is celebrating; there's a parade in Rock's honor coming up. And I have to call him up to ask for details about all those things so I can write about them in a newspaper story. Rock wasn't happy. That was obvious. But I said to him, 'Look; you're the heavyweight champion of the world. I'm the reporter assigned to write about you. I want to do the best job possible. It will be more difficult for both of us if we do this piecemeal, so let's address all of the issues now and get everything out.'"

"And that's what we did," Satterfield continues. "Rock was great. I've gotten to know him pretty well since then. I have a lot of respect for him. We talk about our kids all the time, so I know how devoted he is to his children and how much effort he puts into seeing that they do well in school and have good values. When Rock was young, he opted for a street life, and he's determined that his kids won't. I remember his telling me once that he stopped living the way he'd been living because, if he kept it up, it was just a matter of time before he wound up in jail or in a graveyard and he didn't want someone else raising his children."

Meanwhile, Rahman has strong feelings about Satterfield. He too remembers the conversation they had after he'd won the heavyweight championship and his past transgressions were about to be revealed.

"Lem was straight with me," Rahman says. "He was honest from the start. The story he wrote was the truth, but he came at it with humanity. He could have written something ugly. But instead, he wrote it in a way that made a positive out of some bad experiences in my life."

"Ever since then," Rahman continues, "I've considered Lem a good guy. "He's persistent. No matter what the story is, he checks and double-checks the facts. He's interested in both sides. He has my respect. I might not agree with every word he writes, but he's always fair."

Lem's mother died in 1999. Cicero Satterfield is now 86 years old with 76 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Lem's sister Eleanor died of cancer three years ago. All of his other siblings, with one exception, have graduated from college and are married with children.

Lem has been married for thirteen years. "My wife is awesome," he proclaims. "She's my best friend." Together, they have two children; Ada, age eleven, and Adam, ten.

"I'm always working at being a good husband and a good father," Satterfield says in closing. "That's the most important thing in life to me. My kids know my life story. My wife and I are determined to see them grow up to be happy productive citizens. And the best way to do that is through constant communication. I'm still in awe of the good things that have happened to me. My marriage is a privilege. My children are a privilege. Sometimes I feel like I'm living on borrowed time because of the things I've been through, so every day is precious to me. I'm truly blessed."

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com
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