Cam O’Connell is not looking for sympathy, he just wants a second chance.
A second chance at life, a second chance to chase his dreams and a second chance to make Red Deer proud.
He’s had plenty of time over the last six years to dwell on the mistake he made as an immature 19-year-old, which resulted in a recently-completed nine-month stretch in Bowden Institution.
“I broke the law, but I feel like I am not a broken man,” said the now 26-year-old former boxing champion.
“I made a mistake and I want the world to know I made a mistake … I’m guilty of what I did. But I’m not that person, I’m not a drug dealer, I’m not a criminal. I was a child and I made a mistake. I believe there are lots of kids that make mistakes and I hope they don’t have to go through the punishments that I went through. I hope they can get out of it before they ever get punished the way I did.”
In 2009, he was looking for a big payday outside of the ring. He was hired to drive a pickup truck from Calgary to Vancouver and then return to Calgary. His cargo on the return trip was cocaine, hidden in the dashboard.
He had just completed the trip and was sitting on a couch in the Calgary home of Ryan Harper — the ring leader of the operation — when Calgary Police and RCMP special service teams raided the stash pad.
They collected nearly 11 kg of cocaine and crack cocaine between four locations — three in Calgary, one in Lethbridge — as well as other drugs and firearms.
Nine people were originally charged in the two-year investigation, including O’Connell. He was charged with drug trafficking and possession with the intent to distribute. The possession charged was later dropped when it became clear that all O’Connell did was drive the truck.
“I never was a drug dealer … I transported one load of drugs and I got paid for it,” he said. “I was a poor athlete who needed a little extra cash. I know the easy route isn’t the right route, but at that moment I was young, I was 19 years old, the money caught my eye and it caught me. I saw the sparkle of the lure and I bit like a fish.”
After a long, drawn-out legal process, O’Connell was sentenced to three and a half years in prison last summer for trafficking — although he adds the judge said he had never seen so many letters backing up someone’s character at sentencing, including one from the president of the World Boxing Commission. The three and a half years was the mandatory minimum sentence.
In February, after serving nine months, he was set free due to good behaviour.
But the time was not easily served. It was the life he had changed and was waiting for him on the outside that he could not stop thinking about.
“Being away from my family and friends was tough on me, that was the toughest part … being away from all of my support,” he said.
Inside Bowden, life was regimented.
The inmates wake up, eat breakfast and get sent back to their cells. They’re brought out for lunch, have time in the yard and then get sent back to their cells. They’re called out for supper and then have open time before being sent back to their cells.
O’Connell never lost sight of his boxing dreams, however. He spent his entire time behind bars training, and he even started working with some of the other inmates.
“I was trying to help them get over the jail part and I felt their spirits were lifted by boxing — a lot of people had nothing else going for them,” he said.
It didn’t hurt that on his third night in prison, SportsCentre showed his last fight — a first-round TKO of Reece Chapman. Pretty soon he was just known as “Champ.”
Stepping outside the prison walls for the first time on March 31 is a moment he will never forget.
“I wanted to hug everyone I saw,” he said.
“I appreciate every second, I look at the clouds and they’re pretty now, little things I never really thought of actually mean something. The things I did like in life, I don’t like anymore, like material goods, they mean nothing now. It’s a greater appreciation for everything.”
His time in prison changed him and his outlook on life, but that change really started the moment he was charged.
In the five years between his crime and sentencing, he took major steps to turn his life around and grow up, including talking to students at schools about making the right decisions in life.
“The day I was charged, I took a look at where my life was, what I wanted to be and where I was going and it really didn’t look right. At that moment — boom — I was changing my life,” he said.
O’Connell came from a lower middle class family with two parents who worked hard and always made sure he had what he needed.
But as a kid, he got into a lot of fights, until one time he caught a beat down from another family while sticking up for his younger brother Keelan O’Connell, when he was 10.
Red Deer boxer Arash Usmanee saw the end result and talked him into joining the Red Deer Boxing Club.
It was probably the best thing that could have happened to him at the time.
He finally had an outlet to channel his energy, where he could learn to defend himself and, most importantly, learn self discipline. It also gave him a reason to set real, tangible goals.
He excelled in and out of the ring. In high school, he earned honours and went to Mount Royal University.
In the ring, O’Connell quickly worked his way up the ranks. He developed a reputation for his intimidating punching power and aggressiveness in the ring.
As an amateur boxer, he compiled a 101-35 record while winning 12 provincial championships, two national championships, a bronze medal at the junior Olympics and the coveted 2007 Ringside World Championship.
In 2012, in the midst of his legal battles, he turned pro.
Over the next two years, he posted a 6-0-1 record with five of his wins by way of TKO, an impressive power mark for a lightweight.
The record had potential to be even more impressive but as word spread about his power, finding opponents became more difficult.
Some rankings had him as the No. 3 boxer in his division in Canada when he finally went to Bowden.
O’Connell is now focused on rebuilding his life in and out of the ring.
He understands and appreciates the skepticism some may have regarding his lot in life, and he knows he has a lot of work to do to rebuild that faith in him.
“I want to apologize to the whole of my community and everyone individually in it for my actions,” said O’Connell. “I am sorry for any harm I have caused and I hope you can forgive me for my misguided actions as a youth as I look to only be a productive member of this community helping any and everybody I can in it.”
He has already taken steps to make things right, although he understands the proof will be in his long-term actions. He wants to return to counselling young people in the schools about making good decisions in their lives, to help them learn from his mistakes. He also helps coach those who come into the Red Deer Boxing Club in need of help, and is looking to sign up as a Big Brother.
O’Connell says he has already received a lot of support in the community, from sponsors coming back on board to help him chase his dreams in the ring to others who have rallied around him outside of the gym.
His coach Roman Rzepkowski says he sees the change in his pupil.
“I’ve seen a huge transition. I’ve always loved and respected him, but when he came out he was more of a humble man,” said Rzepkowski. “He has a better understanding of life and wants to … make every second count. Every person he interacts with, his main goal is to make them smile and be happy with where they are, regardless of their situation.”
In the ring, Rzepkowski — who also coaches Usmanee — says there is the potential for greatness.
He does not buy into the claim that boxing is dead, surpassed for good by mixed martial arts. It just needs a fighter in North America to rally around, like what Milos Raonic has done for tennis in Canada.
He thinks O’Connell can be that guy, although he still has to work his way up to that level.
A signature fight would help.
“What we’re training for is an Arturo Gatti/Micky Ward kind of fight,” said Rzepkowski. “He wants that, he really does. He wants to give the people something they will talk about for years to come.”
O’Connell is working hard to secure a fight on a June 12 card at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton for his return to the ring, although at press time nothing was confirmed.
He is driven not by money, but to bring glory to the city.
“It feels like I am fighting for more than just myself,” he said. “I want to be Red Deer’s hero, I want to be the Manny Pacquiao of Red Deer. I want people to be happy and excited I am fighting and that I represent Central Alberta.”