The life of professional boxer Vernon “The Viper” Forrest, one of NMU’s most famous alumni, came to a tragic end July 25, 2009 in Atlanta, Ga. A graduate of the USOEC, Forrest found success after leaving Northern, bringing legitimacy and renown to himself and the program.
After a stint representing the United States at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games, Forrest amassed a professional record of 41 wins and 3 losses, including several world championships.
Forrest, however, is remembered as much for his charitable contributions as for his boxing successes.
Born in Augusta, Ga. in 1971, Forrest first came to Marquette in 1989 to compete in a Junior National Championship. USOEC head coach Al Mitchell managed to convince him to move to Marquette to train with the Olympic Education Center.
“He really at that time had two goals,” recalled USOEC Director Jeff Kleinschmidt. “One was to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in boxing, and number two was to graduate high school before he turned 21. He wanted to be the first person in his family to graduate.”
Forrest’s dedication to both causes immediately became apparent, fitting a training schedule into a full load of day and evening school courses. He went on to become the first in his family to graduate high school.
“He was extremely committed,” Kleinschmidt said. “He knew what he wanted out of life, and he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way.”
Nowhere was Forrest’s commitment more apparent than in the boxing gym.
“Vernon was the first one in the gym, the last one to leave,” Mitchell said. Kleinschmidt also remembers Forrest’s tireless work ethic.
“He wanted to do more than what everybody else did,” Kleinschmidt said. “He knew that if you’re going to be the best and become a champion, you have to outwork your opponents.”
Despite his ferocity in the ring, Forrest was well-liked by his peers and coaches.
“Vernon always had a smile on his face,” Kleinschmidt said. “The moment you met [him] for the first time you felt like you’d been friends with him for the last ten years.”
“All the athletes looked up to him,” Mitchell added. “[He had a] great personality.”
Forrest’s attitude and work ethic prompted Mitchell to name him team captain in his second year with the program.
“Vernon was always a leader,” Mitchell remembered.
After completion of his training at Marquette’s Olympic training center, Forrest went on to represent the United States at the 1992 Barcelona summer Olympics, but came down with food poisoning and was eliminated early.
He went pro after the summer games, accruing over 40 wins and multiple world championships throughout his 16-year career.
Despite all of his professional success, Forrest never forgot where he came from. He has returned to Marquette High School twice to speak to graduating seniors and visit the USOEC athletes on many occasions. But perhaps his greatest contribution to the program came in 2007.
“During some very difficult budget cuts, it didn’t look like this boxing program was going to be able to continue,” Kleinschmidt explained. “USA Boxing formed a committee to try to raise funds for the program, and Vernon was one of the first athletes to step forward and offer to be a part of that committee.”
Forrest’s willingness to give back extended beyond his former schools, however.
“He gave money to different gyms, I watched how he’d donate money to different programs,” said Mitchell.
The culmination of Forrest’s humanitarian work is the not-for-profit organization Destiny’s Child Inc. The group, founded by Forrest, is dedicated to providing a place to live and a normal life for developmentally disabled adults. Forrest was inspired after a particularly profound experience with a disabled adult at a hospital.
His dedication to Destiny’s Child nearly brought Forrest to financial ruin, but he remained steadfast in his commitment.
“He almost went broke,” said Mitchell. “He borrowed money to make it work. He never looked for a profit out of it. It was just something he did.”
Forrest’s passion for the cause was made obvious through more than just his financial commitment.
“I still remember his first fight with Shane Mosely,” Mitchell recalled. “Two bus loads of people from (Destiny’s Child), he brought them in and got them top seats. And I guarantee you, the cheapest seat was probably about $500. All of them called him ‘Uncle Vernon.'”
The charity is still thriving and will serve as a testament to Forrest’s charitable nature.
“I really believe he’s not going to be known for his boxing skills, even though he was a five-time world champ,” said Mitchell. “I think he’ll be known for the way he gave outside his sport. He was just an unbelievable person.”
Forrest was remembered with a memorial service in Lithonia, Ga., less than 20 miles from where he was born.
His accomplishments will resonate for years to come, both in the glitzy world of professional prize-fighting and in the blue-collar urban neighborhoods of Destiny’s Child housing for disabled adults.
At Northern Michigan, Forrest will be remembered for his vibrant spirit and unending dedication to the USOEC program and the university.
“He never forgot his roots,” said Kleinschmidt. “He always remembered that Northern Michigan University and the Olympic Education Center gave him his start.”