HAMILTON – Last April, Cheryl Walrod got an unexpected message.

To this day, she’s not really sure where it came from.

“It was this little message I heard in the back of my mind,” she remembers. “I asked, 'Is that you, Dean? Or God? Or maybe it was the guy with the tail?' ”

The message was simple enough.

Get the Hamilton Boxing Club up and going again, it said.

For almost 40 years, she and her husband, Dean, had been the face of the Hamilton Boxing Club. They helped train young boxers from all parts of the Bitterroot Valley. Often on their own dime, the couple hauled the boxers all over the Northwest to compete in boxing matches from Washington state to the Dakotas and beyond.

When Dean passed away in 2012 and the boxing club’s lead coach started a new business that took him to another town, the club quietly folded.

After hearing from whomever that day in April, Walrod ventured out into the community and starting asking people what they thought of the idea of bringing back boxing to Hamilton.

“There were some parents of kids who had been boxing for Jason (the old coach),” she said. “They wanted to continue boxing, but they had no organization, no money and no direction. They had no idea what they needed to do to get it up and going again.

“They asked me what I thought,” Walrod said. “I said I need to pray on it. And I’ll be darned if that little voice didn’t come and tell me, ‘Get off your butt and get on your feet and get going.’ ”

Walrod turned 67 this year.

“I had to tell the kids right off that it’s not going to be show and tell anymore,” she said. “I’m just going to tell you where to hit the bag. Even though I’ve got 40 years of experience, there’s people out there who wonder what in the world a 67-year-old woman is doing out there training boxers.

“It was mine and Dean’s love for almost as long as I can remember,” Walrod said. “That’s all I know. After I got over the deep grieving, I knew I needed something to fill my time. I just love this sport. It’s in my blood.”

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When Walrod decided to come out of her short-lived retirement from boxing, she found a willing coach in one of the young men that she and her husband helped way back in the 1970s.

John “Machine Gun” Kelly wasn’t sure that he ever wanted to step back into the gym after Dean’s death.

“I couldn’t have come back myself,” Kelly said.

But he couldn’t turn his back on his other longtime coach and friend.

“I know it really helps these kids to have an old boxer in the gym,” Kelly said, after a sparring match with an up-and-coming youngster, 12-year-old Kale Wanner. “This is a sport where you have to be in peak condition or you end up getting hurt. It’s not a sport for the faint-hearted.”

Kelly retired from the ring a few years ago after 40 years of boxing that began with an introduction by his father when he was 5.

“I’ve still got a brain. I’m still pretty,” he said. “I thought it was time to quit the ring, but I missed it. Boxing is something that just gets in your blood. It becomes part of you. I missed the sounds and the smell of the gym. I couldn’t get away from it.”

Two nights a week, Kelly joins fellow coaches Travis Foster and Shane Nelson at the Hamilton Boxing Club’s gym in downtown Hamilton. A small group of aspiring young boxers are always there waiting.

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Misty Kearney’s two sons, Bryson, 12, and Seth, 10, are two of them.

“There’s really no other sport that interests them,” Kearney said. “What I really like about it is that kids will ride their bikes, skateboards or do whatever it takes to get here to practice. They really love it.”

Kearney has watched her sons gain confidence.

“They have to work hard for everything they get,” she said.

The four young boxers at this night’s practice have just finished a round of sit-ups, push-ups and some tosses with the weighted medicine ball.

“I do this because I want to learn the sport,” Wanner said. “It’s also a great workout.”

Hailey Troxel said boxing is even more than that to her.

“It’s like having a second family,” she said. “It’s like a bond. Everyone messages back and forth to each other to see how everyone is doing. It’s like you’re a member of family that’s larger than your own.”

The young boxers of Hamilton will get a chance to see some of their fellow athletes from the northwest when the club hosts its own night of boxing at 7 p.m. March 14 at the Eagles Club in Hamilton.

They hope that a lot of people from the community turn out to cheer them on.

“This community has always been awesome to us,” Walrod said. “The kids are right about this sport. My husband used to say that there’s something different about the people who box. The minute you step into the ring, you have earned the respect of your opponent.

“For me, boxing is an art,” she said. “It’s not for everybody. But for the ones who chose to step in the ring, it becomes an art for them too … I’ve had kids come up to me and say that if it hadn’t been for boxing, they would probably have ended up in jail. I love to hear those stories.

“I don’t regret one single minute of the time that I’ve spent with these young boxers. It’s been so rewarding. These kids will never know how much they’ve meant to Dean and I. They’re our kids and they always will be.”

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