Mike Tyson was "scared to death" early Tuesday afternoon as a black SUV drove him toward Carnegie, past a railroad crossing and a long stretch of warehouses and into the parking lot of the Wolfpack Boxing Club.
Tyson, the notorious former heavyweight champion of the world, could have turned down the invitation to speak with a group of veterans from Pittsburgh's chapter of the Wounded Warrior Project, but his never-ending journey of personal discovery has shown him that opportunities like these are the only things that can keep him safe from himself. He is pretty philosophical now, and he believes the universe's pull brought him here.
What was he going to say? He has suffered plenty, sure. But, compared to these dozen former soldiers who have received Purple Heart medals for their valor in battle, what does he know about living in fear? The idea that they were gathered to hear from him was humbling, and, truth was, he needed it as much if not more than they did. It is rare that he runs into an audience he is confident can understand his pain.
"There are very few," said Steve Lott, one of a few Tyson friends who joined him Tuesday.
Tyson, 47, wore a dark purple blazer over a black turtleneck, black pants and black dress shoes. When he entered the gym, the Wounded Warriors all took their seats, which were set up in a half-oval in the ring around where Tyson would stand. Jeff Mucci, the club's owner, wanted this to feel intimate, not like just another event to promote Friday night's "Pittsburgh Power" bouts in Monroeville, which are being put on by Tyson's new company, "Iron Mike Productions." There were no TV cameras and only about 25 people in the gym as Tyson took his spot.
He started slow, his voice even softer than usual. He did not want to get emotional as he looked at the men. In his mind, he was there to provide them strength.
"You never know what the human spirit can move and endure in life," Tyson said. "And this is the epitome of it right here. That's the reason I'm here, to be around you guys."
Michael Palarino, who oversees Pittsburgh's Wounded Warriors, wanted Tyson to meet one of the veterans in particular. He asked for Carlos Jativa to rise from his seat and come over. Jativa, 25, a Brookline native, was hurt badly on his second deployment to Iraq in 2009 when something hit the vehicle he was in and it fell over a bridge. He had a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a puncture of his thigh and injuries to his back and neck.
About a year ago, Jativa came to Palarino.
"I see this Marine walk in, and I could tell he was struggling in his eyes," Palarino told Tyson. "He was hurting bad, PTSD and stuff. I said, 'You think about boxing?' A year later, boxing saved his life. He's here five days a week. It's helped his PTSD tremendously."
Just hearing Jativa's story seemed to loosen Tyson up, give him a direction.
"What does a guy do when he comes from that situation and he's thrown back into society?" Tyson asked. "You're taught ... destructiveness, to be a juggernaut. Now I've got to be in a calm society? How does that work? After my fights, if I get a first-round knockout, I'm still built up. I'm going to jail, going to get arrested and stuff. I'm still not finished fighting. It's still in me. Now imagine this. Seeing your best friends going right next to you, an explosion and then his head is gone."
Tyson confided that one of his character defects is a lack of gratitude. Nothing has ever been enough to heal the gaping holes inside him. He told the men about growing up with a mother and father who were addicts and involved in the sex industry. He said he was basically an addict from the day he was born.
"My soul is still sick," Tyson said. "I thought I was being kind to myself buying $10,000 suits and sleeping with 20 girls a night. I've got a plane, a boat. But that's me abusing myself. That is pleasure that I don't need. I have to be kinder to myself and really love myself and not beat myself up. I'm learning to heal. This is a new process."
The men began to ask him questions. What does Tyson do to quell his aggression when it arises? Tyson said it may sound corny, but he calls his sponsor and talks about it. When Tyson is so low that he thinks of committing suicide, how does he stop himself? Tyson said he has to remember at those times that he is being called to serve, to make up for all of his mistakes by being a better husband and father.
Tyson's talk resonated with the men, who are all trying to find motivation each day.
"Everybody's got their own demons," Jativa said. "Hearing his story definitely helps us understand that we're not the only ones that struggle, even though hearing what we went through might seem worse."
There were light-hearted moments, too, in the hour Tyson spent in Carnegie. He had the guys in stitches several times with some one-liners not meant for print, and when posing for a picture afterward with Mucci, Tyson, unprompted, turned and acted like he was going to bite Mucci's ear (a nod to Tyson's disqualification in a heavyweight bout against Evander Holyfield). Tyson posed for "selfies" with whoever wanted one.
"I have to come to these places to get gratitude," Tyson said. "Because sometimes, I'm in my head too much. If I'm in my head, it's not always a good direction. Because it's a really dangerous place to travel alone in that neighborhood."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.