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Dennis McGuire, Page Baptist and Shuichi Otaka have spent a combined 95 years at the Northglenn Judo Club.
Anthony Camera

No question: Kids are different today, diluted versions of earlier specimens. At the Northglenn Judo Club, which meets Tuesday and Thursday nights at the Northglenn Community Center behind the Holiday Inn off 104th Street, the old-time instructors have had to adapt in a way that Bobby Knight should have and Woody Hayes could not. Dennis McGuire, who founded the club before soccer clubs and Nintendo cluttered up young schedules, remembers the early days with nostalgia.

"When the Japanese guys first came here to teach and were young," he says, "they worked the kids harder than they'd ever been worked before. We can't work the kids like that now -- the parents and kids won't accept it. Too much time. Too much intensity."

Shuichi Otaka, the school's lead instructor for the past quarter-century, nods; sadly, this is so. In many ways, the old days were easier. Senseis and their students both knew their places. Teachers pushed kids right up to the edge so that they would learn toughness and experience adversity; students paid attention and showed commitment. "But now," he says, "the kids can't take the punishment. They like softer, easier things." He shakes his head. "Sitting and watching TV."

"The style of discipline has changed," grumps Page Baptist, who co-founded the club with McGuire.

No commitment, agrees Doug Payne, another longtime teacher. "As soon as they discover girls and cars and football, they're gone."

"The parents just won't accept someone pushing their kids to crying these days," McGuire notes. "Anymore, you'd better make it fun, or the kid won't be there long. Before, you knew they'd be there, because the parents said they'd be there.

"No doubt. We've had to change our teaching style."

That's not the only thing that's changed at the Northglenn Judo Club. After their combined 121 years of teaching, the four men look more like Florida retirees than judo masters. They have gained weight and lost hair. They have pains that aren't even in the healing stage anymore; they're constant. McGuire nurses a bad left knee. Baptist has two, along with a bad back. Otaka and Payne's knees are shot to hell, all thanks to an unforgiving hobby -- judo -- and the kids these days.

Way back in the beginning, of course, the damn kids had nothing to do with it. The idea of a judo club was, frankly, to promote an optometry business. Naturally, it was for fun, but it was also a sort of sweaty networking opportunity. In 1961, Dennis McGuire was living at the YMCA in Waterloo, Iowa, working at the local John Deere store, filling time and his bank account between college and optometry school when, one night after returning home, he noticed some people tossing each other around on mats at the Y. "There was nothing to do," he recalls, "so I decided to try judo." The class was taught by two Germans who spoke barely a sentence of English between them, and soon it would be time for McGuire to return to school. It would not be inaccurate to say that he left Waterloo not knowing much judo.

Still, he was athletic, and he hadn't had much opportunity to test himself in his tiny Iowa high school; there were 21 kids in his graduating class, not quite enough to field a full football team, never mind other sports. Besides, something about judo's combination of wrestling and throwing -- a series of subtle, almost imperceptible hand movements to gain purchase, and then an explosion of action -- had grabbed him and wouldn't let go. He bought a used uniform and began stopping by a dojo near his optometry school in Chicago. When he moved to Denver in 1964, he would drop by the Denver School of Judo on Arapahoe and 20th streets. He was not particularly good, scarcely committed, and still many years away from a black belt.

"But," he remembers, "just as I wanted to have my own optometry practice, I wanted to have my own judo club. Plus, I'd just opened my office, and I wanted to get to know people in the community." So it was with a mixture of business sense, confidence and chutzpah that McGuire, a fine optometrist but a novice judo player, started the Northglenn Judo Club in 1965. He'd met a guy sitting next to him at the barbershop whom he'd recognized from another dojo: Dick Wright was a black belt, so McGuire invited him to teach at his new club, and Wright agreed.

At one of the first classes, 31-year-old Page Baptist brought in his three small boys -- "I'd read about this new judo program in the paper," he recalls -- and sat down to watch. But he couldn't keep still. It looked too exciting, so he decided to try it. For some reason, he attended the club's first administrative meeting as well, and Baptist, whose judo experience was still being measured in weeks, was elected a boardmember. McGuire threw in the title "co-founder" for the hell of it.

In those days, there weren't a dozen different soccer clubs for kids to choose from, so the judo club grew quickly. A couple of years after it started, a player named Joe Miley, the first Coloradan to place in a national judo competition, agreed to stop by a few times a week to teach. McGuire paid him ten bucks a week for gas money, and Miley paid him back by adding some class and genuine expertise to the place. "He was a beautiful technician," McGuire recalls, "pretty close to a world-class competitor. With him here, we could take a kid with potential and bring him a long way."

In 1967, the United States Judo Federation convinced a sixth-degree black belt named Ryozo Nakamura to visit the U.S. to promote the sport. He toured a few Denver dojos as an observer and guest instructor. After he and McGuire met, the two men became close, and from then on, the Japanese expert would stay at the doctor's house when he visited Denver. Each time, he would stop by his friend's judo club and add another block to the group's collective knowledge. "He liked it here, and for us it was a great honor," McGuire says.

By the late 1960s, a few of the younger students were beginning to have a measure of success in local competitions. Then, in 1972, an eleven-year-old boy named Johnny Miller, who trained out of the Northglenn Judo Club, took the national title in Chicago; a fifteen-year-old named Irvin Brown took third at the same tournament. That same year, a kid named Craig Agena joined the club. "Craig took it real serious, but he could never beat Johnny," McGuire recalls. "He couldn't even beat kids from the local clubs." But the boy worked just as hard as they did, and he stuck with it. A dozen years later, he made the Olympic team.

In the meantime, Nakamura had been talking up the club in Japan and had convinced a fourth-degree black belt to visit Denver for an extended stay. During the day, McGuire taught him to be an optician. At night, the black belt taught judo. He lasted for a couple of years and then left.

But in 1974, another expert judo player arrived from Japan, a young man named Shuichi Otaka. "I told my parents, 'Just give me two years; I'll be back,'" he says. He started out leading Northglenn's judo classes at night. But like the Japanese instructor who had preceded him, he also needed a way to pay the bills. So McGuire taught him to be an optician, too.

In 1975, Doug Payne, then only thirty and a patient of McGuire's, started bringing his two boys to the club. "He would sit in the stands and ask me, 'Why don't they do this? Why don't they do that?'" his wife recalls. "So I said, 'If you're so damned good, why don't you go do it?'"

Over the next quarter-century, McGuire's and Baptist's and Otaka's and Payne's kids came and left, wooed by football and girls and cars. If those things grew boring or broke their hearts, it was back to judo -- until they left again. Three of Baptist's boys would go on to earn their black belts; two of them studied judo in Japan. Payne's boys stayed only until they found the lights and uniforms and attentions of football. McGuire's three daughters dabbled and left.

The four men stayed at the Northglenn Judo Club, though. Occasionally, even they would be surprised when something reminded them of how long it had been. After a while they began noticing that the newest, youngest students arriving at the community center were second-generation -- their first students' children. And as they'd aged, a peculiar thing had begun to happen among the men who'd started and joined the club to become busier businessmen and judo experts: The less time they spent on their own athletic training, the more time they spent at the club.

"At first," says Baptist, now 65, "I stayed because I wanted to be a brown belt; then it was to become a black belt. It used to be 'Let's see what we can do for us.' But then -- sometime between when I was 30 and when I turned 65 -- it became 'What can we do for others?'"

Today Baptist coaches his regular hours for nine months out of the year. Then, each spring, from April through June, he runs the annual training "camp" the club organizes to prepare its younger members for the national tournaments. Six days a week he meets the kids at a local park after school. They run and do pushups. They practice their judo under his supervision. And then, more often than the members of a single club ought to, the kids from the Northglenn Judo Club win national titles. Last month, at a national championship tournament in Texas, seven players from the Colorado club won their divisions.

Since 1965, several thousand people have studied judo at the Northglenn Judo Club; about 200 have earned their black belts. (There is no belt inflation: No one under the age of sixteen gets a black belt, and testing takes place only once a year.) It still costs only nine bucks a month for lessons. Despite the low cost, each summer the club pays for one promising kid to study judo in Japan. It has become one of the best-known and most successful clubs in the country. Olympic medalists and other experts stop by on a regular basis.

Not everyone sticks with it, but few forget it, and in many small ways, the sport continues to dwell within them. Several girls who learned how to tussle on the judo mats of the Northglenn Community Center went on to wrestle confidently against boys on junior and senior high school wrestling teams. "Some people may not have stayed in it very long," McGuire says. "but they're all proud of it. They knew they were in something good."

The thing that made it all work, though, is that the students were not the only ones affected. Each Tuesday and Thursday night for the past fifteen years, after practice, McGuire and Baptist and Otaka and Payne have driven up the road to Gussie's Restaurant and Lounge on West 112th Street. They order buffalo burgers and Cokes, and sit and talk and laugh. (About two years ago they decided to spread the wealth, so now they stop at Neighbor's Grill and Bar, on Huron Street, on Thursdays and eat fried octopus.) Every summer for as long as anyone can remember, they have gathered for a picnic; each winter they assemble again.

"This year my company had a Christmas party, and my wife's company had a Christmas party," recalls Payne. "But we didn't go to either; we went to Page's house and sang karaoke." Other parties at Baptist's house seem to occur spontaneously about once a month. McGuire and Otaka still work together daily at McGuire's optometry practice. In the past quarter-century, the four men have withstood plenty of judo wins and losses together, as well as divorces and empty nests.

Anyone who has excelled in a sport can tell you that there are plenty of satisfying moments to be found in one's own sweat: a swift and quiet run, the perfectly placed shot. It is less common to reach the point where the gratification of sport is gained from more than mere athletics. And so, even despite the inferior quality of today's students, McGuire and Baptist and Otaka and Payne continue to put in hundreds of hours at the club not improving their judo. "I myself don't want any more -- rank means nothing to me," Otaka explains. "Judo is just giving. You cannot take anything."