Houston native pens story of Iraqi boxing team

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Suzy Andereck Pepper knows a few things about overcoming obstacles.

The Houston native earned her bachelor's degree from North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in three years, specialized in teaching at-risk students and even taught Spanish-speaking students without being fluent in the language.

But she tried to talk her way out of writing a book about her childhood friend, Maurice "Termite" Watkins, who overcame what Pepper calls "one-in-a-million" odds to create an Olympic Iraqi boxing team in 2004. When asked by Watkins to pen his story, she told him that he needed a writer with experience publishing books.

But Watkins insisted, saying she knew his background. So Pepper tackled his story -- Termite: The Story of an American Prizefighter Who Went to Iraq to Kill Bugs and Built an Olympic Team Instead. Published in 2005, the book has gained national media attention and will be turned into a movie by Fred Kuehnert, co-executive producer of The Buddy Holly Story in 1978 and many other movies.

Pepper grew up four houses away from Watkins in Houston. He was the one her father warned her about -- the boy who smoked, drank and stole. But with the help of a boxing club, he channeled his aggression and turned his life around, becoming a Golden Gloves champion at 16.

Pepper and Watkins lost touch for years until he found her on Classmates.com in 2003. By then, Pepper was a teacher in Cobb County, Ga., and Watkins was in Iraq, serving as an exterminator for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

On the side, he trained officers to keep them fit. News spread of his boxing expertise, and a coalition leader asked, "What would be the chances of getting Iraq back into the Olympics? "

"One-in– a-million," Watkins said.

"Great -- you just need one chance," he was told.

Watkins' e-mails and phone calls to Pepper soon described his efforts to build a boxing team with men who lacked shoes and equipment. That's when Pepper, touched by Watkins' generosity and warmth in helping the boxers, told him his story needed to be in a book And that's when Watkins told her she needed to write it.

Pepper had published articles in educational journals, but she had never written a book. She credits her professors at North Texas, where she graduated with a degree in political science in 1977, with training her to become a better writer.

"I did a tremendous amount of writing. Every day was another essay," she says.

To write Watkins' story, Pepper sat down with her laptop computer around 10 p.m., to write for three or four hours. She snagged interviews whenever she could -- by e-mail, phone or in person in the United States.

By writing about the challenges Watkins overcame, Pepper hurdled several obstacles herself. Now, she's preparing for a second writing project.

"It's a refresher course for me on how you really need to look at obstacles. They are really just opportunities," Pepper says. "You just need to find another way around."

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