The hard work, sweat, sacrifice and pain, all came down to what seemed an eternity; testing, then sparring on the makeshift dojang at the youth center on Redstone Arsenal. After years of dedicated training every week, three-times-a-week for nine years, Edward Jimenez, 50, and his son, Anthony, 11, had earned their tae kwon do first-degree black belts.
The senior Jimenez tears up every time he recalls that day in August 2014.
“I still get a lump in my throat when I think about it. I have seen my son grow and develop from a shy, little child into a tall, confident and physically fit teenager capable of leading and teaching people regardless of their age. We accomplished something big together. We gave it our best, left it all on the floor and reached our goal,” said the chief information officer, Army Materiel Command, Logistics Support Activity. “It is such a wonderful and fulfilling experience when you set out to reach a goal with your child, dedicate the time, trust in the program and instructors, and finally reach your goal together.”
Jimenez attributes their success to the coaching and mentorship of Jeffrey A. Davis, the founder and senior instructor of Rocket Tae Kwon Do, Huntsville.
Davis, an emergency management specialist with the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, said that moments like these are becoming more common. After all, his program was designed to encourage and afford families unique opportunities to participate and train together.
It’s an objective, he admits is a far cry from what he experienced growing up and being raised by his grandmother along with four brothers and two sisters.
“It wasn’t easy. My dad was a functional alcoholic, very loving, but when he got to drinking, everything changed; and my mom never really worked because she had a nervous breakdown when I was 5 years old,” Davis said.
Despite these challenges, he stayed off the streets and out of trouble by occupying his time and attention to high school sports, playing on the basketball, football and track teams. It would be this competitive spirit and mindset that presented him an avenue to succeed later in life.
Following graduation and anxious to make his mark, Davis enrolled and attended Moraine Valley Junior College in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.
“I thought that was something I really wanted to do, but I found out it wasn’t really my time,” he said. “I wasn’t ready for college. After class, I would go home and hang out with my buddies. I knew then that I’d have to leave if I ever were to make something of my life.”
After only a year of academic study and a chance encounter with an Army recruiter on campus, Davis quit college and at age 19, he enlisted.
“The recruiter offered us a trip to Hawaii and a $2,500 bonus. I mean, how do you turn that down?” he said. “I had no idea what to expect, but I knew I could do anything for three years. So I signed up for four.”
That initial enlistment would extend to a 23-year military career. Davis had quickly adapted to the Army’s lifestyle and excelled, steadily climbing up the ranks.
Assignments stateside and abroad fed his appetite to travel and experience the world, but it wasn’t until midway through his career and an assignment to Korea in 1991 that the Soldier first became acquainted with the martial arts.
“There, I really got into tae kwon do,” he said. “Once I started, I never quit. I’ve been doing it every day since.”
Following a subsequent stateside assignment to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1992, the Soldier was introduced to Grand Master Myung Sok Namkung Mayes, a ninth degree black belt and four-time Korean national champion. It was she who humbled the first degree black belt and refocused his efforts.
Honored as a living legend by the Korean government, Mayes served as head coach of the U.S. Olympic team during the 1988 Summer Olympic Games and ranks as the highest female black belt in the world.
“She made me realize just how much I didn’t know,” he said. “You just can’t learn all that stuff and earn a black belt in one year.”
Under her mentorship and training, Davis earned his second, then third degree black belt and entered the competition circuit, racking up the 1994 and 1995 U.S. Tae Kwon Do Championship as well as the 1995 North Carolina State TKD Championship titles.
Success on the mat paralleled his achievements in the Army, including a successful tour as a drill sergeant, graduating from the sergeants’ major academy, Class 51, and, by all accounts, he seemed posed for promotion to the senior enlisted rank.
No longer interested in an overseas assignment which would certainly follow, however, Davis contemplated retiring and began exploring career opportunities outside the Army.
“As I was preparing for retirement, I wanted to do something that would allow me to give back to the military family that had given me so much,” he said. “The first thing that came to mind was to teach tae kwon do to others since this is what I knew, and it was my passion.”
That passion to teach proved beneficial when he finally retired at Redstone in 2003, and almost immediately, gained employment as a teacher’s aide for the special education program at Farley Elementary School in Huntsville, then at Lakewood Elementary as a physical education instructor.
“Most of the kids there came from broken homes; backgrounds not conducive to learning,” he said. “I was the only male in the school besides the principal. It was a really, really tough job, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to be a role model.”
Davis taught there for about a year until he gained employment with the Huntsville Center’s resource management office as a manpower management analyst, all the while teaching tae kwon do after work.
“It just so happened that Redstone Arsenal was looking for someone to teach a martial arts class,” he said. “They awarded me a contract, and we started teaching there in 2002.”
There, for at least the first couple of months, there were no students, he said. “Just because you open the doors doesn’t mean anyone is going to show up. It took a long time to build what we have now.”
Today, Davis has 25 black belts and more than 150 students at the fitness center on the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and at Redstone.
“At one point, I was teaching at three different locations six days a week. I was literally teaching 13 classes a week myself,” he said. “When I look back at it now, any time you start something new, you’ve got to put the work in. I put the work in. All this while I worked my government job.”
In addition to martial arts, Davis said his program encourages its students to contribute and serve the community, whether providing kids meals, collecting coats or teaching tae kwon do at a summer camp.
It’s this charitable and caring environment, Nastasha Orr said, that first drew her to join in 2007, then made her stay.
Today, she boasts a second degree black belt and helps teach tae kwon do at the UAH campus.
“Davis is not only a teacher of martial arts, but he’s a teacher of life,” Orr said. “He fosters an environment of comfort and belonging no matter what your skill level. He makes every individual person feel special … like we have a special place with the group.”
In the 15 years of Rocket TKD’s existence, Davis has taught a number of individuals not readily accepted in most other tae kwon do programs, including elderly, deaf, blind and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD students.
Kathi Tew said her granddaughter, MacKenzie, is just one of those students. She struggles with dyslexia and other language problems.
“Davis teaches his students to help others, to be kind and respectful,” Tew said. “Whenever MacKenzie goes to class, everyone greets her with a big hi. She always has a smile on her face. She’s found an extended family and a sense of belonging where she doesn’t feel different. He pushes her to achieve and has given her a sense of confidence and success.”
“I get a lot of feedback from parents about how their sons and daughters have progressed in many different ways because of my program,” Davis said. “I never really know how it will impact a student, but we’re going to keep making a difference. It’s not just a business. It’s more. It’s my way of giving back to the community that has given me so much.”