Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Brandon Montella, a U.S. Marine veteran on a special mission he calls “Mission Ready.” It’s a nonprofit organization he created with a goal to provide military veterans and at-risk students who lack financial resources an opportunity to gain strength and a purpose in life through fitness training at his Woburn gym, “The Way LLC.” Montella, 41, is training for what he regards as the biggest physical challenge of his life – a 100-mile run through five area communities on Veterans Day (Nov. 11) to raise money for his nonprofit cause.
Montella was born in New Bedford and grew up in Central Maine as one of five children. He describes himself as an “at-risk kid” who found himself mired in poverty in a world plagued by drug abuse – he says his father was a drug addict. He is a 1998 graduate of Carrabec High School in North Anson, Maine. He said he joined the U.S. Marines soon after graduation to escape the abuse, alcoholism and drug use that surrounded him. In the Marines, he said, he found strength and purpose in life while discovering a deep passion for physical fitness and helping others. After four years in the Marines (1999-2003), he was honorably discharged as an E-5 sergeant. He was a machinist and was stationed at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va.
In his further quest for strength and purpose in life, Montella got involved in the sport of boxing at the age of 31. He excelled as an amateur boxer, winning the New England Golden Gloves Championship in 2012 while fighting in the heavyweight division just nine months after his initial training. He fought 21 fights as an amateur, winning 14 of his bouts. Three of his seven losses were to the best amateur fighter in the country. He went 9-0 as a professional boxer in the light heavyweight division, with eight knockouts. He was ranked 23rd in the country at the time of his retirement from boxing in 2017.
Meanwhile, Montella has earned his living as a personal trainer since establishing his fitness and boxing gym in Woburn in 2010. He and his wife Tonya, who is originally from Virginia, have been together for 16 years. They got married on May 23, 2010 – a date that is tattooed on his left wrist. The couple bought a home on Walnut Street in Saugus several months after their marriage. They have a five-year-old son, Isaiah.
Montella’s Mission Ready was the recipient of a Cummings Foundation $100,000 grant last year after its second year as a nonprofit organization. His goal is to acquire land where he can conduct more outdoor programs and become involved with the youths that are currently incarcerated in detention centers. The longest distance Montella has ever run is 50 kilometers (31.1 miles). But he has set a goal to run 50 miles on April 24. For more information about Mission Ready and Montella’s 100-mile run, go to https://www.missionready100k.org/.
Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: You describe yourself as an “at-risk kid.” Growing up, were you able to avoid the drugs and alcohol that you were exposed to?
A: I definitely partied. I did Cocaine, LSD, prescription pills and other stuff. Yes, I went down that road, but I didn’t have an addictive personality. For me, I was just passing time until [high school] graduation.
Q: So, you tried drugs and alcohol, but didn’t get hooked.
A: Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. No, I didn’t have an addiction to drugs or alcohol. My addiction was physical fitness and serving others. I don’t know what it’s like to lose my life over addiction, but I do know what it’s like to hold me back from my true potential. And that’s fear. My overcoming fear runs parallel with people who overcome their addictions. For me, I can go punch a heavy punching bag or go for a run.
Q: How bad was it for you growing up?
A: After a while, for me, it was normal. An environment can be toxic, but you adapt to it. I never truly understood the crap that my childhood did to me until I got older.
Q: What was the worst situation you were in as an at-risk kid?
A: I remember in the second and third grades, going to bed with my shoes on and not sleeping well. I used to run out of the house at night.
Q: So, tell me about your real dad.
A: There was no paternal love there. He was a drug addict who wasn’t around my life a lot. He was just a man who was broken and just couldn’t fix himself. He died in a hospital, in a bed – sick and weak. I’m grateful for his existence, of course, as I came into the world. I’m also grateful for his lack of participation, as he really wasn’t around. Nowadays, I look at my son, and I see the moments where he needs me, and I think back to when I was a kid and my father wasn’t there. So, I’m raising my son the way it could have been done with me.
Q: So, besides your real dad, there were other men in your mom’s life when you were growing up?
A: Yes. The men tended to find the nurturing and the compassionate side of my mom and tended to use that against her: my stepfather and three other men who followed. My father was a drug addict and some of the men in my mother’s life weren’t too kind. My mom didn’t want to give up on love.
Q: How did your siblings turn out?
A: My older brother is an addict. My other brother and the oldest of my two sisters live in New Bedford and seem to be doing okay. My younger brother has three kids and is doing well. And the oldest of my two sisters has a child. My youngest sister just graduated from high school and is trying to figure things out. Her journey in life is just beginning.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a Marine?
A: I saw a Marine Corps commercial in the seventh grade. There was this guy climbing a cliff and slaying this dragon, and I knew that’s what I wanted to be when I graduated. The recruiter was at my house the year before I graduated. He was trying to get my brother to sign up. I was a junior then. Going into my senior year, he came back. I was a physical kid, so I wanted to be a Marine.
Q: What was the greatest achievement for you during your time as a Marine?
A: I received a Certificate of Commendation on April 2, 1999, for being the Honor Graduate of Platoon 3028. I was first in a class of 60-plus recruits undergoing recruit training at the Marine Corps Base at Parris Island, South Carolina. That was one of the proudest moments of my individual life. I received another Certificate of Commendation [April 26 through May 3, 2002] for leading a base-wide detail tasked with removing trash and debris from 220 acres of the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va.
Q: Any special plans for Patriots’ Day, when they will have a lot of runners competing in the Boston Marathon?
A: Not really. On April 18, I might go for a short run, as I will be getting ready for a long run. I’ll be headed out at midnight that Sunday (April 24). I will try to accomplish 50 miles in 13 hours or less. On Patriots’ Day, I might do a half marathon.
Q: So, to date, what’s the longest run you have ever done?
A: I’ve done a 50K run – that’s 31.1 miles. I left my house at 2:30 in the morning and ran to Boston about two months ago.
Q: It sounds like you run all times of the day.
A: Whenever I can find the time, because I am so busy. I have to be a father and a husband, in addition to running the gym. I do a lot of running at night when everybody is sleeping.
Q: Do you run on the Northern Strand Community Trail – which goes through Saugus, Everett, Lynn, Malden and Revere?
A: Yes. If I find a path, I’m on it. I like to run to the [Riverside] cemetery a lot, and the Jewish Cemetery in Woburn.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?
A: Absolutely. I’m an active ordained minister – Sept. 22, 2014, from the Universal Life Church Ministries. I have performed eight marriages so far.
Q: Have you always been a spiritual person?
A: Yes. I have always felt moved by something other than myself, in regard to helping others. I’ve always had the confidence in myself to help others. There’s no way I’m going to run 100 miles in less than 30 hours without something outside of me helping to get it done.
Q: What’s your ultimate goal in life?
A: It’s kind of twofold: The first part is being able to provide a means of encouraging others to have the same self-belief within themselves that I’ve found from the training that I provide – and to teach it in a way that encourages them to go on and do the same for others. And the second part of my goal is professionally, to grow Mission Readyin a way to provide that environment while providing me with more time with my family. If I have more people to help spread it, I won’t have to do it all by myself. It will allow the burden to be shared. It will be nice for Mission Ready to grow that way.
Q: Who is the biggest hero of your life?
A: Growing up, I would have to say the “Rocky Movies” [the series of movies by actor Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, the underdog boxer who fights his way to the World Heavyweight Championship], but if I had to pick a real hero, I would have to go back to when my wife lost our first son, in December of 2015, on Christmas, when she spent 17 hours in labor for a child we would never see. She handled it with such courage. And it’s hard for me to talk about it without being emotional. That’s the day I learned the true definition of empathy. I admire her for the struggle she’s gone through as a minority woman. We’ve been together for 16 years. It takes courage to watch your man get punched in the head in a boxing match. It takes courage to lose a child. I’m the biggest fan of her personal endeavors and she’s my biggest fan.
Q: So, what’s that date tattooed on your left wrist?
A: That’s my wedding band. I can’t lose it because it won’t come off. My anniversary date – May 23, 2010.
Q: So, why run 100 miles if you’ve never run half of that distance before?
A: Why not? Because nobody else in their right mind would. I want to see what I can’t do. Being defeated is not something on my mind, and failure doesn’t bother me. It’s going to be my own personal run – with no crowds, no money, no medals and no mandates. I don’t need an award for running. I just need miles, in this case. I’m not racing for time. I’m racing for miles.
Q: What’s been the reaction of people that you are training to run 100 miles on Veterans Day?
A: A lot of people think I’m crazy. If you ask people in my community who know me, they’ll say, “He’s got a big heart, but he’s definitely nuts.”
Q: You plan to run 100 miles in 30 hours or less. That’s an average of 3.3 miles an hour. That’s about my walking speed.
A: Yes. That’s not very fast. But speed is not important. It’s being able to go the distance. I’ll have to stop to eat, get off my legs a little and to go to the bathroom. There’s a bunch of people who want to run different pieces of the run with me.
Q: What does your wife think of all of this?
A: At this point, she’s used to it. She’s not even batting an eyelash. She would probably say if I plan to do it, I’m probably going to do it. She probably thinks I’m crazy, but she supports me 100 percent in my endeavor.
Q: Is this the biggest physical challenge of your life?
A: Absolutely – 100 percent – and I’ve done some crazy stuff. It’s the toughest physical challenge I’ve taken on at this point in my life.
Q: Previously, what was the biggest physical challenge of your life?
A: My professional boxing career.
Q: Why did you give it up?
A: I was looking for something in boxing – confidence and performing up to my best ability. And I did that. I wanted to go through one of those tough fights that dragged out and tested me to the limits. That happened on Veterans Day 2017. I was on my face twice in the first round, and I came back to stop the kid in the third round. He was a youngster, too – 23 years old. I was 37. I dropped him with a “liver shot.” Technically, the man couldn’t continue the fight. And after I won my last fight, I collapsed in the ring when it was over. At that moment, I felt I had exercised my demons – and that the monkey was finally off of my back. That was Veterans Day [Nov. 11] 2017. There was no way the referee would have been wrong if he stopped that fight, because I was knocked down twice in the first round – twice in the first two minutes.
Q: So, that’s the reason why you plan on doing your next greatest challenge on Veterans Day?
A: Yes, because it’s a significant date. I’m a veteran. I boxed my last fight on Veterans Day. And Nov. 10 happens to be the birthday of the Marine Corps.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share?
A: I want people to understand we truly are capable of doing what we envision in life. And I only know this because I’m literally living my own vision. It does take hard work. It does take dedication to the vision and it does take community. That’s why I feel that together we are truly limitless. “Together, we are limitless” – which is my quote from the Mission Ready website.
My goal is to run 100 miles and raise $100,000 to improve the lives of at-risk youth and under-resourced veterans through fitness training. We strive to build strength and purpose through the fitness training that we will offer.