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Chop off the old block

Goaded by his father, a professor with a passion for martial arts, Freddie Simons has earned his black belt at the remarkably early age of eight

The route to and from grade school is a young man's first proving ground. The path often is strewn with Blue Meanies, and how a boy negotiates it can affect his whole life. Nowadays inner-city kids have to deal with street gangs that shake them down for their lunch money. The suburbs are less perilous, but still the class bully may jump out from behind a Good Humor truck and try to rearrange Junior's new braces. Worst of all, there is little parents can do to help.

Nonetheless, Freddie Simons' mother and father are trying. Never mind that their Orlando (Fla.) neighborhood has a crime rate roughly equivalent to that of Disney World. The Simons insist on driving their third-grader to Ridgewood Elementary every morning and picking him up each afternoon, even though the school is only four blocks from the Simons' house. The chauffeur service has caused Freddie to undergo more than his share of razzing, but it has accomplished his parents' goal of keeping him out of scrapes with bigger schoolmates like the one known as "The Fonz" (Freddie's teacher says there is at least one kid with that nickname in every grade school in America these days).

Here the plot thickens, for the Simons' intent is not to protect Freddie from Fonzie but to save Fonzie from Freddie. Freddie holds a black belt in karate at the ripe old age of eight, making him one of the two or three youngest martial-arts experts in the country.

There are a handful of 7-, 8-and 9-year-old black belts scattered across the U.S., including 3'1", 48-pound Timmy Miller of Atlanta who is nine. A goodly number of other youngsters hold "junior" black belts, which can be distinguished by the white stripe running through the black. Some conservative groups in the highly fragmented world of karate refuse to give black belts of any kind to pre-teens.

Although Freddie is a friendly kid with white-blond hair, a devout Baptist background and an angelic smile, he is obviously no mama's boy. His father is a black belt, his 16-year-old sister is a brown belt and they have made sure Freddie can defend himself. The only reason he is chauffeured about is that his family does not want him fighting his way home every day. Eight is a little young to get into the Gunslinger syndrome. But, beware, Freddie has been breaking boards with his feet since first grade.

"Karate or no karate, he is still just a little boy," says Kathy Simons, who is aware of her 4'3", 58-pound son's limitations because of her own participation in the sport, which ended a year and a half ago when she developed arthritis. "All the kids are understandably curious to see what he can do. I can tell you he's not going to wipe out the whole school. He's not yet strong enough to hurt anybody a whole lot bigger than he is, but some of his sister's high school friends ask her if they can fight him. Even the football players. Can you imagine?

"On the other hand, since he has been trained in karate, the mothers in the neighborhood expect him to back off whenever someone his own size gives him a bad time. That's a lot to ask from a little boy, but he is pretty good about it. He's never used karate on anyone that I can recall. Of course, he might ram them with his bike, if they pushed him far enough. And he gets into mischief, too, like coming home with his hair filled with dirt. Freddie's all boy."

That he is, but an 8-year-old determined and talented enough to earn a black belt has to have some unusual traits, too. Most children Freddie's age have trouble doing a diving forward roll in gym class, let alone handling the very demanding first-degree karate requirements, which Freddie satisfied in only three years of work. As a rule, 8-year-olds do not possess that kind of dedication. Their attention spans are best measured in minutes, not years, and their combative impulses tend to peter out after a bit of pushing and shoving.

In most respects, Freddie is not dramatically different from his peers. He has a new goldfish, owns a set of Matchbox cars and still sleeps in the same room with his big sister Donna. Not surprisingly, his least favorite aspect of karate is the sparring one must do to improve strength and technique. He endures the fighting part at his father's urging, though he much prefers the dancelike maneuvers called katas, which may include as many as 27 movements in a single series. Obviously, he lacks the force of an adult, but his execution is letter perfect. For example, his punching arm is not exceptionally powerful for his age, but his motion and position are correct. Watching him perform is like looking at Bruce Lee through a View-Master.

To understand how Freddie earned his belt requires a look at his relationship with his father, who has raised him on the notion of nothing-but-the-best-will-do-from-you, Son. The elder Simons works Freddie so hard that when Mrs. Simons comes in to cover up her son at night, she sometimes finds him doing push-ups in his sleep. But Freddie does not seem to mind the long hours of practice, and he shows no resentment toward his father. His accomplishment seems to be a natural by-product of an extensive amount of effort—like the tennis trophies won by those other Florida prodigies, the Everts, in Fort Lauderdale.

Both families are headed by a father who used to excel at his sport, who got reinvolved in it by teaching it to his children and who now operates a public facility where they train under his supervision. Dr. Fred Simons makes his living as an engineering professor at Florida Tech University, but his passion is karate.

He earned his brown belt in 1965, then more or less gave up the sport. In 1972 he decided to train seriously again, because karate was something he could do with his family. He remembers telling his supervisor, "I'm spending 60-to-80 hours a week teaching and consulting. Get me a schedule where I can see my wife and kids at least three times—in church on Sunday and in karate class Monday and Wednesday nights." He recently bought a 30'x30' store and turned it into the Orlando dojo for Yoshukai-style karate.

Though Dr. Simons had a big head start, Freddie took to karate so fast that father and son won their black belts on the same day last February in Daytona. That was fortunate for two reasons. First, it preserved the father's well-developed ego. "Psychologically it would be a mistake to send a son up before his father," says the Simons' instructor, Mike Foster. Second, the adherents of Yoshukai karate are concerned about the level of expertise of those teaching their style. They would have frowned on a 37-year-old brown belt presiding over a dojo with a black belt, no matter how young, in the class.

A similar problem cropped up a few weeks later on the golf course when Freddie, a fine all-round athlete like his dad, holed out with a nine-iron from behind a sand trap. "I was so proud of him that I sank my own putt from off the green," says the father. Another ego crisis averted.

Members of the press who interview Freddie never know whether they will encounter a Dr. Jekyll, who can discuss karate in detail for hours, or a Mr. Hyde, who wants to talk about anything but karate. The following response was elicited from Hyde on a recent afternoon:

"What do I like best about karate? Oh, the katas, I guess.... See that telephone wire over there? One day I took my slingshot and WHAM!...That tree is just super for climbing.... Do you know my girl friend lives right down the street?...Ridgewood is gonna have a real great soccer team next year, and I want to play Little League baseball this summer...." And so on until Freddie had done impressions of his guidance counselor, sound effects of his latest bicycle crackup, read every one of his visitor's notes and asked when he could have his picture taken.

"What do you think I should do with Freddie?" asks his father. "I'm thinking about getting him an agent, so maybe we can get him on the Johnny Carson show. I don't want to push him too much, but I'm so proud of him and I want to see him get all he can out of karate. Mr. Foster says if he keeps on the way he's been going that nobody'll be able to touch him by the time he's 12. I keep saying that all he lacks is the killer instinct."

Mrs. Simons is not sure "the killer instinct" is something she wants her son to acquire. "He's got a lot of courage, and I think he's tough enough for his age," she says. "About the only thing he's afraid of in the world is the Space Mountain roller coaster over at Disney World. When his cousins came to visit and heard that Freddie was frightened by it, they knew it had to be bad."