by Caitlin Rodgers • Photography by Jason Kindig
On the surface, it’s exactly what you would expect.
Pull through steely, silver gates and an impressive array of games including shuffleboard, pool, ping pong, pinball, foosball and air hockey await inside the garage. Plush, black leather couches sit just outside the locker and steam rooms where people are sure to lounge between traipses to the golf simulation machine, weight room, basketball court and batting cage. A distinct purple and grey color scheme pays homage to the hometown team while mounted animal heads and flat screens (almost certainly tuned to ESPN) compete for wall space. Two garage doors stand open to the field where nets and balls idly sit.
It’s exactly what you would expect from a recreation center, and yet, beyond the fun and games, seated in the shadows of TCU campus, this former junkyard turned ultimate man cave lives a serious mission.
As a kid, Gus Bates remembers his dad, also Gus Bates, as everyone’s Little League, Pop Warner, soccer, you-name-it coach. Coaching from the age of 20 to the age of 70, Pops, as he is affectionately called by his family, created a 50-year legacy and influence on generations of Fort Worth children. “That certainly rubbed off on me,” Bates admitted. “So when I had children, I coached them. And when they started school sports, I was bored. That’s kind of how this began.”
The this that Bates refers to started last December when he purchased the property as a place to store belongings. Naming it “Pop’s Garage” in honor of his dad, Bates’ imagination quickly went wild with possibility as a book he had read months before, Halftime by Bob Buford, echoed in his mind.
“I read the book, and it talked about what you’re doing with your life, what truly is your purpose here. I have everything I could ever want: beautiful kids, success, great business, great employees – everything is fantastic. And yet, it’s just a selfish existence. I want the next half of my life to be about giving. I want to leave a legacy and have an impact. So I said, ‘How am I going to do this?’”
As if a foretelling to his future, Bates, a Fort Worth native, was bused in the second grade to Como Elementary instead of attending his neighborhood Tanglewood Elementary School. “You remember that – an all-white class being bused to an all-black school,” he said. And as a result, decades later, Bates decided to go back and introduce himself to whoever was involved at the community center. He met Carol Brown, director of the center, and after simply declaring that he wanted to help, started with projects like underwriting a Halloween party and providing uniforms for their sports teams. Employees of Gus Bates Insurance & Investments also got involved, hosting art nights twice a month for 50 elementary-age students, insuring the center’s buses, assisting sports teams and sponsoring children at Christmas by providing gifts for their families.
“We have literally written what Pop’s Garage is by example,” Bates said. That example, Bates believes, is seen no better than in the story of his friendship with another father-and-son duo, both by the name of Taurence Jones (or TJ for short).
“TJ was 9 years old when I met him,” Bates began. “I was coaching my son’s football team at the time, and we were good but needed a difference maker.” Hearing about TJ from other YMCA coaches, he called TJ’s father and went across town to pay the pair a visit. “This super kid comes out of the house,” he said, “wearing jeans, a T-shirt, tennis shoes and a smile on his face.” After standing in the yard talking, they went inside to watch TJ’s game film. The DVD, which had been viewed so many times that it skipped, was more like a TJ highlight reel than team game film. Then, Bates continued, “TJ said, ‘Coach, I can do a flip.’ And he stood right in front of me and did a backflip. And then he jumped up to a pull-up bar in the doorway and did 13 pull-ups. I knew I’d found my running-back.”
For the next three years, Bates coached little TJ and became friends with his dad, Big TJ, neither of whom ever missed a practice. “I just fell in love with not only little TJ, but Big TJ. I learned all about their journey to Fort Worth from the streets of Chicago, how despite overwhelming odds, they kept fighting, staying positive and doing the right thing. And witnessing this, I felt compelled to do something — open a recreation center for kids, get my friends to support it and recruit more TJs.”
As Pop’s Garage became a reality, the only problem Bates had was in needing someone to run the facility; but as fate would have it, Big TJ was up for the challenge. And in giving him the position, what Bates learned, he shared, is the beauty and grace of giving someone an opportunity. “The neat thing is that he has done more for me than I could ever do for him,” he said.
Recruiting friends to support the garage by becoming official man cave and gym members, the men (Chris Kenney, Guy Riddle, Jared Shope, Jeb Bradshaw, JJ Henry, Ken Schaefer, Kirk Jefferies, Kyle Poulson, Lance Byrd, Ricky Stuart, Steve Gray and Jeff Hammond) help to run the facility through monthly dues. All Fort Worth community and business leaders, Bates heads this makeshift fraternity that loves Fort Worth and wants to make it great. Together with the garage’s team that includes Doc Patton, a three-time track and field Olympian as the facility’s athletic trainer, the men are creating a strong presence of support and brotherhood for the boys that visit the garage.
Continuing, Bates said, “TJ has influenced so many young, African-American men. They come here, and they don’t have anyone; we are, with Doc Patton, with TJ, with many others, going to change the landscape of Fort Worth. We’re teaching young men who haven’t had a great deal of male influence and support in their lives. I don’t want to see kids who are really good disappear because they don’t have someone in their lives.”
And so, Pop’s Garage opens its doors to all kinds of Fort Worth kids. On Monday nights, it’s Pascal High School Young Life; on Wednesday nights, it’s the Como Community Center. By pulling up their doors, feeding the kids and showing them support, what they have witnessed, Bates explained, is children rising to the top.
“The first time they come, they’re just grabbing food; and then with time, they’re making sure everyone gets food, they’re pouring drinks, helping out and cleaning up. What we’re doing is based around sports – and sports are such a good life teacher -- but we’re trying to impact their whole lives – scholastically, athletically, spiritually, character-wise. Plus,” he added with a grin, “it keeps them out of trouble, from sleeping all day and playing Xbox all night.”
Only revving up their plans for the future, Bates, who also owns the property next door to Pop’s, hopes to join with Cameron Sadler, founder and president of the nonprofit Greatness Factory, and develop the land into another influential space for Fort Worth’s youth. “Although I grew up in Ripley Projects,” Sadler shared, “I am not a product of my environment. I am a product of passionate coaches and amazing opportunities. Our partnership with Mr. Bates and Pop’s Garage is the perfect recipe for unprecedented impact with youth in the Fort Worth community.”
“What I want to do,” Bates continued, “is take kids like TJ who are leaders and just wrap our arms around them. If you give them a little bit of support, what could they accomplish? What we hope to do is give disadvantaged young men opportunities that did not exist before. Provide them with the tools necessary to be leaders for the future, help them with their academics and just follow them through life. I think we will be amazed at what we see.”
Bates also hopes to extend the opportunity of mentorship to Fort Worth companies by handpicking kids around the city and providing companies the chance to sponsor them. By creating situations for Fort Worth businesses to take part in the development of a child’s talent and future, Bates believes they will foster a hopeful future for the city as well.
What began as a place to store belongings is becoming a place to show youth, particularly young men, that they belong. “Pop’s Garage quickly turned into this dream that I never thought possible. Como is a big benefactor of this – but again, I think the people that work with them, we gain even more. What really opened my eyes,” Bates continued, “was something Carol Brown from the community center told me: It doesn’t take a lot to help – just love and time. Everything else will work itself out.”