Drug and gang involvement landed Jack Howard in prison. A political atmosphere cemented Patrick Sheets' military exit after distinguished service. Their lives at a crossroads, the paths of these two men from wildly divergent backgrounds intersected at CCA.
By Lee Rasizer, CCA Public Relations Coordinator
They answer to "Ebony" and "Ivory" inside the office. "Salt" and "Pepper" to each other.
They answer each other’s calls and numerous texts; even at times finish one another’s sentences.
They answer in street or military lingo, byproducts of their diverse backgrounds.
But when it comes to the immediate and infinite bond forged by Community College of Aurora fitness instructors Patrick Sheets and Jack Howard, there’s no easy rejoinder. It is what it is.
This is a pair that’s grown so close in less than a year that on an off day, without coordination, the two arrived at the exact same time at the gorilla cage at the Denver Zoo; that, on three to four occasions weekly, will just happen to show up for work wearing the exact same training shorts and shirt ensemble, also without coordination.
“We only have two shirts, a gray one and a black one,” Sheets said in self-defense, wearing a wide smile.
If you see one of them, you likely will see the other not far behind.
“When our paralegal coordinator comes in and only one of them is there she’ll ask, ‘Where’s your better half?’” Stephanie Agner, CCA’s public service administrative assistant, said with a laugh.
Sheets and Howard just as often resemble siblings, whether picking up food together or just hanging out.
Added Agner, “They poke each other, elbow each other, throw snits at each other …”
And prop up one another in a way that makes this bond even more unique.
It’s like a reality-show script come to life, without cameras or actors: Five Points meets West Point.
A squeaky clean graduate of the service academy from Noblesville, Ind., and a burly convict from crime-laden neighborhoods of Denver becoming fast friends, CCA colleagues and helping hands.
Sheets, a former Army captain, is protective of Howard, confident that the latter’s forged a new path but focused on ensuring old habits and friends aren’t reintroduced.
Howard credits the positive influence Sheets has had in his life and doesn’t want to disappoint.
One of their primary functions together in their part-time jobs at the college is training four police academies per year in addition to individual sessions with staff, students and faculty. They’ve developed curriculum for the cadets, entered it into the computer, and distributed it as a manual to follow.
But perhaps above all, they’ve sold the workouts to their pupils, with buy-in equating to results.
“It’s amazing synergy,” said Michael Carter, the college’s director of the police and personal trainer academies and chair of public safety. “I’ve never seen anything like it in the 17 years I’ve been at CCA.”
For Sheets, molding cadets into hardened, and hard-bodied, cops would hardly raise an eyebrow. But if Howard’s friends can only see him now after he spent a dozen years in and out of prison from 1999-2010.
“I know if I went back on the block guys would be like, ‘What?’ The homies would be tripping out,” Howard admitted “But I’m not getting no younger, and I feel like what I’m doing right now I should have did 20 years ago. I really enjoy it; first, because I love to work out, the fitness aspect and all that.
“Right now, I’m in the best position I can be for my situation.”
But sometimes that place can hit just a little close to home.
Howard recently was asked to aid in an exercise involving the same Police Academy cadets for whom he’s been charged with unleashing their top physical potential in his work as their fitness instructor.
Yet he suddenly began having flashbacks. Playing the role of bad guy. Jumping around corners. Brandishing his weapon.
The gun wasn’t loaded with real bullets but instead “simunition” pellets – high-tech training ammunition used in law-enforcement training.
The situation couldn’t have been more lifelike and it made Howard was strangely nervous. Sweat poured down his forehead despite full knowledge that this was role playing and he was doing nothing wrong.
It just didn’t appear to be fun and games -- and for good reason.
It was a vivid reminder of earlier times, when crime infiltrated his own life and the police truly were his enemy of freedom.
Howard’s never made excuses for his unlawful misdeeds. Caught on a couple occasions in a web of drug distribution and gangs, Howard has been trying to do everything possible to get his life settled into normalcy. That process started with his first move to take a physiology class at CCA last August, completing the personal trainer wellness academy and getting his part-time gig in February, all steps on a path he hopes someday will include training high-end athletes.
Jumping around corners and seeing these police-in-training eye-to-eye was like hitting the rewind button on his past existence.
“I was in a drug raid one time and the only difference between this and the drug raid was that I didn’t know they were coming,” Howard recalled. “This one, I heard them coming, so I had time to react. In the drug raid, I didn’t have time to react and when they came in, I had all these infrared beams on me. It was like the scariest thing in the world.”
The laser focus is different now.
CCA took a chance on Howard and hired him following an extensive background check. Dan Agresti, who runs the college’s personal trainer program, honed in on Howard’s enthusiasm and knowledge. Carter ended up vouching for Howard after meeting him and having some pointed discussions. Howard’s parole officer signed off, too, and since has written glowing letters about the progress of this one-time felon.
But all the new CCA employee may really have needed was an Army of one.
Patrick Sheets had a resume that counterbalanced Howard’s rap sheet.
Buttoned-up demeanor. Indiana kid. Middle of three boys. Leader of men, charged with training NATO forces prior to deploying to Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan.
Infantry units under Sheets’ thumb were taught about patrolling; cordoning off areas for security; movement operations; and improvising tactics based on information gleaned in the field.
Sheets executed those roles so seamlessly it moved him up the ranks: from second lieutenant, to first lieutenant, then captain as one of the primary leadership officers in training.
But after five years in the active service and three years in reserve, he opted out. There was some consideration at the end of his tour to become a physician’s assistant for a Ranger Regiment, and, as top of his class and Ranger qualified, he could have extended his military profession.
But after getting stationed in Germany, Poland, Italy, the Czech Republic and Fort Benning, Ga., his marriage had suffered. He’d lost the hearing in his right ear, too. But, philosophically, he had simply honed the leadership abilities he believed were already inherent within him in the military and was fine with exiting with his character properly inflated to its current level.
“It just wasn’t for me,” Sheets explained of his decision to leave the military, something he’d decided even before exiting his Midwestern home for West Point. “I wasn’t fulfilled.”
It went beyond self-satisfaction, too, and into military red tape he envisioned -- and had witnessed first-hand.
“It gets to a point where you reach a level where it’s a lot of politics and a lot of BS and it’s not who I am. I like to … be down at a normal level. I’m not all high and mighty.”
Now out of the military, divorced, and adverse to the scholastic rigors of becoming a medical doctor, Sheets leaned on his practical side to make his next career choice. He opted to become a physical therapist, with a future goal of helping fellow soldiers deal with the emotional and physical changes they endure in combat.
Sheets was accepted to Regis University, where he’s scheduled to begin classes this month. But at the time he had nearly a year to kill before his admittance, and Sheets happened upon CCA’s personal training academy. It offered such recommended courses that aided physical therapy curriculum as kinesiology and exercise physiology, and, with him not working at the time, could fill his days productively (along with his other side job, training dogs for the blind).
But as CCA’s motto proclaims, Sheets also would go beyond the book: this time, helping a stranger in need.
“They’re both very drastically different people that somehow came together as friends,” Agner said. “And they’ve just succeeded in it ever since.”
Sheets missed the first day of class, but the next time he sat in the middle row right in front of Howard. It didn’t take long for them to strike up a conversation.
“I don’t know what it was,” Howard related. “But he must have come to see that I had a struggling look on my face or something like that and he automatically offered his support.”
The helping hand didn’t extend just to academics. When Sheets discovered Howard was taking the bus to CCA, he offered rides. They soon began working out together. Sheets even would drive Howard to appointments.
The initial bond formed, it wasn’t long that Howard would have to come clean about his criminal past replete with ill-fated decisions. Putting his life out there for his new friend to scrutinize was a call made easier by the ankle monitor under his clothing he wore that Sheets would inevitably discover.
Howard was bluntly honest, telling Sheets everything: the four-year sentence with a three-year tail for drug possession. Getting caught with drugs 90 days after leaving prison and being labeled a habitual offender under Colorado law. His involvement with the Gangster Disciples, or GDs, based out of Chicago but housed in Colorado Springs. The stints at Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs; at Four Mile in Canon City; to Delta on the Western Slope and a halfway house before making parole.
“I could still be behind bars or dead,” Howard says now. “Just being a drug dealer I was robbed a couple times at gunpoint, by knife. I dealt with different people jumping me, stuff like that. Broken ribs. Broken jaw. All kinds of things.”
Funny thing was, Howard didn’t go the wrong way as some know-it-all teenager deciding there was no other route in life. Howard grew up in the rough Five Points and Park Hill neighborhoods of Denver. But he was a “late bloomer” to crime, opting for that route only after he was passed over for promotions at several jobs, leaving him scarred emotionally.
“I took it more personal than I should have,” he admitted.
So, at age 29, he got sucked into the drug lifestyle and began hanging with dealers. Five Points was his “stepping ground” but his real malfeasance occurred in Colorado Springs, getting him “involved in some heavy stuff … moving a little weight.”
Prison only added weight on his shoulders. About to turn 40, facing another lengthy sentence, he feared the worst: that his diabetic mother would pass away while he was behind bars.
He told himself simply that enough was enough and that he needed to leave this life behind.
He worked out every day in prison, programming himself, too, to get on every work group no matter how hard the labor. He’d become a crew leader, enduring funny looks as a hulking black man in the Rocky Mountains fixing cattle fences. But once he was paroled, he couldn’t shake his felon tag. He worked as a flagger on construction sites but hated battling the elements.
“So I went to school,” Howard explained. “I struggled with trying to find something that I liked to do. Instead of going into a lot of dead-end jobs, working out was something I enjoyed doing, so why not make that my career?”
Class was one thing. CCA has an open-door policy for students. But it wasn’t your normal rubber-stamp process once the now 45-year-old student expressed an interest in working part time at the college. He had to do an extensive interview with Human Resources.. A background check was performed. Carter took a gander at Howard’s rap sheet, didn’t see anything signifying violent or aggressive tendencies in any fashion and spelled out his expectations moving forward.
The job was his. Another position was open, and Howard invited Sheets to join him.
They’ve since become partners in ensuring a top-notch fitness experience for all their clients.
Sheets is an endurance athlete, having recently completed his first official marathon and training toward a triathlon within a year. Howard’s the power lifter, with muscles seemingly there to support other muscles.
Their styles only complement their personalities.
“It’s amazing synergy,” Carter said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in the 17 years I’ve been at CCA.
Carter, a former gym owner in Hawaii for 12 years added, “I’ve never seen two instructors work so well together.”
Bad decisions happen everywhere. Sheets saw it in the Army among some of the cadets, who would take weekend leave, smoke marijuana or snort cocaine and get caught. Even some of the stories of why these young kids enlisted sounded like escapes rather than calls to action. He’d served with people of all backgrounds, helping shape his worldview.
So Howard’s story didn’t really faze him; in fact, it just locked him right on target, in a sense.
The rides to work. The frequent calls to talk. Text blasts. This was undercover friendship, of sorts.
“I think that’s part of the natural leader side, a willingness to help people and not just get some personal gain out of it. …,” Sheets said. “It’s not where he is now. It’s not where he plans to go. I can genuinely see that. You can judge a person by his past, but it’s just that – his past. It’s not what’s hopefully going on right now.”
It would be unusual if Sheets didn’t reach out to help.
He knows change, both mentally and especially physically.
Change in his life has come in the forms of fellow soldiers – some dear friends – losing limbs in combat and suffering traumatic brain injuries. Change for these men and women are imposed through shards of metal, weaponry and wrong-place, wrong-time events.
A reputation is in the ether, more easily eradicated.
“I used to teach all my soldiers that when you’re in a situation or circumstance you’re required to make a decision and based on that decision you make, there’s an outcome, result or consequence, good or bad,” Sheets said. “Jack made some bad decisions. He was in a situation where growing up it was hard and he had to make some money, so I could see it, sure. I’m empathetic. I don’t agree with it. But that’s life. Not everybody grows up the same or in the same situations. If the roles were reversed, I’d want Jack to be open enough to give me an opportunity as a friend.”
Sheets also believes that with an improved support system Howard’s chances for a relapse are markedly diminished, though not assured. “Actions say a lot. He’s always punctual. He always does what he says he’s going to do, and he doesn’t make bad decisions for the most part.”
Having completed his personal fitness classes, Howard not only teaches at CCA but enrolled in a pair of computer classes so that his record keeping and spread sheets used in his job can improve. It’s self-improvement, but also his way of aiding Sheets in that portion of their partnership.
Still, no schooling can help Howard improve Sheets’ Michael Jackson dance impressions, or attempts at mimicking his vocal stylings. Given the impact on his life, Howard will cut him some slack there.
“I don’t know how he feels but he’s a benefit in my life, not just because he’s a smart guy and everything, but he’s a good friend,” Howard said. “I treasure his friendship. He helps me with everything. If I ask him, he’s going to help me. He doesn’t have a ‘no’ bone in his body. He’s a very caring and giving guy.”
Giving grief counts, and there’s plenty of that, too.
"Clients see Jack and think, 'Dang, I want to look like him," Sheets said. "Then they see me and think, 'I don't want to look like that skinny white guy.' So Jack brings 'em in and dishes them to me."
CAPTIONS: Top photo, Jack Howard (left) and Patrick Sheets (right) pose in the gymnasium on CCA's Lowry campus, where they help clients meet their physical fitness goals and help police academy cadets get top-notch training.