By NEIL HARVEY
The Roanoke Times
ROANOKE, Va. —
Here’s a fast, free martial arts lesson from Roanoke lawyer David Damico, who for the past decade has moonlighted as a judo instructor:
“There’s no such thing as a judo chop,” Damico explained from his Campbell Avenue office, dispelling the common misconception that striking is allowed in contemporary judo.
“There’s no punching, there’s no kicking. Unlike karate, there’s no board-breaking,” he said. “The literal translation of judo is ‘the gentle way.’
“That doesn’t mean it’s a gentle sport. Because you can get the crap knocked out of you.”
Damico has practiced law around the valley since 1977, when at 25 he became a city assistant public defender. In his later private practice, his clients have ranged from a member of the Abed crime family in the 1990s to, more recently, neo-Nazi William A. White. In two of the six death penalty cases he’s handled, he defended convicted killers Paul D. Thompson — who, through a bold legal maneuver, successfully avoided execution— and Danny Lee King, who did not.
Damico also occasionally serves as a substitute judge in general district and juvenile courts, but is quick to point out, “I’m not a real judge. When the judges go on vacation and they need some idiot to sit there and give $25 fines, sometimes they get me.”
Two nights a week, however, he slips out the back door of his office and walks perhaps 40 feet to Hybrid Martial Arts, which recently moved from its longtime space on Williamson Road to a cinder block space on Salem Avenue.
Though he turns 62 in August, Damico — with a shock of white hair, a thin beard and a second-degree black belt — moves with sprightly grace in his royal blue gi, the judo robe. He has about 15 years on the oldest of his dozen students, many of whom are still in their 20s, but on a recent Monday night he led them through groan-wrenching calisthenics: push-ups, leg lifts, crunches and dips.
Despite the muggy, mid-June heat that day, Damico and his students pressed on to practice harai goshi, a sweeping hip throw, taking turns throwing each other and, by extension, learning to hit the ground.
“Accept the fact that you’re going to fall,” he told the class. “You’re going to be falling tonight.”
Landing with one arm swinging out helps distribute the impact; landing stiffly, with an arm aimed down in an attempt to break a fall, is how you get hurt, Damico said.
All this activity came about for Damico because, in the mid-1990s, his youngest daughter, Christine, studied under storied Roanoke martial arts teacher Charles “Gus” Carper. Carper ultimately drew her dad into the lessons as well, and Damico learned the basics of judo and Brazilian jujitsu alongside fellow student Dennis Hayes, the Roanoke firefighter who now owns and operates Hybrid.
“We happened to start on the exact same day,” Hayes said. “We carry the torch for Gus.”
Their lessons have found a diverse if largely professional audience. The Monday night students include a pair of married civil engineers, a financial analyst and a criminal investigator.
“It’s good exercise, not just for the body but the mind as well. There’s strategy involved,” said Virginia State Police Sgt. W.L. Jennings, one of Damico’s students.
It’s not without risks, either. Less than an hour later that night, Jennings fractured his ring finger when it became tangled in the fabric of his partner’s robe.
On the other hand, “it’s cheaper than golf,” offered David Thomas, 45, of Goodview, who said he uses martial arts for both sport and self-defense. “Some people are very good at certain things, but they can’t teach others. Like Michael Jordan. Great ball player, but not a great coach.
“Dave would’ve made a very good schoolteacher,” he said.
“He’s always willing to give his time to help the new people, so they don’t feel overwhelmed,” said Erin Huan, 26, of Cave Spring.
“He’s extremely confident, but he’s also very patient,” she added.
That self-esteem, Damico acknowledged, is a valuable component of his work with judo.
“I’ve never lacked confidence,” he said, not long after separate conversations in which he professed an ability to throw a 300-pound opponent (”If I could get them moving, I could get them off balance,” the 155-pound attorney explained) and dissed the interplanetary skills of no less a figure than Capt. James T. Kirk, who on the original episodes of “Star Trek” frequently relied on the tomoe nage “circle throw” against alien opponents.
“The captain does it badly,” Damico observed, chuckling, but said he’s never applied his own martial arts in a real-life conflict.
“I don’t get into fights, but I think I could handle myself pretty well if I had to,” he said. “I think I’m in better shape than most guys with an office job.”
Martial arts, he added, also gives him a firm sense of perspective on the everyday life of a lawyer:
“If you have some 200-pound guy choking the living heck out of you on a Monday night at the gym, anything that happens in court the next day doesn’t seem so bad.”