Craig McDougall admits that as a 17-year-old he found himself tempted to "make some decisions that weren't so positive", particularly around alcohol.
But his attitude changed when he discovered a love of boxing which brought him into contact with "good men that helped mould my life".
Now, 20 years on, Mr McDougall is the one influencing young lives through the sport.
So much so that he is Hawke's Bay Today's Person of the Year - in recognition of the life-changing impact he is having on youngsters from one of the region's most vulnerable communities.
The 37-year-old from Hastings is head coach of the Flaxmere Boxing Academy, a role that sees him mentoring about 100 boys and young men, many of whom have had their attitudes to life changed for the better through his work with them over the past year and a half.
The academy was established to revitalise and to energise the community.
Sparring in the ring turns out to be a very small part of the academy's focus. More important is getting young men together in a positive environment to impart life wisdom, have fun and teach leadership skills and self confidence.
"Boxing just draws them in," Mr McDougall says. "If we could do that with table tennis or croquet we would, but the boys wouldn't come and their families wouldn't come."
As well has his fulltime role at the boxing academy, Mr McDougall spends a further 16 hours a week running the Jarrod Cunningham Sports Academy at Havelock North High School - another vehicle for using sport to help young people reach their potential.
Mr McDougall is described as a tireless, selfless worker whose focus and passion is improving his community.
He, his wife Vicki and their three young boys moved to Hawke's Bay from Upper Hutt four years ago.
"We wanted to move here to give our boys the opportunity to live closer to the beach and have a bit more sunshine than what we get in Upper Hutt. In the first year I said to my wife 'we won't do any volunteering, just settle in', then after that we got stuck into it and said we'd set up a boxing academy and get involved with the school.
"So we've achieved that and now we're hoping to be in it for the next 20 years - influencing change in the community," he says.
"I could say selfishly that all I'm doing is creating an environment where my boys will see what Vicki and I stand for, what our passion is. But they'll also have good role models and good mentors from our coaches and from our guys growing up.
"When they walk in here, these guys will love my children as much as I do, so when they maybe don't want to talk to me in their teenage years they'll have some great support. And if I got run over tomorrow they would know what I stood for - and that's love and people."
Matt Every, who has two sons attending the academy and a daughter who has been influenced by Mr McDougall at Havelock North High School, describes him as "the most selfless individual I have ever met".
"Although he has a young family of his own, he spends all his time nurturing and bringing positivity to many young people in the Bay," Mr Every says.
One of the boys attending the academy, 14-year-old Mat Lindsay, says Mr McDougall has had a huge impact on the lives of everyone involved.
"He encourages us boys to get out there and have fun ... all of what he does is for the good of today's youth."
Brian Daly, one of about 10 volunteer coaches working with Mr McDougall at the academy, described his work as amazing.
"He is an exceptional organiser of his fellow trainers and is very passionate about improving the community one individual at a time."
Mr McDougall says he has "never worked with a better bunch of men" than the volunteers and students at the academy, and the inspiration he receives from his community work is its own reward.
"Simple stuff inspires me like playing some sport in my back yard with my kids or my neighbours or across at the park with anyone in the community. Just that simple laughter is what inspires me. Getting to know my neighbours and our neighbourhood and the community, that's what changes the place.
"It's these good men here who are going to do that. They've got so much potential."
One eye-opening moment came about nine months ago when a mother of one of the boys at the academy thanked him "for giving us our boys back".
He says the trouble young men get into often simply involves "boys being boys".
"They're pretty good at making a decision in a split second rather than pausing to think about it."
The academy aims to teach good decision-making and leadership skills, and build confidence in those who attend.
Mr McDougall admits his own early motivation to take up boxing was "to get fit during the week so I could surf during the weekend. Then I realised it was a highly skilful sport so I wanted to be good at it".
He succeeded, rising to become New Zealand light heavyweight champion and New Zealand representative in the class, and credits boxing with boosting his self confidence.
"When you line up at the start of a running race or the start of a big game of football it's nothing compared to standing in front of 500 or 1000 people where some guy wants to knock your block off.
"That's intimidating. If I can handle that I can handle so many other things. That's the confidence I want these boys to gain."
Mr McDougall has taken a sabbatical from his job as a fireman to run the academy and that leave has been extended thanks to a Vodafone Foundation community salary grant which will fund him in the role over the next year.
Rather than fighting fires, he will continue his work fighting to improve the quality of young men in our community.
"We're coaches, but not in boxing, we're coaches in life," he says.