Pass by Howard Popkin in the halls of George Washington Elementary School in West Hempstead, where he teaches fifth grade, and you probably would never peg the 42-year-old as a competitive fighter.
The same could be said for his business partner, Joseph Brogna, 45. But both have black belts and are nationally-renowned in the martial arts world for their expertise in the Japanese martial art of Jujitsu.
"We're not the model of shape," Popkin, 42, says. "We both have about 20 [lbs] we could lose .. People are surprised what we are capable of."
Like most people, Popkin was introduced to Jujitsu for self-defense purposes. He was nine at the time, but soon it became an "international pursuit" for him.
"I trained with everyone in the New York Tri-State area. I met them, I trained with them, I wanted to know who was the best," he explained. That was what led him to Tokyo in the summer of 2000, where he met his sensei.
"I was 27 and he was 72," Popkin recalls. On their first encounter, Popkin tried to take a swing at the old man to see if he lived up to his reputation, but instead in an instant, he was thrown 15 feet across the room. "It was like someone swatting a fly. That was the beginning of our relationship."
Popkin traveled to Japan four times a year and his sensei made the trip to the United States multiple times, so the two could train together for the next 15 years. During that time, Popkin became inspired to share what he was learning with others.
Today, the Popkin-Brogna Jujitsu Center has roughly 120 students, ranging in age from 3 to 79.
"Jujitsu is something that can be done by almost every age on almost every level," Popkin told Patch from inside his new dojo in West Hempstead. "You don't have to be in the best shape... but you can still gain benefits from it. Everybody can get more flexible, stronger and more confident."
After years of running the business out of a storefront on Dogwood Avenue in Franklin Square, Popkin and Brogna moved their studio to 400 Hempstead Tpke. in West Hempstead in mid-August and held a grand opening celebration on Oct. 7, which attracted close to 80 people.
"I'm pretty fond of West Hempstead," says Popkin, who has been teaching in the West Hempstead School District for the past 11 years.
As a teacher, he knows bullying is a big problem, which is why he focuses on training kids who come to his dojo on ways to diffuse bad situations, while also building up their confidence and teaching them the importance of exercise.
"Contrary to popular belief, [Jujitsu] is really not violent. We don't teach violence in any fashion," he said. "The Japanese martial arts have a real esoteric peaceful side in them and that's ingrained in what we do. It is 100-percent 'walk away before you pick your hands up, talk your way out of it.''"
In the event though that you should have to defend yourself, Popkin says, his students learn, "If you can keep yourself calm and controlled, it's much easier to control the situation .. It's more about putting people into a place where they can't hurt you or putting someone in a place where if they tried to hurt you they'd end up hurting themselves."
Popkin encourages everyone to give Jujitsu a try. Right now, the studio is offering a grand opening special that includes six weeks of unlimited classes and a uniform for $69. And don't worry, he says, although first-timers should "expect to sweat a lot" and "do a couple of things maybe they haven't tried before," he says they'll only be challenged "a little" in the beginning.
"I think we are like a hidden gem," Popkin says of the dojo. "People love being here. We have a wonderful friendly atmosphere."
Popkin-Brogna Jujitsu Center is open five days a week, Monday-Thursday and Sunday mornings. For more information visit popkinbrognaselfdefense.com