Go­ing to war

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TO THE MAT -

The next morn­ing, the Bal­ti­more City Col­lege gym was alive with more than 200 kids, their coaches and par­ents from 14 schools across the city. Some were as young as first-graders, oth­ers as old as the eighth grade. It was an op­por­tu­nity for ev­ery youth wrestler in Bal­ti­more to come to­gether at the same time.

The city cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment was run­ning well be­hind sched­ule. Teams had sub­mit­ted in­ac­cu­rate ros­ters. Kids had shown up at the wrong weight for their com­pe­ti­tion. The goal of Beat The Streets is not to ex­clude kids, so Henry had to shuf­fle the brack­ets to make it all work.

Cole­man gath­ered his wrestlers at one end of the gym. In their yel­low sin­glets, their hud­dle stood out against the may­hem.

“When we start, it’s time to go to war. There’s no look­ing back,” shouted Cole­man, sur­vey­ing his ath­letes, who shifted ner­vously from side to side. He thought about Dashawn, who had been un­de­feated be­fore in­jury de­railed his sea­son.

“We had cham­pi­ons who aren’t here. We have to make new cham­pi­ons,” he told the boys.

Cole­man, his 2-year-old son Pa­trick in his arms, lifted the tod­dler in the air. He was the son he had at age 23, the one he shared his name with, the one who sat tucked in his arms at matches. “Re­mem­ber, gen­tle­men, you got peo­ple that’s look­ing up to y’all,” Cole­man said. “So be lead­ers, gen­tle­men. Go hard. The true cham­pion is the per­son that never gave up.”

The event was sup­posed to be­gin at 9 a.m. By 11 a.m., wrestlers were run­ning around the bleach­ers and on the mats, laugh­ing and play­ing and act­ing out. Some were shoe­less. Some lacked uni­forms.

As direc­tor of Beat The Streets, Henry had spent the eve of the cham­pi­onships scram­bling.

In a bad co­in­ci­dence, that night was also the dead­line for a much-needed $22,000 grant that would en­sure he could run a sum­mer camp for kids from across the city. But with ev­ery­thing else go­ing on, Henry had filed the grant on dead­line at 5 p.m. — and learned as he tried to sub­mit it that it re­ally needed to be filed at 4:59 p.m.

The woman on the phone was in­sis­tent. He had been too late. That one minute cost him his grant.

Now he was walk­ing around the gym, pass­ing out se­cond­hand shoes and sin­glets to kids who had come un­pre­pared, or couldn’t af­ford their own gear. In his right hand, he held a blue bag with some 200 uni­forms he had laun­dered overnight in his wash­ing ma­chine at home. At this mo­ment, to an out­side ob­server, the tour­na­ment felt like chaos, a mess of dis­or­der and con­fu­sion.

But for Henry, the meet was a tri­umph — be­cause of all the chil­dren in that gym. He dreamed of days like this.

From Dages­tan to Bal­ti­more

Henry be­lieved the city would ex­pe­ri­ence a resur­gence of wrestling be­cause he be­lieved in the in­her­ent tough­ness of Bal­ti­more­ans. Wrestling, af­ter all, is a sport mas­tered in some of the most rugged parts of the world: in Rus­sia and Iran and Azer­bai­jan.

In Dages­tan, the mostly Mus­lim prov­ince in Rus­sia’s south­ern moun­tains known as the world’s wrestling cen­ter, of­fi­cials say the sport helps keep kids from join­ing gangs. Amer­i­can wrestling thrives in some of the coun­try’s tough­est towns, a sport mas­tered by Iowa farm boys and the sons of Penn­syl­va­nia con­struc­tion work­ers.

But is there any place in Amer­ica where peo­ple have it as rough as Bal­ti­more? If tough­ness mat­ters, Henry thought, why couldn’t more cham­pion wrestlers come out of his home­town?

Nearly a cen­tury ago, the Bal­ti­more YMCA had been a hot­bed of wrestling in Amer­ica. The leg­endary Johnny K. Eareck­son, a found­ing fa­ther of modern wrestling on the East Coast, had won a na­tional AAU ti­tle in 1929 while com­pet­ing for the Bal­ti­more Y. Doug Lee, per­haps Amer­ica’s great­est wrestler of the 1940s, wres­tled there, as did Ernie Fis­cher, who made the 1956 Olympic team. The Y on Franklin Street had long since gone de­funct. It is now the site of a ho­tel.

There are still some rem­nants of a rich wrestling tra­di­tion, sure. The McKim Cen­ter in East Bal­ti­more had taken over from the YMCA as the city’s crown jewel of the sport. McKim had fielded a team since 1955 and con­sis­tently turned out ex­cel­lent wrestlers, in­clud­ing high school na­tional cham­pi­ons Wal­ter Reed Jr. and DeShawn Bar­rett. But apart from McKim, youth wrestling be­low the high-school level in Bal­ti­more had be­come al­most non-ex­is­tent un­til Henry’s or­ga­ni­za­tion burst on the scene in 2012.

“I know what wrestling did for me. I knew what wrestling could do for kids,” Henry said. “I had a strat­egy. I dreamed it, and it worked.”

The de­mo­graph­ics of Bal­ti­more had shifted from the days of YMCA wrestling from ma­jor­ity white to ma­jor­ity black. Henry wanted the African-Amer­i­can kids of Bal­ti­more to know wrestling was an op­tion for them, too.

He made a point of re­cruit­ing the coun­try’s top black wrestlers to come to Bal­ti­more for events. He had the five-time world cham­pion Jor­dan Bur­roughs come to town for clin­ics, and NCAA fi­nal­ist Mon­tell Mar­ion worked at the Beat The Streets sum­mer camp. Black wrestlers were now some of the na­tion’s most suc­cess­ful. At a re­cent world cham­pi­onships, in which the United States team won a ti­tle for the first time in 22 years, three of the coun­try’s six medal­ists were African-Amer­i­can.

But build­ing his dream was tough. Henry of­ten found him­self pitch­ing his case to doubt­ful par­ents, chas­ing down kids who had dropped out and driv­ing oth­ers to matches when no one else could. While Beat the Streets leagues in other city ap­peared flush — places like New York City hosted high-dol­lar fundrais­ers — BTS Bal­ti­more couldn’t even af­ford the $5,000 an­nual fee to reg­is­ter as an of­fi­cial fran­chise. Henry felt the money was bet­ter used on gear the stu­dents needed to step on the mat.

“That goes a long way with kids who don’t have the ba­sics,” Henry said. “Like shoes.”

A rough start

The morn­ing of the tour­na­ment, trou­ble quickly emerged. Dakuwuan, per­haps Ban­neker Blake’s best wrestler tak­ing the mat that day, now weighed too much for the 180-pound class, so he had to bump up to heavy­weight — where he was se­ri­ously

Dashawn Hei­del­berg-Jones was the best wrestler on the Ban­neker Blake wrestling team last sea­son be­fore break­ing his an­kle. He missed the rest of the sea­son.

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Rich Vazquez, the as­sis­tant coach at Ban­neker Blake Academy, con­soles Collin Lo­max af­ter he lost a match at the Bal­ti­more City Wrestling Cham­pi­onships.

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