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