Taking it out on the mat
With just weeks to go before the biggest meet of the year, the city championships in February, Coach Coleman needed to get his team turned around. That meant getting Dakuwuan back in the lineup, and getting the rest of the team to believe they would win without the injured Dashawn.
He described later how he felt: “I’m not really as confident in the season as I was, but we’re going to finish the season out to the max.”
On yellow-lined paper on the wall of the Banneker Blake wrestling room, he had taken a black Sharpie and written out these rules:
1. Pay attention
2. Follow directions
3. Respect everyone
4. Steel sharpen steel.
The last line captures the idea that a wrestler can’t truly get better unless pushed by a teammate — the belief that all are responsible for each other's success.
So in those days before the championships, Coleman and Vazquez ran tough practices in the school’s stuffy gym. They paired off wrestlers with teammates of roughly equal skills, drilling the moves. They built up the boys’ conditioning. They practiced ankle picks (grabbing an opponent’s ankle to take him down) and chain wrestling (flowing from one technique to the next).
“Now is the time to push yourself!” Vazquez said. “So when you get out on the mat, it’s nothing!”
During one practice, Coleman got the boys in push-up formation. Together, they went up and down in unison, beads of sweat dripping off their noses.
“I Will!” Coleman shouted.
“I Will!” the boys echoed.
“Not Give Up!”
“Not Give Up!”
He schooled them in holding in their frustration, and any anger they might feel from classes, home, or other kids, until after school. Then they could take it all out on the wrestling mat.
The coaches were seeing promise in two eighth-graders, Antoine McCall and Sadeeq Biggers. Maybe they could help fill the hole left by Dashawn?
Sadeeq, a chess player, had joined the team when he wandered into the room one day and was treated with hostility by wrestlers who didn’t want him walking on the mat in his street shoes. “I wanted to prove I could get on the mat,” he said. The sport