Baltimore native Lydell Henry, 36, has been around wrestling his whole life. But everywhere he went, wrestling was disappearing.
A 1995 graduate of Dunbar High, Henry placed second in the Maryland Scholastic Association tournament his junior year. He went on to wrestle at Morgan State, but in 1996, the school dropped the program. In 2002, Dunbar also eliminated wrestling.
To restore Baltimore as a place where wrestlers can thrive, he and Hermondoz Thompson, also a 1995 Dunbar graduate, co-founded Beat the Streets — Baltimore in 2011.
"I want to change the culture" in Baltimore City, Henry said.
Henry, a substitute teacher and executive director of Beat the Streets — Baltimore, pitched his idea and persuaded four elementary/middle school principals to implement the after-school wrestling program in their schools in 2012. This past year, 10 elementary/middle schools, plus Dunbar and Digital Harbor high schools, participated. Nearly 300 students are involved.
The nonprofit program uses wrestling as a "hook" to get students involved in the sport, but it also engages them in academics and pushes students to tutoring and mentoring programs.
The season finale was this month, when Beat the Streets hosted its first Baltimore City Elementary/Middle School Championship at Digital Harbor for the 10 school programs and three community teams. One hundred sixty-three Baltimore City students wrestled in the tournament.
"The goal is to springboard them into college, to develop their characteristics, such as the discipline," Henry said. "You start to see them perform better in class. They can transfer that energy that they put into wrestling and carry that over to the classroom. [Wrestling develops] a whole myriad of different characteristics that impact them, and it teaches so many life lessons."
Through a partnership with Loyola Maryland that started in January, graduate students tutor the high school athletes in Algebra I and Algebra II after school on Thursdays. Henry hopes to expand the tutoring program to every elementary/middle school in the future.
"What we're trying to do is make them a well-rounded person and able to give back to the community," said Thompson, who is the program director and developed its website. "We want to make them productive citizens. … We want to create well-rounded students through wrestling, the mentoring, the tutoring, positive values, positive environment.
"It's working. We see in some of the kids, where they're coming from, because it's low-income [areas where] most of the kids are from and they've never seen this, they've never been a part of something like this. It's new, and to change the paradigm and their focus and what they see in their daily lives and how they should act, that certain behaviors aren't the best — we're trying to make them see that."
Through grants, scholarships, fundraisers and help from leaders of Beat the Streets programs from other states, Henry collected enough money to pay coaches and enter students in out-of-state wrestling tournaments while providing transportation, funding dual meets between city teams and extending opportunities to community-based wrestling programs.
Mike Novogratz of New York, founder and chairman of Beat the Streets, gave the Baltimore program a $10,000 grant to purchase mats. Adidas donated shoes and headgear. Tiffin Mats donated mats and allows the program to store them in schools.
Henry brought 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs to Baltimore for a 12-day Beat the Streets — Baltimore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) wrestling camp last summer. The free camp at Morgan State included 40 hours of wrestling with Burroughs as a technician, 30 hours of scientific research and 12 hours of math development for 80 kids. Participants stayed overnight at the university, introducing them to dormitory life.
When Henry pitched his idea to Friendship Academy at Cherry Hill principal Tracey Garrett two years ago, she said, there were about 55 kids interested after watching videos and a slide show Henry put together. Although only about eight boys stayed on the team throughout last season, there are about 20 this year.
"Their first home match, they won, so that just got the momentum, and more boys were interested at that time," Garrett said. "They not only learn the discipline of the sport, but there's a lot of scholarships in this field, and typically we don't see a lot of African-Americans in wrestling, so we wanted to expose the boys to other sports other than basketball and football."
Friendship hosted two of its eight dual meets, and Garrett said the gym was packed with students, staff and parents. But the biggest impact, she said, has been an improvement in the participants' grades.
"They know they have to maintain their grades to continue participating, so their report cards are checked by coach Phil [Pass], and he asks teachers if they have concerns" academically, Garrett said.
Said Pass, a two-time MSA champion from Poly and a Cherry Hill native: "These kids need father figures, and it's my opportunity to give back. It's been a great thing. I hope more people can invest in this so we can continue to do this."
Seventh-grader Tiflun Dorsey-Bey of Booker T. Washington Middle School started wrestling last year but won only two matches. This year, he improved to five wins, including a tournament title. In high school at either City or Poly, he hopes to "get good grades, a high school diploma and a wrestling scholarship."
Alex James said his son, Khari, an eighth-grader who has been wrestling for a year at The Stadium School, has reaped the benefits of the program because it has brought together athletics and academics.
"It's really about grades, but the physical part is second," James said, "but having them together is a great achievement of the program."
The next generation
Wavie Gibson, who has coached at Poly for 15 years, was at the city championship to see the program firsthand.
"I came in here and I looked. If it were not for Beat the Streets, this many kids would not have been exposed to wrestling," Gibson said. "That's a big thing."
He said he's "lucky" if he gets one student-athlete with wrestling experience before high school every three years. He finished the season with 18 wrestlers, but Poly doesn't field a junior varsity, something he hopes will change with programs such as Beat the Streets exposing kids to wrestling at an earlier age.
"Even if you get only two or three kids a year [from this program], they build and then their friends get involved, little brother get involved. It's just a trickle effect," Gibson said.
Although Henry hopes to extend the program to every school in Baltimore City eventually, he said he expects the expansion to slow while he fine-tunes its operation. The offseason will include an array of competitions, including the Beat the Streets Gala in Times Square in New York; the National High School Coaches Association High School Nationals in Virginia Beach, Va.; and the Eastern Nationals in Salisbury.
This summer, there will be two Beat the Streets — Baltimore STEM wrestling camps in June, the first for high school students and the second for middle school students.
"Our intent is to have programming for the entire summer for kids who want to get better and continue to train," Henry said.