When he was 13, Dwight Warren, a tough kid from the newly built Lafayette Courts Apartments in East Baltimore, first stepped onto a wrestling mat at Baltimore's McKim Center.
He was hooked.
"Living in public housing was rough then -- but it's much rougher now," said Warren, 43, who is in his third year as Mervo's wrestling coach. He has been the executive director of the McKim Center on East Baltimore Street for the past 22 years.
"Back then, the neighborhood had its home boys who divided their different areas, but wrestling had its way of uniting communities."
Little did Warren know how united he would become with the McKim Center: He has built his life around it.
Shortly after joining the center's wrestling team, Warren, who moved into the community as a first-grader, began working at the center, earning $1 an hour for three hours of service a day. He later wrestled for one season at Dunbar High.
Warren even met his wife, Gladys, at McKim.
"We met there, we were married there, and we christened our first child, Lakeesha [now 22] there," said Gladys, 42. "He's devoted 30 years to that place and he still loves it. Back when he started, McKim was a recreation center during the week and a church on Sunday. It was everything to the community."
So is Warren.
"He's held in such high esteem by that community, that when you go there, you can just feel it," said a recent guest speaker at McKim, Haswell Franklin, chairman of the Maryland State Wrestling Association.
"He's helped more inner city kids than anyone I know."
Warren began as the center's head wrestling coach in 1967 and became its director three years later.
While simultaneously working toward his physical education degree -- which he earned in 1975 from Morgan State -- Warren coached McKim to 10 Maryland junior league titles before leaving three years ago to coach at Mervo. Ron Jackson is his successor at McKim.
"We'd take these little inner city kids, with their beat-up shoes and raggedy uniforms, and we'd go to Baltimore County and kick butt," said Warren, recalling his early years as the center's coach.
"Until about 1972, we were the only black team in the Maryland Junior League."
Owings Mills coach Guy Pritzker was an old foe of Warren's while coaching the Randallstown/Owings Mills junior league team.
"He always had the hardest kids to work with, but he made them winners," said Pritzker. "I think he saved a lot of kids from going in the other direction. And the ones he didn't, it's not like he didn't try."
Warren's program produced such wrestlers as Southwestern's first-team All-Metro selection Walter Reed Jr., a three-time MSA champion, two-time outstanding wrestler and a national champion as a senior.
"Walter started under Dwight when he was 6 and was with him all the way until he was in eighth grade," said Walter Reed Sr., who also referees high school matches.
Other McKim alumni include former MSA champions Caldwell Veal, Reggie Green and Darren Allen -- all of Southwestern.
"Most of the kids he takes don't like to go to school," said Reed. "He brings them in off the streets, teaches them not only how to wrestle, but about ethics. How to be leaders. He's even a father and a mother sometimes, taking them home and feeding them."
Thanks to Warren, the second-annual Eastside Tournament, geared for MSA and city high school teams, was a success again this year.
And so is a Mervo program which was struggling before Warren took over. It has increased its turnout from 11 boys three years ago to 25 this year. With the help of assistant Ron Taylor, Warren has coached Mervo to three consecutive winning seasons in the MSA B Conference, including a 4-3 record heading into today's match against City College.
But his roots will always reach back to McKim.
"Back in October, I got a surprise 30-year salute when quite a few of the boys I've coached came back to McKim to honor me," Warren said. "It was quite a tearful event, because I hadn't seen some of them in about 20 years. They had all grown up and become young men."