Lean, lanky and mild-mannered, Charles Bellmeyer may not look like a winning wrestler. But the 24-year-old's determination, persistence and pure grit have made him a champion in the eyes of more than a few young men in Aberdeen.
Mr. Bellmeyer, a construction supervisor for Landmark Homes by day, spends his evenings coaching kids 4 to 14 in the mechanics of wrestling. Four months of the year he coaches the Aberdeen team of Harford County's Parks and Recreation Council. And when that season's over, he gathers together a team to compete in tournaments the rest of the year.
Many of his young charges are below-average students; some don't get much encouragement from home to attend school, let alone to pursue extracurricular challenges. Others are attracted
to wrestling because it condones a kind of hand-to-hand combat, something they're not unfamiliar with on the streets.
No problem, says Mr. Bellmeyer, who prefers "Buster," a nickname he picked up in childhood. That's what wrestling is all about.
"It's a one-on-one sport," he says. "Wrestling allows individual kids to make it on their own guts and commitment. If they're good enough, there's nothing to get in their way."
And winning can give them a start on the road to self-esteem, he says. That's why he can be found most evenings in the Aberdeen High School gym, teaching elementary and middle school boys take-downs, reverses and pinning combinations.
Now, they're practicing twice a week for a state tournament in Annapolis Saturday. The post-season competition is expected to draw 400 contestants from around the state. Aberdeen will be entering 40 boys, ages 6 to 14, in the Amateur Athletic Union event.
Between warnings of when the ref might cry "foul" or what move the opponent might try to slip in next, Mr. Bellmeyer slips in a little fatherly advice -- about being fair, about having a positive outlook on life, about taking responsibility for one's actions. After practice, he reminds the youngsters to work on their grades or next practice session they'll spend the evening being tutored by a parent volunteer instead of working on leg rides.
He has no trouble attracting kids. Nearly 80 turned out for the 1992-93 Parks and Recreation season, which runs from November through February.
And that doesn't include older youths -- Aberdeen High School wrestlers who, having gone through the junior league program with Mr. Bellmeyer, occasionally return for advice and wrestling tips.
"Buster is one of those success stories that high school wrestling is all about," says Dick Slutzky, Aberdeen High School's wrestling coach. He recalls the 1986 Aberdeen graduate as "a better-than-average wrestler. He wasn't a champion, but he was solid."
Moreover, he says, Mr. Bellmeyer was "a kid who was rough on the edges, had little family direction and no ingrained study habits and would just as soon fight as not."
"But wrestling gave him a cause and something to feel successful at," Mr. Slutzky says.
Indeed, Mr. Bellmeyer admits that he was often "on the brink.His parents divorced when he was 9 and split up the kids. He spent much of his childhood angry at the world. "I think wrestling was the only thing that kept me in school," he says.
Today he is married, has a 15-month-old son and makes a living supervising subcontractors on homebuilding sites. He likes to think wrestling will be the salvation of other youngsters, too.
And it has been, he says, ticking off his team's accomplishments: 52 team trophies and "probably about a thousand individual ones" since he began parks and rec coaching in 1988; 21 first-place winners last month in the annual countywide tournament; invitations to tournaments as far away as Florida.
"We give kids a chance to see parts of the world they might never see," he says. In his five years as coach, Mr. Bellmeyer and his three assistant coaches have taken boys to tournaments in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia and North Carolina -- mostly on their own time and with money donated by local sponsors.
"This year our goal was to win the 'counties' by 100 points," he says. His wrestlers more than accomplished that at the Harford County Parks and Recreation finals Feb. 13. With a team total of 364 points, they outscored runner-up Fallston by 202 points. "But our ultimate goal is to make them great adults," says Mr. Bellmeyer.
He's doing a pretty good job with her two boys, says JoAnn Asmussen, a single parent. "Buster is the only father figure in their lives right now," she says.
Her son John Bealefeld, 14, has been wrestling two years. His brother, Joseph, 9, joined this year.
"My oldest son rarely loses, but this is Joe's first year," she says. "If he loses, Buster puts his arm around him and says, 'That's OK. You did good. Maybe next time.' "
"That's the thing about Buster," says Jerry Lacey, chairman of the Aberdeen Parks and Recreation wrestling program. "He knows winning isn't everything. The only time I ever saw him get upset was not over winning or losing but when the kids weren't following rules of behavior."
Along with the program's successes, there have been setbacks.
"We can lose up to 50 percent of them in a year," Mr. Bellmeyer says of the youngsters who drop out for any number of reasons: The family moves out of the area, they fall in with a bad crowd, or they just give up on school and wrestling.
"In many cases, you're helping kids that never go on to wrestle in high school," says Mr. Lacey. "But it's about more than wrestling. You're teaching them values that, hopefully, they will keep with them."