Bruce Pendles recalls being an impish, 60-pound, 12-year-old wrestler in the McKim Center's program, when a new assistant coach, Jerome Featherstone, told him to get serious.
"When he first came, he saw that me and a couple of other guys kept playing around. We had our confrontations and he ended up kicking me off the team for three weeks," said Pendles.
"But there was something I didn't know about him. Being from the projects, he knew my grandmother -- and he kept talking to her about me. After a while, we got close."
As a Dunbar freshman two years ago, Pendles went unbeaten and became the Poets' youngest Maryland Scholastic Association state champion. Last year, he won the City-Wide crown, finished second in both the MSAs and regional tournaments and was fourth in the 1A-2A state meet.
Barely 118 pounds, Pendles displays a toughness that belies his stature, snapping punts as a center on the Poets' 11th-ranked football team. Getting good grades are equally important.
The attitude, said Pendles, comes from things Featherstone emphasized.
"He told me things like 'you can be a leader,' and no one had ever told me that before," said Pendles, a junior. "He always let me know what I meant to the team. At first, I didn't believe him, but he straightened me out."
Those are the things Featherstone's mother always told him growing up. His younger brother didn't listen, and he's been incarcerated for 14 years.
"Police used to come to my house looking for him when we were kids growing up in the East Baltimore projects -- I don't want to see kids go through that," said Featherstone, a muscular 5 feet 10, 190 pounds.
Like many kids in the McKim Center's recreation wrestling program, Featherstone, 33, lacked a father figure during his childhood matches at McKim and Mervo.
In his fourth year as the center's assistant coach to Ron Jackson last winter, he helped the Blue Knights win their first Maryland Duals Junior League state title in 15 years.
Jackson listed City-Wide champ Maurice Simmons, a senior at Edmondson and a former junior league state champ, Dunbar sophomore Doug Hampton, a junior league runner-up, and former juniors state champ Ronnie Powell among several McKim alumni who benefited from Featherstone's guidance.
"He's pretty strict, and I really saw him blossom this past year as a coach," said Jackson, whose other assistant is Tyrone Bowie. "He's seen where kids can get to, and he can get them to step back a little and learn a little bit about it."
In the weeks after winning the states, however, a 15-year-old wrestler was arrested for auto theft; another, 13, on a handgun charge.
As a deputy sheriff in Howard County, Featherstone found himself grappling with his loyalties.
"Coaching can be frustrating, even draining," said Featherstone, city resident until mid-August when he completed the construction of a house in Harford County.
"Out of about 40 kids in last year's McKim program, about three or four have father figures in their lives. I know that these kids look up to me," he said. "If I stopped coaching, I feel like I'd be letting somebody down."
Featherstone considers his job as a coach, a deputy sheriff, a father to his three children and a husband to his wife, Pamela, the assets of making positive choices.
Since graduating from Mervo in the late 1970s, he has seen three childhood friends die. Another 25 or so have been incarcerated at some point.
"Coming from his background, Jerome had a very serious nature about him. But he was basically a young man without a father, so I took an interest in being that figure," said Mervo coach Dwight Warren, who coached at McKim for 18 years until 1985.
"The grounds were laid for him to pursue a different life and be responsible. He's an excellent family man and he's continued to have good morals throughout his life."
Featherstone was a three-sport athlete at Mervo, twice placing third in the MSA wrestling tournament.
Featherstone spent years in the state penitentiary and the Baltimore County Detention Center -- only because he worked there. He spent five years in Howard County's police academy and is in his fifth year as deputy sheriff.
Among his duties is transporting prisoners to and from court appearances.
Often, they are teen-agers such as Bernard Eric Miller, 17, one of the two men convicted in the highly publicized car-jacking death of Dr. Pamela Basu.
"If you're right, I'll fight for you. But if you're wrong, you've got to bite the bullet," Featherstone said. "We all have choices. But if it wasn't for wrestling and the things I learned from it, I don't know where I'd be."