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One team, one coach, one season in Baltimore: Trying to change kids' lives through wrestling

On that chilly Saturday morning, before the meet was about to begin, Coach Patrick Coleman pulled his young wrestling team in close. He spoke of hard work, of dedication, of never giving up. The winner’s mindset he always preached.

But injuries and suspensions had decimated the ranks of his once-promising squad of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders from East Baltimore's Banneker Blake Academy. And the junior league team they were about to face in Montgomery County had been pumping out champions for years.

Coleman, just a dozen years older than his young charges, knew they were facing a beat down. First, little Elijah Johnson took the mat for Banneker Blake. At 75 pounds, Elijah was a serious and respectful boy. His opponent from Damascus made short work of him.

Next was Michael Rawls at 95 pounds. A thoughtful student, Michael dreamed of becoming a lawyer. In nearly 30 tries on the wrestling mat, he had yet to win. This time was no different. He was pinned in under a minute.

Then came Myles Wilson at 115 pounds, who aspired to one day win the shiny wrestling trophies he saw in the glass case in a rival school’s hallway. He, too, was pinned.

The coach and his team of mostly beginner wrestlers from one of Baltimore’s two all-boys public charter schools were 40 miles from home. In that gym in Damascus, though, they might as well have been standing in a different nation. One where trash didn’t pile up on the streets. One where there was working heat in the classrooms.

That season a year ago, so many institutions in the boys’ lives seemed in jeopardy.

Their wrestling team, the best in their city league the year before, was struggling. The middle school the boys attended would soon be threatened with closure. Even the future of the city in which they lived seemed in doubt, ravaged by record high killings and drug overdoses.

A nonprofit, called Beat The Streets Baltimore, aimed to save these kids by resurrecting the sport of wrestling. The young league partners with Banneker Blake and about a dozen other city schools to give kids a place to play a sport, get academic help and develop their character.

Wrestling thrives outside of Baltimore, in other middle and high schools around the state. But in the city, basketball rules. Wrestling is almost an orphan sport.

Beat The Streets was founded six years ago by Lydell Henry, a native of West Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood. It runs the wrestling league November through March, as well as summer camps and other programs. The nonprofit has operated on a shoestring budget, without much fanfare. Yet Henry and his team of coaches like Coleman have been making inroads.

They believe in wrestling because of the values the ancient sport instills: personal responsibility, resiliency, hard work. It demands a kind of discipline, grit, and self-reliance rarely found in the modern world. It is often practiced in basements and contested in front of empty bleachers. It offers few promises of fame and riches.

The men know the wrestling team can serve as a support system for the boys — a kind of second family.

“We always tend to attract some of the toughest kids,” Henry says. “We have some really great students, but we also have some who need some extra work.”

In the gym that day, Coach Coleman looked at the scoreboard. By traditional evaluations of sports performances, the Damascus meet was a disaster.

Riding back to Baltimore, jammed together in the white van that serves as the official transport and sometimes office for the league, the boys were quiet. Coleman thought about how the kids wrestled hard and no one quit. He told the boys it was his birthday, and that their effort, against steep odds, had been a kind of present to him.

Coleman knew success would be judged not on whether these young wrestlers ended up as champions, but by whether he helped put them on the right path in life. They were boys, just middle schoolers, goofing around, struggling with their homework, wanting to hug their moms, afraid to walk home from school alone.

In the dim light of the evening bus stop, fake wrestling with each other, they could have passed for young men in a serious fight. But they were still kids, kids on the cusp of manhood in one of the toughest cities in the country.

An early victory

Just weeks before, things had looked much different for Coleman’s young team.

With two strong eighth-graders named Dashawn Heidelberg-Jones and Dakuwuan Corprew leading the way, Coleman had started practice in September — two months before other schools. He thought if he could get their technique and skills in good shape, he’d have even more time to accomplish his other mission: transfer that discipline to the classroom, and get the older ones ready for better high schools.

During an early meet against rival Baltimore Collegiate, the team had really come together. They lined up in the gym at Banneker Blake, clasping their hands together in the air to form a tunnel through which each wrestler ran as he took the mat. They had cheered each other on. If a student’s mind started to wander, the coaches urged him to think of his teammates, not himself.

They captured the win that day, and they had looked so happy. Coleman thought they had a good shot to repeat as city champions. Dashawn, the team’s leader, the one who motivated them to come to practice, to work hard, hoisted the trophy. Still in his bright yellow singlet, he held it for a photo, the rest of his teammates gathered around, holding up their index fingers: They were, at least for a time, number one.

Two weeks later, the season had started to unravel. Wrestling against Baltimore County’s Perry Hall team, Dashawn had moved so smoothly, so effortlessly. When his coaches shouted instructions from the sidelines, he executed them. This was the way Coleman remembers himself wrestling as a high school senior. He felt sure Dashawn was good enough to capture first place in the state later in the season.

This day, after winning four matches each without a loss, Dashawn and Dakuwuan had gone outside to wait for their ride. Playing around above a steep drop by the back entrance, Dashawn had decided to try out some stunts used in parkour, the sport of running and jumping over city obstacles, when he slipped and fell. The drop was 20 feet.

Dashawn started screaming. “Coach Coleman!” The coach, who had been inside the school, came running. He found Dashawn on the ground, holding his leg, crying. Part of Dashawn’s ankle bone could be seen pressing against his skin.

Coleman had a close bond with Dashawn, who reminded him of himself when he was a kid. Growing up in West Baltimore, Coleman had started off as a rebellious boy. He says he was suspended “at least” 15 times for fighting in the first grade alone. But sports helped him channel his anger. When football wasn’t everything he had hoped, he found his way into wrestling.

There, relishing the intensity, the way he would face an opponent alone on the mat, he hit his stride. He did better in school. It made him independent.

Now he was trying to stop these students from making some of his mistakes. Dashawn, as a seventh-grader, had gotten in trouble almost every day for fighting. But over the last year, his mother and others said, Coleman had taken him from a problem student to a more disciplined young man — and an exceptional wrestler.

For all the things that were hard in their lives, their school, their city, Dashawn had been his hope, the other kids’ hope. And in that moment in Perry Hall, everything changed, just as when, as a middle schooler himself, Coleman had tried a flip on a backyard mattress in the snow and got hurt, for no good reason.

“I felt like wrestling season was over. I knew it was over for him,” Coleman said. He found himself thinking about quitting as coach. He didn’t know how the other wrestlers would react. “I wasn’t sure if they were going to fall apart.”

Things got worse.

The team’s other top wrestler, Dakuwuan, might have been expected to step up. While he had struggled with fights in school, since joining wrestling his behavior had improved dramatically.

“He’s really changed his life since he’s been here,” the school’s founder, former City Councilman Carl Stokes, once said of Dakuwuan. But after Dashawn’s injury, Dakuwuan had given in to a lunch-hall tussle with a basketball player and found himself sidelined.

A team, and a city in crisis

As the team struggled last winter, their city was in even worse shape. Baltimore’s murder rate had soared in 2017 to a record high, mostly claiming the lives of young black men. And as a frigid winter set in, the city school system’s infrastructure failed in real time before the nation’s eyes. More than a third of schools lost heat, including Banneker Blake. A pipe break caused damage to the gym at Digital Harbor High, where Henry had planned to host the pinnacle event for his league, the city tournament.

The boys’ middle school was in some ways a refuge. The students at Banneker Blake were representative of the public school population of Baltimore. All were black, and most lived below the poverty line. The wrestlers were the sons of a janitor, a restaurant owner, a truck driver, a nurse. Some grew up in blocks full of vacant homes.

At school, the students dressed in sports coats and maroon and gold ties, called each other “scholars” and their principal a “headmistress.” A school system evaluation said they out-performed their peers at other schools academically.

The school, which specialized in science, math, engineering, arts and technology, offered after-school activities that boys have been shown to gravitate toward: robotics, chess, debate, basketball. And wrestling.

To be on the wrestling team, the boys had to sign a contract agreeing to keep their grades up and maintain good attendance and behavior. Coach Coleman had a study hall a few days a week and tutored them when they were struggling.

For the coaches, working with the boys was a mission squeezed into lives with their own everyday struggles.

Coleman, father of a toddler son, was at the moment without a car. So he took Maryland Transit Administration buses more than an hour each way from his home in Catonsville to get to Banneker Blake. He worked as a teacher’s assistant during the day, and after school earned a small stipend as a wrestling coach. He put in hundreds of volunteer hours beyond that. He wanted to give the boys the guidance he hadn’t always had in high school.

He says the kids are surprised when they realize how much he cares about them. “They don’t even expect it,” Coleman said.

The team’s assistant coach, Rich Vazquez, had just finished a year of treatment for bone cancer. His right side, where he’d had an operation, sometimes still hurt when he wrestled with the boys. Vazquez says that without wrestling, he might never have achieved a college degree. The sport he found as a working-class kid raised by a single mom in Pennsylvania led him to be recruited by the University of Maryland. The 2005 graduate works as a project manager at a software company.

League founder Henry has four kids to take care of at home and keeps an eye on a nephew in Sandtown. A former teacher, he too says finding wrestling as a kid changed his life. “I wasn’t a strong student, but I developed a wrestler’s mentality,” he says. He went on to earn a degree in chemistry from Morgan State.

Despite little financial support, Henry has been able to keep the league afloat. He takes just a part-time salary, and some of the coaches work for free. With no support staff much of the time, Henry often has to perform every conceivable function of the nonprofit. He officiates matches, teaches technique, washes gear and serves as van driver.

Nothing makes him prouder, he says, than to get a call from a kid who has just made the lineup on his college squad. Wrestling, Henry says, “gives you this incredibly high confidence where you think there’s nothing you can’t do. The students become disciplined and mentally tough.”

He knew the boys of Baltimore needed help. Studies have shown a divide between access to sports for rich and poor children. According to the Aspen Institute, rich kids in America are nearly three times as likely to have access to sports opportunities as poor ones. In Baltimore, for a black youth, life could be particularly tough. A Harvard study ranked the city dead last in social mobility, with the hardest-hit group being black boys — meaning that, odds are, students who start off poor will stay there.

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 helped him pay better attention in class. He also felt it gave him a big brother in Coach Coleman and a crew of friends he could eat lunch with at school.

As for Antoine, a kid who liked to joke around but was fiercely protective of his younger siblings, he had been drawn to the sport by Coleman. “He’s more than a wrestling coach,” said Antoine’s mother, Tameeka Randall. “He’s a life coach to the kids.”

Coleman and Vazquez were dedicated to making sure they helped Michael Rawls, who was shy and not a natural athlete. Sitting in the hallway, Michael wore a black shirt with WWE wrestler John Cena’s picture on it. Nervously chewing his mouthguard, he avoided eye contact. He didn’t want to talk about how he had lost all his matches the year before.

Despite comments from others in his life that perhaps he should quit the team, he would not give up.

Wrestling, he said, taught him to be humble.

“My first practice, I couldn’t do nothing. I was sweating,” he said. “It’s like the military. Once you get used to it, the stuff grows on you.”

Coleman drilled Michael, again and again, on a defensive technique known as a spin-behind that the coach thought Michael could execute at the city championships.

“We’re going to stay here till he gets that win,” Coleman said.

Those evenings, when it grew dark early, the young wrestlers would linger in the hallways, watching for Coleman to finish up for the night. They wanted to ride the bus with him. Those who lived close by wanted him by their side on the street.

“Coach Coleman,” Antoine called out one night. “My neighborhood is dangerous. Can you walk me home?”

As middle schoolers, the boys were at a crucial time of development, when peer influences becomes especially important and positive experiences are crucial. The boys had joined wrestling for different reasons, Coleman said. A few played football and wanted to be stronger, other students hoped to lose weight and be more fit, and still others were looking to learn some self-defense, wanting to protect themselves against bullies.

Coleman knew if they worked hard, they would be able to fend for themselves and develop what he learned from wrestling: courage.

The night before the city championships, some of the sixth-grade boys seemed nervous. Others, including Dakuwuan, who was back on the team and planning to compete, were confident.

“I’m going to win all my matches,” he predicted, leaning casually against rolled-up mats in the hallway.

There could be times when he sounded like a bully. “What I love about wrestling is I can hurt people without getting into trouble,” he said. “It helps me let out a lot of frustration and anger that I hold in throughout the day at school.”

Other times Dakuwuan could sound like a philosopher. “All the people I wrestle, I make ‘em cry,” he said. “Wrestling, you’re going to get hurt, you’re going to cry sometimes. I go over and tell them, ‘It’s OK, you’re still going to have more matches.’ ”

At 5 p.m. Henry called Coleman unexpectedly. Because of the lack of heating and burst pipes at Digital Harbor, he had found a new spot for the big tournament. He needed the boys to help haul the mats to City College.

The boys, now back in their ties and sports coats, started rolling up the heavy mats. With Coleman, they awkwardly lifted them, and hauled them down the stairs and to a small loading area.

It had grown cold and dark. Henry was there with the league’s white van.

Coleman would think that night about Dashawn’s injury, about the kids who had since quit. He wondered about the team’s chances. Maybe Michael could pull something off. Maybe Dakuwuan could become the city champion.

For now, the two boys with him were hungry. Coleman got them some dinner at Popeye’s.

Going to war

The next morning, the Baltimore City College gym was alive with more than 200 kids, their coaches and parents from 14 schools across the city. Some were as young as first-graders, others as old as the eighth grade. It was an opportunity for every youth wrestler in Baltimore to come together at the same time.

The city championship tournament was running well behind schedule. Teams had submitted inaccurate rosters. Kids had shown up at the wrong weight for their competition. The goal of Beat The Streets is not to exclude kids, so Henry had to shuffle the brackets to make it all work.

Coleman gathered his wrestlers at one end of the gym. In their yellow singlets, their huddle stood out against the mayhem.

“When we start, it’s time to go to war. There’s no looking back,” shouted Coleman, surveying his athletes, who shifted nervously from side to side. He thought about Dashawn, who had been undefeated before injury derailed his season.

“We had champions who aren’t here. We have to make new champions,” he told the boys.

Coleman, his 2-year-old son Patrick in his arms, lifted the toddler in the air. He was the son he had at age 23, the one he shared his name with, the one who sat tucked in his arms at matches. “Remember, gentlemen, you got people that’s looking up to y’all,” Coleman said. “So be leaders, gentlemen. Go hard. The true champion is the person that never gave up.”

The event was supposed to begin at 9 a.m. By 11 a.m., wrestlers were running around the bleachers and on the mats, laughing and playing and acting out. Some were shoeless. Some lacked uniforms.

As director of Beat The Streets, Henry had spent the eve of the championships scrambling.

In a bad coincidence, that night was also the deadline for a much-needed $22,000 grant that would ensure he could run a summer camp for kids from across the city. But with everything else going on, Henry had filed the grant on deadline at 5 p.m. — and learned as he tried to submit it that it really needed to be filed at 4:59 p.m.

The woman on the phone was insistent. He had been too late. That one minute cost him his grant.

Now he was walking around the gym, passing out secondhand shoes and singlets to kids who had come unprepared, or couldn’t afford their own gear. In his right hand, he held a blue bag with some 200 uniforms he had laundered overnight in his washing machine at home. At this moment, to an outside observer, the tournament felt like chaos, a mess of disorder and confusion.

But for Henry, the meet was a triumph — because of all the children in that gym. He dreamed of days like this.

From Dagestan to Baltimore

Henry believed the city would experience a resurgence of wrestling because he believed in the inherent toughness of Baltimoreans. Wrestling, after all, is a sport mastered in some of the most rugged parts of the world: in Russia and Iran and Azerbaijan.

In Dagestan, the mostly Muslim province in Russia’s southern mountains known as the world’s wrestling center, officials say the sport helps keep kids from joining gangs. American wrestling thrives in some of the country’s toughest towns, a sport mastered by Iowa farm boys and the sons of Pennsylvania construction workers.

But is there any place in America where people have it as rough as Baltimore? If toughness matters, Henry thought, why couldn’t more champion wrestlers come out of his hometown?

Nearly a century ago, the Baltimore YMCA had been a hotbed of wrestling in America. The legendary Johnny K. Eareckson, a founding father of modern wrestling on the East Coast, had won a national AAU title in 1929 while competing for the Baltimore Y. Doug Lee, perhaps America’s greatest wrestler of the 1940s, wrestled there, as did Ernie Fischer, who made the 1956 Olympic team. The Y on Franklin Street had long since gone defunct. It is now the site of a hotel.

There are still some remnants of a rich wrestling tradition, sure. The McKim Center in East Baltimore had taken over from the YMCA as the city’s crown jewel of the sport. McKim had fielded a team since 1955 and consistently turned out excellent wrestlers, including high school national champions Walter Reed Jr. and DeShawn Barrett. But apart from McKim, youth wrestling below the high-school level in Baltimore had become almost non-existent until Henry’s organization burst on the scene in 2012.

“I know what wrestling did for me. I knew what wrestling could do for kids,” Henry said. “I had a strategy. I dreamed it, and it worked.”

The demographics of Baltimore had shifted from the days of YMCA wrestling from majority white to majority black. Henry wanted the African-American kids of Baltimore to know wrestling was an option for them, too.

He made a point of recruiting the country’s top black wrestlers to come to Baltimore for events. He had the five-time world champion Jordan Burroughs come to town for clinics, and NCAA finalist Montell Marion worked at the Beat The Streets summer camp. Black wrestlers were now some of the nation’s most successful. At a recent world championships, in which the United States team won a title for the first time in 22 years, three of the country’s six medalists were African-American.

But building his dream was tough. Henry often found himself pitching his case to doubtful parents, chasing down kids who had dropped out and driving others to matches when no one else could. While Beat the Streets leagues in other city appeared flush — places like New York City hosted high-dollar fundraisers — BTS Baltimore couldn’t even afford the $5,000 annual fee to register as an official franchise. Henry felt the money was better used on gear the students needed to step on the mat.

“That goes a long way with kids who don’t have the basics,” Henry said. “Like shoes.”

A rough start

The morning of the tournament, trouble quickly emerged. Dakuwuan, perhaps Banneker Blake’s best wrestler taking the mat that day, now weighed too much for the 180-pound class, so he had to bump up to heavyweight — where he was seriously undersized. Other opponents in the weight-class would have nearly 100 pounds on him.

Khalil McFadden, one of four Banneker Blake heavyweights entered into the tournament alongside Dakuwuan, wasn’t so confident. He had seen the size of the other kids in the weight class. They were big and tall and strong. He announced to the team that if he had to wrestle the opponent the boys had nicknamed “the giant” — who weighed in at nearly 280 pounds — he would lie down and let himself be pinned.

Coleman, overhearing this talk, feared such a defeatist attitude would poison the team. “Technique beats strength,” he interjected.

Finally, the first whistle in a ref’s mouth blew, and then it felt like all the whistles were blowing. The matches were coming fast, and Coleman and Vazquez began running around the gym trying to keep up with their 10 athletes, some of whom were wrestling at the same time.

To observe a youth wrestling tournament in Baltimore is to watch pandemonium. Wrestling is a sport that eventually instills a stoic mindset in its adherents. But few are born that way. So, upon their first experiences on a wrestling mat, the good children of Baltimore will cry, throw fits and generally act out. Especially after a loss. The decibels in the gym rose as the first round began.

McKim had entered a squad in the tournament this year, and there was little doubt they would field the top team. Baltimore Collegiate formed a circle on an open mat, beating the ground in unison, looking serious and revved up.

First up for Banneker Blake was little Elijah, who at 75 pounds was the smallest kid on the team. He shot in aggressively against his opponent from McKim, but he was outmatched, and pinned quickly. The McKim side cheered loudly. Elijah got up with tears in his eyes. Michael tried to comfort him, but Elijah pushed him away and stormed off.

Later, Elijah would say that what really upset him was a lack of support. As he wrestled, all he’d been able to hear were the shouts for his opponent. He noticed that some of his teammates had stayed in the stands during his match. “It was hard,” he said, “because nobody was here to cheer me on.”

Then it was Michael’s turn to cry. He’d been gaining weight rapidly and could no longer make his 95-pound weight class. He would have to wrestle at 100 pounds and was scared of facing kids that size. Pinned by a boy from Cherry Hill, he walked over to a corner of the gym alone, tears running down his face.

He had been one of the first kids to join the wrestling team at Banneker Blake, and he was demoralized. His hard work never seemed to pay off. After two years, he was still winless.

Losing to a giant

Other Banneker wrestlers lost too, but then the tide started to turn. Collin Lomax, who was emerging as a leader on the team, won a match, and Azziz Grooms, a lightweight who liked to post rap videos online, pinned his opponent from Morrell Park. Sadeeq took the mat against a kid from Waverly whom he pinned in just 37 seconds. The boy reacted angrily, yelling uncontrollably. His coach picked him up, put him over his shoulder like a baby, and carried him off. “I don’t want to wrestle no more!” the boy shouted. “Get off of me!”

As the first round neared its close, spectators gathered around the mat closest to the door for a marquee matchup. Dakuwuan, undefeated at lighter weight classes, had drawn the “giant” the boys had feared at weigh-ins.

Dakuwuan remained confident.

The whistle blew and the two boys began hand-fighting. Coleman sat on his knees, little Patrick in his lap, yelling instructions. Vazquez paced back and forth. From the outset it was clear that Dakuwuan was the better wrestler. In a fair world, that should be worth something. He quickly scored two takedowns. The giant was big, but Dakuwuan was smooth. He moved his feet well; he had superior balance and agility.

“Hands up! Hands up! Snap him down!” the coaches shouted as Dakuwuan piled up points. “Get behind him!”

As the match wore on, it grew more chaotic. Dakuwuan, on top, tried to rock his huge opponent onto his back. He got sloppy with the move, and the giant boy from McHenry ended up on top of Dakuwuan, the 100-pound weight difference plain for all to see. Flat on his back, Dakuwuan fought hard, but he was too small.

The ref slapped the mat. Dakuwuan’s dream of becoming the 2018 city champion had died. He got up slowly, looking bewildered. He shook his opponent’s large hand, then patted his rival on the shoulder, as if to acknowledge he had been beaten by a better man. Then he walked around the mat aimlessly for a moment, not knowing what to do next.

A shift, and some hope

As the tournament marched on, five Banneker Blake wrestlers advanced to the championship finals: Azziz, Sadeeq, Rosano Harris, Antoine and Collin. Azziz, Rosano and Collin lost close matches to tough opponents.

At 85 pounds, Sadeeq trailed his opponent, from Baltimore Collegiate, late in the match. But he rallied in the final seconds to win 10-7. He ran over and leaped into Vazquez’s arms. Together, they jumped up and down in celebration.

Antoine’s opponent in the finals also was from Baltimore Collegiate. It was a competitive match, but Antoine controlled it for an 11-3 victory. He walked off the mat coolly, like he’d been winning tournaments all his life.

At home, Antoine wouldn’t make a big deal about the championship, but he nonchalantly suggested that his mom could text the news to a few family members who hadn’t yet been informed.

As the tournament drew to a close, several matches in the consolation round were still going on. Michael had one last chance to try to get a victory. Facing a boy from Upton, Michael was locked in a close match entering the third period. In a scramble, Michael used the techniques he’d been drilling with Coleman and scored some key points in the bout’s closing moments. When the match ended, the ref raised Michael’s hand, signaling he was the victor.

It took a few moments for the reality to register with Michael. His eyes widened, and he started jumping up and down. Then the tears started, happy tears. He hugged his opponent. He hugged his coaches. He hugged the ref. He started running around the mat, hugging random spectators.

“Two years! Two years!” Coleman shouted in catharsis. “First win! Two years!”

Every boy from Banneker Blake Academy would place at the tournament, somewhere from first to sixth, and they were leaving with two individual champions. Dakuwuan had wrestled back to take third in impressive fashion, pinning all his other opponents; little Elijah had finished fifth, defeating boys from Dickey Hill and McKim; and Michael, after gaining his first victory, had received a forfeit in his next match, giving him his second official win, and landing him in third place in his class.

As a team, McKim had won the tournament easily. But in wrestling, there’s an old saying that the toughest guy in the tournament isn’t the guy who wins; it’s the guy who gets third. That’s because of the grit needed for an athlete to wrestle back after suffering an early loss.

So it was fitting that Banneker Blake, even missing Dashawn, had finished third.

“We know how to lose while trying your best,” Coleman said. “That’s a victory in my book.”

A man’s voice came over the loudspeaker, shouting instructions at the kids to come down and line up together at the end of the gym.

Henry surveyed his handiwork, 200 kids from across Baltimore. There were times he didn’t know if he could do it another year. But after six years of work, he could see his impact — better wrestling at the high school level. His alma mater, Dunbar, has resurrected its team, and a heavyweight there, Jorden Pryor, had just captured his second state title. Events like this tournament at City College helped create the environment for that resurgence.

Henry raised up his phone, smiled at the young athletes, and took a group picture.

A tough call

The next week, the boys from Banneker Blake carried themselves with a little more confidence. In the cafeteria for lunch, they traded oranges and chocolate milk and munched cheeseburgers, teasing and laughing.

Brendan Meng, an eighth-grade science teacher, had noticed how close the boys had grown from wrestling. “You see the teamwork. How it can establish these significant and deep bonds of friendship,” he said. “Without wrestling, some are very disruptive students. It’s night and day when they join wrestling. They influence others. It gives the boys a tremendous sense of self-esteem.”

For many of them the city championships would mark the end of their season, but for the more ambitious ones like Dakuwuan, there were still regional, state and national meets.

Amid the banter, the boys were dealing with scary news.

Despite Banneker’s relatively high test scores, city school officials were eyeballing the middle school for closure. They’d cited shaky finances and non-compliance with requirements for disabled students. The next week, the school board was set to vote on whether to close down Banneker Blake Academy.

Inside his office at the school, Carl Stokes said the proposal to close down Banneker had shaken him. He had been crying. He felt terrible telling the boys.

Stokes had founded the school, which was named after African-American geniuses Benjamin Banneker and Eubie Blake, to try to break what he saw as a never-ending cycle in Baltimore of broken families and failing schools — problems that hit boys the hardest. Stokes and the other men who launched the school had decided to forgo salaries and pumped all their money into the classrooms, providing longer days, summer sessions, extra tutors and small class sizes.

Ninety percent of the boys who entered the school were below grade-level, but after extra tutoring and academics extended into the night and summer, test scores showed they were out-performing their peer schools. These decisions had left Banneker Blake with just $35,000 in the bank, a figure the school system considered shockingly low and borderline irresponsible.

“We put our money in the classroom,” said Edwin Johnson, another of the founders. “None of us get paid. I’m the CFO. I wear the same outfit as the students.”

But Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises was confronting too many schools with aging infrastructure that were part empty. Schools had to be closed, and she had to make tough calls. In this case, she cited the finances and special education services as the reasons to consider closing Banneker Blake.

Stokes defended how things had been done and rallied the students, including some of the wrestlers, along with parents, Coach Coleman and others to attend the school board meeting. They managed to get a one-year extension — but the fact that the school was on probation meant many families would leave in the months to come.

Last man standing

By spring, Dakuwuan was the last one standing. The coaches knew he had the potential to do well at the regional and state meets, so they kept on him. That wasn’t always the easiest task. Like all middle schoolers, he could be moody and sometimes ignored Coleman’s instructions.

At the Maryland Junior Wrestling League championships, Dakuwuan found himself in a familiar situation. He had blown his first match of the day, losing to a kid from the Navy Juniors wrestling team that the coaches were sure he should have beaten. Now he would need to win multiple matches in a row to finish in third.

Dakuwuan lay down in the stands, a Star Wars hoodie over his head, his hands in his pockets. He had helped his family move furniture the night before, from one apartment to another in East Baltimore. He was exhausted. So many times like this, he had almost quit, but Coleman, Vazquez and Henry wouldn’t let him.

“Are you gonna come back and get third? Yes or no?” Coleman asked him. He had little Patrick napping in his arms.

In his first match of the wrestlebacks, Dakuwuan looked like a man on a mission. Just as Coleman had instructed, he attacked relentlessly. When he looked up at the scoreboard, he had won 16-0.

He put his hands on his hips as he walked off the mat.

“That’s the best I’ve seen you wrestle all year,” Vazquez said.

Dakuwuan sat in the stands breathing heavily. In the next round, he would have a rematch with the Manchester kid who had bested him for the regional title. This time would be different, Dakuwuan vowed, and he won with a deciding takedown in overtime.

Now he advanced to the third-place match. A win here and he could prove many people wrong about him. He did have grit. He could come back.

Henry beat his fist rhythmically against the stands as Dakuwuan walked out to the bronze medal match.

“Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!”

Dakuwuan and his opponent were evenly matched through the first two periods. With a minute left in the contest, he took a risk. He shot in and tried to drive his large opponent across the mat and to his back. They landed out of bounds. Dakuwuan lay on his back, exhausted.

“C’mon Dakuwuan! Let’s go!” Henry shouted. “Get up!” Coleman motioned.

There were only 45 seconds left in the match.

Dakuwuan got back to his feet, and what happened next, happened fast. He spun behind his opponent and flipped him over for a pin. The ref slapped the mat.

“Who would have thought?” Coleman said. “Dakuwuan is third in the state.”

Off the corners, on the mats

That spring of 2018, the boys of the Banneker Blake Academy wrestling team were trying to finish their eighth-grade year strong. Azziz, Sadeeq and Rosano all presented at the Morgan State University Regional Science and Engineering Fair. In the afternoons, Henry criss-crossed the city in the league’s white van, driving some of the BBA wrestlers and others to a spring session of practices.

Other wrestlers would go on to the league’s summer camp which, despite losing the grant, Henry managed to hold together by cutting back on meals provided the year before.

And with a new chair, former Stanford wrestler Rudy Ruiz, Beat The Streets Baltimore is working to raise more money. They’ve also signed some new contracts through Medicaid in which coaches will act as counselors, with year-round contact with the kids. More girls are starting to join the league. Henry is optimistic.

He has a favorite motto: “Off the corners. On the mats. Off to college.” In a feat, given the odds, many Beat The Streets kids have gone on to college — including 23, or 87 percent, from its very first summer camp in 2012.

This is where the program measures its success.

So even after the season, during last spring, summer and early fall, Coleman and Henry worked the phones, looked at grades and test scores, and talked to Banneker Blake’s eighth-grade wrestlers, trying to figure out where each could land. The goal was to get the boys into better high schools than they would have managed without wrestling and its discipline.

The coaches are now working with Dashawn, who has healed, to switch him to a high school where he can wrestle. His stepdad, Christopher Brown, said even with the injury and missed season last year, the sport has had a huge effect on him. “Before he had the mind state of a wild person,” Brown said. “Now he’s becoming a man.”

This winter, in their new high schools, some BBA graduates are wrestling: Collin Lomax at Mergenthaler Vocational Tech, Dakuwuan at Reginald F. Lewis.

“I don’t know where I would be without wrestling,” Dakuwuan said recently, describing how many times Henry, Coach Coleman and Vazquez stopped him from quitting or drove him to matches. He says he’s keeping his grades up.

Banneker Blake’s outcome is different. The school board voted to close the school at the end of this academic year, although Stokes is appealing that decision. It now has a new wrestling coach, because Coleman moved to a different school.

On a recent Friday, Coleman took his new team of 18 boys from Pimlico Elementary/Middle School to a match at the University of Maryland College Park. The students got to see a university for the first time and hear from college wrestlers from Baltimore. Coleman, now a gym teacher and a de-escalation specialist at a local hospital, said he missed working with the boys from Banneker Blake.

But he has a fresh start — and a new group of boys to help guide away from the streets of Baltimore.

That day, they lost their match at College Park — some of them badly — much like Coleman’s Banneker Blake squad a year earlier.

One small boy, in particular, had suffered an embarrassing defeat.

But Coleman knew, and he wanted the boys to know, that where you start in life isn’t where you have to end up.

He huddled the boys in tight.

“You’re just getting started,” Coleman said, his voice swelling with a mix of hope and resolve. “You’re at the beginning.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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