Detroit is among a dozen cities … and more … teaching the benefits of wrestling to young people
By Mike Finn
When it comes to coaching kids in wrestling, Mike Rodriguez is second to few. But even the legendary coach, who recorded over 700 wins in 50 years at Detroit Catholic Central, needed to be reminded how much the sport affects young people well outside the mat’s circle … when he helped create the “Beat the Streets” program in Detroit after retiring in 2007.
“I had one young man who came in and I had to kick him out,” said Rodriguez, now 80 years young. “Some kids have discipline problems and he was grabbing kids by the throats or tripping them.
“I said, ‘Jose, I’m going to have to get rid of you because you are not paying attention. That’s not what we are here for. We are a team. We are a family. We teach each other. We don’t do dirty things.’ ”
That happened in 2009. One year later, the young man, about 13 years old, returned to the Beat the Streets program … and so did a local social worker.
“She said, ‘Let me tell you something about Jose. He has a bad home situation. His dad is in prison for life. His mother is a (tramp) and he lives with is grandmother who is a (deadbeat)’ ” recalled Rodriguez. “I said, ‘Oh my, no wonder this kid doesn’t stand a chance.’ ”
So Rodriguez gave the young man a second chance … something that is common about the “Beat the Streets” program in Detroit … and 11 other locations around the country.
And for the past three years, Rodriguez has spent his Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays between September and December teaching the sport of wrestling with local high school wrestlers to about 100 children — primarily of Mexican origin between the ages of 9 and 14 — in the Patton Community Center in downtown Detroit.
“I want to give back to my heritage,” said Rodriguez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he grew up and eventually became a two-time All-American (1955 and ’57) at Michigan before creating a highly successful high school program at Detroit Catholic Center.
“I was blessed,” said Rodriguez, who stays active by riding his bike nearly every day. “People asked me why I was doing this. I’ve had great success as a coach and had everything in my life that I wanted to achieve.”
Rodriguez was first approached in 2007 by former Northwestern University wrestling coach Ken Kraft — who helped start a “Beat the Streets” program in Chicago — about creating a similar program in the “Mexicantown” area of Detroit.
After about a year, Rodriguez agreed and even created a business card with the “Beat the Streets” logo … but needed some financial help.
That’s when he ran into Mark Churella — another former Michigan All-American — at a recent NCAA national tournament.
“I’ve known Coach Rodriguez from the time I wrestled in high school,” said Churella, who won three NCAA championships for the Wolverines after a successful high school wrestler in Detroit competing against Rodriguez’ wrestlers. “He is someone I always respected and I admired the programs he ran at Detroit Central Catholic.
“I asked him what he was doing. He pulled out a business card that read, ‘Beat The Streets Detroit.’ I asked him, ‘How long have you been doing this and how is it going?’
“He said, ‘It hasn’t started yet. I just have a card … and am looking for someone to help me get the program going.’ ”
That’s when Churella — the father of three former Michigan wrestlers and entrepreneur in Michigan who started the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational 25 years ago — stepped up with the initial funding and helped get others to contribute to get the BTS program off the ground in Detroit.
“We developed the program and I had my marketing company develop the materials. We went out and solicited participation from a local middle school and decided the program would work with at-risk kids, ages 9-14, in that neighborhood who had never really wrestled” said Churella. “The first year we had about 25 kids and finished with about 18. The next year we jumped up to the 60-70 level. Last year, we started with 115 kids and ended up with 80.
In addition, Churella created a weekly financial allowance for the kids.
“I pay them $5 a week, based on their attitude, attendance, contribution to the program and also attending their school and doing their school work,” said Churella. “The $5 a week has turned out to be a big deal. From their perspective in that neighborhood, nobody does anything for them, unless it’s the government. This is all privately funded and I’m glad to do that.”
Churella added they are able to provide turkeys for the families of these children during Thanksgiving.
“This year we had enough turkeys donated from U.S. Foodservices that we were able to have 20 additional turkeys,” said Churella. “The kids got to select where they wanted the turkeys redirected to other families in the neighborhood. Not only do they get a sense of receiving something, but a sense of responsibility that they can give and help within their neighborhood.”
Churella pointed out that the Detroit version of Beat the Streets is different from the original concept created by Al Bevilacqua in New York City in 2004.
“His vision was to take a program and use it as the catalyst for developing middle school programs in the New York public schools,” Churella said. “The Detroit public schools are in such shambles and it would be impossible to do that.”
Despite the difference, Bevilacqua — the 72-year-old native New Yorker, former high school teacher, wrestling coach and Lifetime Service Award winner from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame — is seeing a dream come true beyond New York City; the latest being Toledo, Ohio, and Tallahassee, Fla.
“We hope to have another two or three in the next few months,” said Bevilacqua, whose idea is facilitated by USA Wrestling … and was first introduced in a guest column — entitled “Wrestling’s Last Frontier” — that appeared in WIN Magazine in 1999.
Wrestling’s Last Frontier
“When I left coaching, I wasn’t thinking so much about Beat the Streets, but the expansion of wrestling in the United States,” he said. “What does wrestling need? Very simple. All we need is more wrestlers. We don’t have enough customers.”
And Bevilacqua found those new wrestlers and fans in the New York City middle school system that did not provide wrestling as an extracurricular activity. With the help of fund-raising from “friends and families” like Bill Crum and Mike Novogratz, Bevilacqua found donated wrestling mats and coaches willing to teach wrestling. And rather than promote competitive varsity programs, he was looking for ways to show that wrestling can help kids grow.
The model program for Beat the Streets in 2004 was Simon Baruch Middle School in NYC.
“We had them track the kids’ attendance and track their grades over ten weeks,” said Bevilacqua, who eventually met with the school’s principal, impressed with the results. “She said, ‘Al, it’s the greatest program I’ve ever seen.’ ”
Seven years later, the Beat the Streets program in Detroit has grown to 34 middle schools.
And while Bevilacqua is happy for the growth of the BTS program, he admits the dream will never be fulfilled in his lifetime as wrestling struggles to grow on the college level.
“We’re in only 35 percent of the schools in America,” said Bevilacqua, who is also trying to generate federal funding to help separate programs that must first create 501C3 non-profit organizations.
“We qualify in five areas: preventing juvenile delinquency, obesity, nutrition, leadership, providing after-school activity,” said Bevilacqua, who with his son, Chris, received WIN’s Mike Chapman Impact Award in 2006 for their work in BTS. “There are so many people out there we are in competition with and now it is a political game.”
While Bevilacqua and USA Wrestling continue to promote BTS on the national level, each program looks at ways of helping BTS grow in their community.
For example in Detroit, Churella is working out a deal with a Detroit charter school Cesar Chavez Academy, which offers wrestling.
“I have been working with the Chavez school because I needed a place to matriculate the kids once they are age 14,” Churella said. “I can’t say (to the kids), ‘Good luck to you and hope you had a great experience.’ ”
“We got a piece of property donated and are planning on building a wrestling room for (Chavez Academy). Right now they are sharing a cafeteria.
“That’s the continuum of our program. Beat the Streets gives them a place to go in the neighborhood and ultimately our goal is to have a young person who successfully went through the Beat the Streets program, ended up a Ceasar Chavez, ended up going to college, whether they wrestle or not, and be part of that success.”
And for Mike Rodriguez, he hopes to help more kids like Jose, who recently thanked the coach for helping him with more than wrestling.
“That had to be one of the high points for me the past couple years,” Rodriguez said. “To see someone from such a bad background and have a spark of life. Any time you can touch a kid like that it is heart warming.”