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By WIN Columnist Sandy Stevens
This story about a dedicated coach and his struggle to start a wrestling program in an inner-city high school is almost unfathomable.
At its center is 38-year-old Ray Sessions, born and raised in Arkansas, where football is king.
And Ray played football at Little Rock Central High School and on scholarship at the University of Central Arkansas while earning an English degree with a secondary education emphasis and a minor in journalism.
But he never wrestled. “We’ve had wrestling here in the state for only a short time,” he explained.
Since graduating, Ray has coached football and a variety of other sports. In the last six years, however, he’s also started wrestling programs at three Arkansas high schools — Conway, Woodlawn and McClellan.
The challenges he faced last fall at McClellan, a Little Rock school with nearly 1,000 10th through 12th graders, were mind-boggling.
His entire budget to start the wrestling program: $200. Ray’s team competed all of December in T-shirts and compression shorts. Team members shared the only two sets of headgear Ray’s wife Sandra found at a sporting goods store and the two pairs of size 13 wrestling shoes Ray discovered.
“Even our 106-pounder who wears size 8 ½ wore the 13s,” Ray said.
“Headgear costs about $20, the cheapest shoes about $40,” he said, noting that 99 percent of McClellan students are African-American. “Not many kids in our school can afford that $60. My wife called over 200 businesses for donations and got 197 ‘no’s.’”
Finally, All-American Sporting Goods extended credit for $2,400 worth of singlets, shoes and headgear. Ray, a father of five ages 5 to 11, paid half the cost himself.
“My daughter didn’t get a birthday present last year,” he said. “When I say we’re in wrestling, the whole family is, and she understands it.”
A donor eventually covered the cost of the singlets, but help also came from another unexpected source: parents of wrestlers from an opposing school, Central Arkansas Christian.
“Your boys are doing a great job of changing the perception of your school,” a CAC parent said. “We’d like to help.”
Their donations totaled $950.
Still, before every meet, Ray’s wife, who also serves as the team statistician, bought $70 to $80 worth of snacks, drinks and sometimes pizza for the team. The Sessions children made special pins for their wrestlers who scored falls.
Beyond the financial challenges, all of McClellan’s wrestlers ride buses to school, but the buses run only when school is open, Ray said.
“For Saturday tournaments, most of the boys spent Friday night at my house so I could guarantee they would get to school. My wife helped shuttle them,” he said.
“The weekend of State, all of them stayed. We were out of school so I had them here for three days.”
McClellan ended its first season with a squad of 28, an eighth-place finish in state and two freshmen and a sophomore claiming all-state honors.
At all three schools where he’s started wrestling programs, Ray has turned to fellow coaches and another sport he coaches for help.
The first day of wrestling at McClellan, for example, 20 boys showed up. “But we were practicing in the football facility, when the head football coach walked in,” Ray said. “He (then) walked into the weight room — and I had 15 more!
“We made wrestling part of off-season football. Every kid weighing 160 and under would start in the wrestling room; 90 minutes later, they’d swap.
“After our McClellan basketball team won the state championship, the coach commented to others, ‘Wrestling’s the best thing that’s happened to our school.’”
Ray started his first program in 2008 at Conway, the fourth largest school in the state, after the athletic director walked in and declared, “We’re starting wrestling. You’re going to coach it.”
“I’d seen wrestling a little bit,” Ray said. “I thought, that’ll be good enough for us; nobody else knows anything about it. Next thing I know, I had boxes of uniforms.
“I was new at it, but I believe coaching is coaching. If you know how to coach, you know how to motivate. The first thing I did was read the rule book and the case book, cover to cover, twice.”
Community support amazed him.
“A lot who had wrestled in high school and college had relocated to the area,” Ray said. “They were just waiting for something to happen so they could help. I actually interviewed for assistant coaches.”
Ray recruited wrestlers by walking the sidelines at football practices, targeting kids who weren’t playing.
“Do you play basketball?” he’d ask. “No? OK, you need to wrestle.”
A sophomore 130-pounder who’d never played a down on the gridiron placed third in the state wrestling tournament that year.
Other coaches steered those they cut to wrestling. “It was a collaborative effort,” Ray said.
By the end of Conway’s third year of competition, more than 70 wrestlers made up the team. “If there were three tournaments one weekend, we went to all three,” Ray said. “Any opportunity to get kids wrestling, we did it.”
They captured the state trophy in 2011.
What is it about wrestling that has captured this coach, a lifelong football fan?
“It’s a lot more intimate,” he said. “You know every kid you’re coaching; their wins and their losses you can share in. You feel their wins and their losses a lot more than in football.
“You get a kid in football who can run fast. At the end of the year, he’s still going to run fast, but in wrestling, you’re seeing progress.
“A kid might start off 0-7, and then look! He’s won his last eight matches! You can see them develop a lot better.”
Now his passion for the sport extends throughout Ray’s family
When he moved to Woodlawn, a 2A school south of Little Rock, he came as the head football coach with a guarantee to start a wrestling program the next year.
“That first year, it seemed like the winter dragged on,” he recalled. “One night, I said to my wife, ‘Do you want to go to a movie or something?’
“Honestly,” she said, “I miss wrestling. Let’s go to a wrestling meet.”
(This article appeared in the April 30, 2014 issue of WIN Magazine.)