Huntsville

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I was never going to write this blog initially, but recent events in our country made me change my mind. I think it is important that I do.

It is no secret to those who know me or who have read some of my other blogs that wrestling has been an important part of my life. I was a decent high school wrestler and had a fantastic mentor and coach from whom I learned some great leadership skills. I always valued that it was up to me to make myself successful, and that is probably the same reason why I got into sales as a career. The harder I worked, the better I would be.

Wrestling is a very challenging sport. It teaches you discipline, hard work, and how to deal with failure. Going to high school with a lot of overachieving kids, I learned to deal with failure all the time. But no experience taught me more about failure than wrestling. And that remained true even when I walked on to a Division 1 program in college, started on the team for a couple seasons, got my butt kicked, and eventually quit the team.

To this day, wrestling still remains a big part of my life. I often go back to my high school – Roxbury Latin – a private, all-boys school in Boston, to give a helping hand with the coaching. Despite not making it through four years of wrestling at Princeton, I am an ardent supporter of the program and travel nationwide during the season to watch the team wrestle its dual meets and of course, the NCAA Tournament. I spend a good deal of time with other wrestling alumni from both high school and college and I enjoy keeping up with the sport at both the collegiate and Olympic levels. In fact, I was supposed to go to Tokyo this summer to watch the USA Wrestling Team in the Olympics, but COVID threw a wrench in those plans.

The New England Prep School wrestling community is pretty small and somewhat sheltered. Anyone who is anyone in that scene knows who everyone else is. As such, I had formed some loose friendships with wrestlers on other teams, because we would run into each other all the time at different tournaments. One of those people I knew loosely from my time at Roxbury Latin was a boy named Chris Scribner, who was a student at St. Paul’s, which had a program that was fairly competitive with ours. Chris was expelled from St. Paul’s for issues with drugs and alcohol, so at some point, I stopped seeing him around, but remained friends with him on Facebook.

Over the last several years, I caught glimpses of what Chris was up to. It had appeared that Chris had moved to Huntsville, Alabama for Teach for America and that he had helped to start a wrestling program at one of the city’s failing schools. It was such a departure from what his life had been like before that I had assumed that he must have had some sort of “come to God” moment to change his life. He had been a relatively privileged kid from Manhattan who was afforded the opportunity to go to an elite prep school, did not make it through, and then seemingly turned his life completely around to do the utmost good for everyone around him. I remember constantly being impressed by things he would post about the work he was doing. Mind you, he was never looking for praise or acclaim – just merely sharing the accomplishments of his team. As someone who has always been interested in coaching, and having gone to a high school whose motto was “To those whom much has been given, much will be expected,” I really looked up to what Chris was doing.

Last year, I caught wind of a documentary called “Wrestle” that had come out and focused on four boys who Chris was coaching. Initially, Chris had reached out to me randomly to let me know it was going to be screening in my area and he was looking for me to help spread the word to my network of Princeton and Roxbury Latin wrestlers, since he was doing some fundraising for the program. I eventually sat down and watched the documentary at home.

The documentary is excellent. It focuses on four teenage boys who have unique challenges dealing with school, wrestling, and just being teenagers in a low-income, fairly racially segregated town. There is Jamario, whose girlfriend is pregnant with their child. There is Jaquan, who is being raised by a single mother. There is Jailen, who never knew his mother, is being raised by his grandparents, and who was homeless through much of his time in high school. And then there is Teague, the only white boy, who struggles with ADHD, mood swings, and marijuana addiction.

I do not want to give away what happens in the documentary, but suffice it to say it is immensely inspiring. What is inspiring is not just the work that Chris does to be a role model and coach for these young men, but even more so the hardship and endurance that is exhibited by these kids. Succinctly, they face very real, adult problems at a very young age and do so with great aplomb. The documentary has fantastic commentary on race, socioeconomics, and yes, of course, wrestling as a conduit to success.

I was so inspired by the documentary that I reached out to Chris afterwards to tell him how impressed I was with everything he was doing. Mind you, I had not really had a conversation with Chris in over fifteen years and truly I barely knew him anyway. We ended up speaking on the phone for nearly an hour, at which point I offered to come down during the next season so that I could see what he was doing for myself and so that maybe I could help out with the coaching a little bit.

Months went by but I never forgot about my promise to visit Huntsville. During that time, I interviewed Chris for a podcast, and I also interviewed Jailen in a follow up episode. I was struck by the way they both seemed so balanced in their perspectives. Chris was inspirational in acknowledging the mistakes of his past and his responsibility to give back to the world. Jailen was even more inspirational as he talked about how he got himself through high school and a full ride to Berea College even though he was homeless for much of the time. Eventually, I settled on some dates with Chris and booked my travel for January of 2020. Not really knowing what to expect, I prepared to see just about anything.

After a long day of travel, Chris picked me up at the airport. He was really excited to bring “an outsider” in to see what they were doing and to help brainstorm ways to keep the program alive and thriving. Chris had been doing the coaching while pursuing a law degree at Vanderbilt University in Nashville hours away, so he would drive back and forth from school to practice to make sure that everything was in order. He explained to me who the other coaches were on the team, and then he proceeded to drive me around town.

We went to a couple of stores so that he could pick up wrestling shoes for members of the team. Most members of the team could not afford them. I remember asking Chris if the program had a budget that he was using to pay for the hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise. He told me that he was paying for it himself and that he did not mind. Since he was not working and paying much in taxes, he felt that he could afford to give back this way.

Chris had to run several errands before the match that was planned that evening, and that included coordinating an event for Senior Night, which involved writing speeches about all the seniors on the team, making sure their parents would be there for the special event, and ensuring that there would be enough food and beverage afterwards for a celebration (which, again, he paid for out of his own pocket along with the other coaches).

Amidst all this, we drove around town during the day and Chris pointed out all sorts of things to me. What was most fascinating to me was that the town was more or less racially segregated. On the wealthier side of town – the “white” side – were multi-million dollar homes and well-resourced schools. On the poorer side of town – the “black” side – things were not as nice. Apparently it was one of the most crime-ridden areas of the country. Perhaps I was naïve, but I had never really seen this type of segregation in practice before. And the school Chris coached at – Mae Jemison High School – was a predominantly black school. Fortunately, it was newly built and had fantastic facilities, and it adopted the students who had previously attended J.O. Johnson High School, which had been shut down and turned into a police training center after failing as a school.

Anyway, on our way to the match that evening, Chris told me about the prospects of the members of the team. Really what seemed to matter the most about each kid on the team was their ability to secure a college scholarship so that they could continue their education after high school. It was evident to me that Chris wanted to use wrestling as a means to an end to help people escape their situation. Some wrestlers on the team over the years faced mental health issues on account of their circumstances in life.

Chris had been successful over the years in driving students up and down the coast to help them tour colleges, manage their applications, and secure scholarships to continue learning. One of his former students who had dropped out of college after one year on scholarship was at the match, and I remember how displeased Chris was to see him there, feeling that this particular student had squandered such a great opportunity for himself and was setting a bad example for his team through his sheer presence.

As a spectator at the match, I observed a few things. First of all, the wrestlers on the team were having a lot of fun. I say that this was interesting because wrestling is a very stressful sport, and even though it means a lot to me, I was often anxious at all of my meets. I suppose when wrestling is one of the least challenging parts of your life or even an escape from the everyday banality of being poorer that it is perceived in a much more favorable light. The members of the team were dancing with each other before the match, laughing, smiling, and joking.

The second thing I noticed during the match was how tough everyone on the team was. Some wrestlers were better than others, but none of them gave up. Wrestling is a tiring and demanding sport, and I watched several instances of team members being put on their back, fighting through it, and then ultimately pinning their opponent or winning the match. For those unfamiliar with wrestling, fighting off your back is very tiring and demoralizing, and many wrestlers might quit after being put on their back. But there was no quit in these wrestlers, and it was enjoyable to watch even some of the lesser talented wrestlers win their matches through sheer persistence and perseverance.

Lastly, everyone on the team seemed like great kids. They showed great sportsmanship and they were deferential to their coaches, soaking up their knowledge like sponges. Some of them were curious about who I was and what I was doing there and had no qualms walking right up to me and starting a conversation. I felt a little out of place mingling with some of the parents afterwards, self-aware that I had just hopped off an airplane from New York City earlier that morning and had thrust myself into what seemed like the complete opposite part of the country. There was one girl on the team, and Chris offered her a ride home after the match before dropping me off since she had no transportation. The entire way to the motel her grandmother was living in, she answered some of my questions “yes sir” or “no sir.” I asked Chris why she had done that and he told me that this was how people talk to one another in the south, with a greater sense of hospitality. Before dropping me off, Chris showed me the old J.O. Johnson High School he had coached at before. It was decrepit and in an obviously unsafe area. After dropping me off at my hotel late at night around 10 or 11pm, Chris then embarked on his two hour trip back to Nashville where a law school commitment awaited him the next morning, and assured me he would be back to pick me up for practice the next day.

I spent the following day working remotely from my hotel room and preparing to help coach a wrestling practice that afternoon. Huntsville is a pretty interesting city, with a thriving higher education scene with schools like University of Alabama at Huntsville and Alabama A&M University right in town. It is also known for its affiliations to NASA, aerospace, and the military. Mae Jemison, who was from a nearby town and who had had the new school named after her in Huntsville, was the first black woman to travel into space. It felt appropriate to have the school named after her, as it provided the students with a north star and a role model to show them what was possible.

I was pretty nervous about trying to help out. In many ways, I felt a little guilty even thinking that there was any way I could be helping out. I had grown up with so much privilege relative to the kids I was going to be coaching and they had endured so much more adversity than I had when I was their age that it felt like I had nothing to teach them. I wasn’t even a great wrestler. But I had been taught wrestling at the highest levels and understood a lot of technique, and when I got around to showing it in practice, the kids soaked it up quickly. It was actually pretty incredible to watch the learning curve for some of the technique, which was relatively advanced. I got an opportunity to meet all of the coaches, some of whom were also from the community and had a deep sense of understanding of what they were trying to do to help others. One of those coaches, Dave Cagle, is currently on a ventilator battling COVID-19, and he needs the thoughts and prayers of anyone who might be reading this. Dave was thrilled at the idea that someone had come down from New York City to help teach some new moves and was incredibly friendly to me for the entirety of my stay.

Eventually, it came time for me to head to the airport. I said goodbye to everyone on the team, told them how impressed I was with their work, and that I would be following the rest of their season from afar. This was going to be Chris’s last season with the team, and he was worried about whether or not the program would be sustained for the long haul. They needed funding, they needed a commitment from the principal of the school, and they needed people who wanted to be involved. When he dropped me off, I felt like I had just made a new friend for life, and all the problems I felt I had in my life started to feel a lot smaller than they had previously.

I have traveled a lot for my job over the last decade and I have dealt with all sorts of issues with flights and hotels. It is inevitable. But one thing I had always managed to avoid – in large part because of my frequent flyer status – was a situation so catastrophic that it would require me to stay overnight in a random city. That is precisely what happened to me that evening for the first time in my life. My flight was delayed going to Washington, D.C., which resulted in a missed connection to New York City. I checked into a hotel around midnight and was up at 4am the next morning to get the first flight back to New York – at which point I had to go directly to work.

Normally, I would have been devastated to have been inconvenienced in this way. It had been a long two days of travel and getting acquainted with the city of Huntsville and the team. But this time it was hard to feel so sorry for myself. I had just had my eyes opened to what it looks like for everyday people who are just trying to get by, and I had been so impressed with the resilience and toughness and fortitude. Maybe it was me who came away with the best coaching then.

And what was it exactly that I learned? Well, pretty simple, I think. That it takes great people who are willing to use the elbow grease to effect some sort of social change. It is one thing to tell everyone what your views are on social media; it’s another thing to just go out there and do good for the world. Chris and his fellow coaches are fantastic leaders and mentors and they are setting the right example for the rest of us. You can make a difference if you want to and you can touch countless lives. Get out there and do it.

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