Like many city schools ruled by football dominance, Central struggled to garner enough support to field a wrestling team.
As a result, the sport disappeared during the 2009-10 season. It returned the following year after the urging of prospective wrestlers. The Rockets decided to hire two full-time coaches, one of whom had graduated in 2009 as a member of that final team.
“There’s a toughness about the sport and the endurance level,” said Javon Drayton, who works alongside Errol Bryant. “You rarely get a break in wrestling. It’s always fast-paced with stamina and toughness and endurance.”
That first year back, competitors stared in shock as wrestlers wearing Central’s name on their hoodies walked by. The Rockets would go on to finish ninth at GMAC. The program placed second in its district behind Homestead and ahead of Miami Springs.
The greatest accolade to promote the sport, however, arrived in 2012 via Keyon Burgess’ “it factor,” according to Drayton.
Burgess, now a junior, became the first student in school history to reach state in two different sports in the same academic year: He is a defensive tackle on the state-championship football team and wrestles in the heavyweight division.
“Wrestling came around when I used to tussle with my cousin,” said Burgess, who was the program’s first state qualifier in 20 years. “He told me I should take it up. Me being me, I was thinking no because I used to see how he would get tossed around. But when I got here to Central, it got to the point where I liked it more than football.”
It’s not unusual for football players to take up wrestling in order to improve their stance, stamina and core strength. Guys would tell Drayton they felt it helped them reach varsity quicker.
Booker T. Washington’s heavyweight, junior Jordan Ingram, is in his first year of wrestling. He earned third team All-Dade honors as an offensive and defensive lineman for the Class 4A state champion.
“Being in the offseason and not having any other sport to do because spring practice starts late, you might as well try wrestling,” Ingram said. “It’s more technical. It’s not just being aggressive or finesse. You’ve got to have a lot of technique when you wrestle.”
But unlike the rare situation at Central, most city schools hand the coaching position to someone who also helps out in another sport.
Pierre Senatus is also a fourth-year defensive line coach for the Tornadoes. When the football season runs long, he watches game film until midnight and then plans wrestling practices.
“The difficulty is that I’m so dedicated to football that it becomes so encompassing it’s hard to really develop a power wrestling program in the inner city, especially,” said Senatus, who is in his third year of wrestling and estimated 70 percent of his team consists of football players.
Jackson coach David Top Francis, who has been around the program since 2006, said it’s a challenge for city schools to recruit for wrestling when football reigns in South Florida.
His goal — through USA Wrestling’s year-round events — is to create a comfort level for kids in elementary and middle school. During the summer, five to six of the city schools come together for competitions to promote the sport.