Ritchie Guillaume faced a two-strike count with one opportunity left.
The sixth-grader wasn’t in the batter’s box, but rather facing the implications of skipping classes and tempting trouble.
Guillaume tiptoed a dangerous line that could have led to him being taken away from his mother, Sheila, had it not been for Kyrell Pierre, who challenged him to visit wrestling practice at John F. Kennedy Middle School.
Pierre’s uncle, James, and James’ cousin, John Severe, had recently created the program, hoping to reach at-risk kids, teach them the sport and consequently put them on a different path.
Now a senior at North Miami Beach High School and one of its nine state qualifiers set to compete this weekend in Lakeland, Guillaume found wrestling to be an outlet for his anger problem.
“They took me off the streets,” Guillaume said. “They put me in the program that got me to become something in life. I’m very proud because I came from a poor community and now I’m somewhere great. I’m on top right now.”
For four years, Pierre and Severe taught a new generation of predominately Haitian kids about a sport they thought resembled World Wrestling Entertainment. They have steered kids like Guillaume away from the wrong direction.
In their inaugural group, six kids came out. Two — Guillaume and senior Courtney Stubbs (170) — remain on the high school team. They practice in the school’s gymnasium, one block away on 167th Street from their JFK beginnings.
“It’s been a blessing every day,” said Pierre, who spent seven years as Severe’s assistant at NMB before the latter moved on to North Miami High this season. “Each kid I bring into the program is a kid I take away from the streets. That’s how I see it. Things like this just keep me in the sport.”
Stubbs, who had moved from Jamaica, actually stopped wrestling during his freshman year. He decided not to show up on Day 2 of the GMAC tournament, overwhelmed by the senior-laden team and high school experience.
“I loved the sport too much that I couldn’t be giving it up,” said Stubbs, who holds a 36-0 record this year as a two-time state qualifier at 170. “I had to come back. I had nothing to do after school, just wasting my time with no goals. Seeing how good Ritchie was doing, I had to catch up with him. That was a goal — to be as good as him.”
Affectionately nicknamed “Shark Boy” by his teammates because of his chipped front tooth and Mohawk, Guillaume will make his fourth trip to state, this time as a 145-pounder. As a freshman, he dropped an 8-5 decision in the final at 103 to two-time champion Shiquan Hall.
“That’s my son and I support him,” said Sheila, who hopes to get Friday off as a Miami-Dade County public schools bus driver to watch him this weekend. “It’s what’s most important to him now. He’s been focused and wants to succeed in that. He loves what he’s doing.”
Last Saturday, the Chargers captured the program’s first regional championship, upsetting South Dade and Columbus. The lone state team title came in 1994.
Those results presented proof of the team’s potential at full strength. North Miami Beach competed without three wrestlers — juniors Luc Poliard (120), Matthew Rodriguez-Kirk (152) and Steven Decius (220) — for half the season.
In early December, Decius was riding his bike to school when a car hit him. He woke up in the ambulance, taken to a hospital for X-rays. Decius, who was wearing a helmet, sustained an orbital fracture that forces him to wear a protective mask while wrestling.
Doctors initially told Decius, who stared at the burns, stitches and bruises all over his body, that he wouldn’t be able to wrestle for the remainder of the season. He already had missed the first half because of football. He was cleared in time for the district meet.
“Don’t take life for granted,” said Decius, who competed as a 182-pounder before the accident and now wrestles guys almost 30 pounds heavier than himself. “I didn’t expect to get hit by a car — it’s not like you go out expecting that. I’m so happy I’m here today. When I had found out I wasn’t cleared, I started crying.”
Like Guillaume, Stubbs and Decius, six others trace their wrestling roots to Pierre and Severe’s middle school program. Before the start of his sophomore season, Guillaume remembers both coaches assuring him the seven fresh faces joining the team would develop into something special, beginning a run of three consecutive district titles.
Pierre even designed a jacket that reads, “We gon get this work.” His greatest lesson transcends the sport of wrestling and carries over into life: Hard work pays off.
“I told [John], ‘We gon’ be good,’ ” Pierre said. “I told the guys, ‘Tomorrow’s not promised. If you want it, you’ve got to get it.’ They stuck to it and just made it happen.”