If you’ve never been to a youth wrestling tournament, prepare yourself for the sight of lots of crying boys.
“C’mon! C’mon! Big boy style,” Twin City Wrestling Club volunteer coach Jeremy Sands shouts as young Cordell White faces his opponent at a recent tournament at Hialeah Gardens High School.
Minutes before, both young contenders were crying. Not because they were afraid of getting injured — physical pain was the furthest thing from their minds — but because they were afraid of losing. Aren’t we all.
But for the boys of Twin City, many of whom come from the rougher neighborhoods of Homestead and Florida City, losing hurts a little more.
Here — where too many families fall on the shoulders of a single mom — Curtis Dewberry, head of Florida City Parks and Recreation and volunteers like Sands are not just grooming national and state championship winners. They’re also surrogate dads who know from personal experience the hole an absent father leaves.
According to 2009 U.S. Census data, more than 24 million children — one out of every three — live apart from their biological dads.
On Father’s Day, when that absence is stark and raw, the bond of sports can help kids of all ages cope.
“My parents split when I was small,” says Twin City’s Corey Harvey, 13, who just ranked a national fourth in wrestling’s Schoolboy division in Indianapolis. “Coach Curtis is my influence. It’s how he teaches you. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. And Jeremy” — coach Sands is Corey’s stepdad — “helps all the time.”
Dewberry grew up on the Homestead-Florida City border with a stepdad who couldn’t have cared less about his doings.
“I was lucky; my dad stayed in my life,” he says.
Between wrestling and playing football for the Florida City Razorbacks, he landed a partial scholarship to Chowan Junior College in North Carolina. Since 1987, when his coaching career started at Homestead Middle, he has helped boys like Corey do even better than he did. This year, about 446 kids will participate in his athletic programs. Since 1998, 22 boys have gone to college on full scholarships and onward to the National Football League, including Antrel Rolle and Eric Foster.
In other pockets of South Florida, coaches are standing in. Observes head football coach Curtis Wright of the Miami Gardens Bulldogs: “So many kids have absent fathers. That’s why I coach. I was that kid.”
Last year, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in South Florida and No. 2 to Florida City the previous year, but Wright measures success in a different way, as well.
“I like to say we’re not just teaching boys how to play football. We’re teaching them how to be men.”
While Wright hears many complain that kids today are worse off, “I see it getting better,” he says. “There’s a lot of help for kids that I didn’t have coming up. A lot of parents are getting involved.”
Opa-locka volunteer football coach Robert Mellerson became more involved than the average coach when a player’s father was incarcerated.
“I drive him to school, help him with his homework — and help him with football,” Mellerson says. “He lives with me. I’m stepping in as his father now.”