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.”
Unlike many youth wrestling clubs that practice all year, Twin City has only three months to train and compete in the spring tournaments leading up to the Southeast Regionals in late May. They wrestle Greco and Freestyle. Dewberry emphasizes the basics, where in his experience, matches are won or lost.
Then all thoughts turn to football. Southernmost of all U.S. Pop Warner teams, the Razorbacks have reached local legend status for winning Pop Warner national championships. Dewberry coached the Junior Midget division to their 2010 national championship and took the same crop of kids, as Midgets, to the national runner-up position in 2011.
“People know me for football, but my first love is wrestling,” Dewberry admits. But wrestling is not only less prestigious of a sport, it’s also more expensive for parents to send their kids to tournaments across and outside the state. With registration fees, hotels and food, it can cost upwards of $500 per child for the season. This year, four Twin City boys qualified for the June 22 national competition in Utah, where All Americans will be crowned to compete against international teams later this yearin Puerto Rico. But with a price tag of $900 for the Utah trip, there’s no guarantee all of them will be able to go.
“Coming out of Florida City, not a lot of parents can come up with that,” says Darren Baldwin, another Dewberry protégé who became a coaching volunteer.
Baldwin’s mom gave birth to him and his sister when she was a teenager. . His grandmother took him to live with her.
“Coming from here, that’s common,” Baldwin says. “I’ve been under Curt since I was 1 day old. My dad wrestled with him.”
With Dewberry, and his father, Darren Baldwin Sr., guiding him, he started wrestling at age 5, graduated from University of Central Florida on a football scholarship, and got a tryout with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Dad never missed a wrestling tournament, never missed a football game,” Baldwin says. “He sent me to South Dade High instead of Homestead, driving me to school every day for four years. I never had to deal with the things other kids did — walking home and getting into fights, wearing the same clothes and shoes to school every day. I never had to wonder, ‘Am I going to have enough money to play on the team?’ ”
Santiago Arciniega, 10, is one of Twin City’s qualifiers heading to Utah.
“It’s all worth it,” his father Damacio Arciniega says of the time and money he has invested in youth sports. Besides putting his three boys through Dewberry’s programs, Arciniega coaches soccer for some 300 kids who practice Wednesday and Friday evenings on a field at South Dade Labor Camp at Southwest 312th Street and 137th Avenue.
“I just don’t want kids to go in a bad direction,” Arciniega says. “They get into the street, and come to practice with attitudes. Eventually their anger subsides. I try to pass on a better outlook.”
Six years ago. Coach Sands saw his stepson Corey going in that direction and took the boy in to live with him.
“It was a rough start. Corey wants to be so much better than I was. He would say, ‘You think you’re never wrong,’ and I’d try to tell him, ‘I just don’t want you to make my mistakes.’ ”
Separated from his own children while trying to win visitation rights, Sands is putting his all into Corey.
“I was good in sports and took it for granted. Now that he has a lot of trophies and accomplishments, I encourage him to say ‘Thank you’ and work harder.”
In Florida City’s new gym opposite Loren Roberts Park — where membership is $15 a month, almost as good a deal as the one at Miami’s Jose Marti Park — Dewberry demonstrates wrestling moves with Harvey for the other kids. Their eyes follow the pair, entranced. When Dewberry barks an order, they jump to it.
“The kids demonstrate so much respect for him,” says Lisa Oberlander, another volunteer who also learned to wrestle with Dewberry. For the love of sports, when she’s not teaching art and photography at Herbert Ammons Middle School, Oberlander — “Miss Obie” to the boys — helps teach the youngest wrestlers the basics.
One of them, 5-year-old Tedrick Lee, competed in his first tournaments this year, winning second-place medals in Greco and Freestyle. His father, Teddrick Lee Sr., who coaches football and comes to his son’s every practice and tournament, says wistfully, “I wish my father had been around to watch me.”
And so it goes, in a circle of boys and men supporting one another through life as well as sports.
As the late-day sun slants across Florida City, the park fills with parents and kids psyched for summer football training.
“I look at it as giving back to where I came from,” says Coach Baldwin, a football in one hand and a sign-up sheet in the other.
Recently, a teacher asked one of the boys he coaches to draw a picture of his family. The boy, whose dad lives far away in North Carolina, drew his brother, his sister and his mother.
And his coach.