It wasn’t all that long ago that Jake Scott was a sophomore at Suitland High School, going nowhere. The youngest of 17 children in a family where no one went to college, he had one thing going for him: He was a big, strong guy, big enough to play on the football team.
One day a classmate asked him to think about joining the wrestling team, which needed someone in Scott’s weight class.
Scott checked out a practice and fell in love with a sport that few African Americans even consider. His GPA went from 2.0 to 3.9. He earned a scholarship to American University and rose to become the 10th-ranked college wrestler in the United States in the 191-pound class. He became a math teacher and the head wrestling coach at Montgomery Blair High School. He has written a children’s book and has been featured in the media for setting math instruction to rap music.
Now he is back in an inner-city gym with a bunch of adolescents who two months ago didn’t know a single-leg takedown from a wrestling singlet.
“Wrestling was, for me, a life changer,” Scott said. “I grew up in Capitol Heights, Maryland, and had my fair share of run-ins with hard times and bad actions. It was wrestling that saved me from the streets. So this is personal for me.”
Personal means working at Cesar Chavez Prep charter school in Columbia Heights, where Scott is one of four coaches leading the new Wrestling to Beat the Streets DC program for sixth- through ninth-graders. The team is only the second in District public schools, charter or traditional.
The school is 72 percent Latino, an ethnic group that is even less a part of this white, blue-collar sport than blacks are. Many come from the same difficult circumstances that Scott faced; 94 percent are poor.
“The fact that they can go to a competition and have their hand raised and do well . . . is huge from a life-changing perspective and from a self-esteem standpoint,” said Jordan Lipp, another former American University wrestler and a coach in the program.
On Jan. 25, nine members of the team competed in their first match and came away with seven medals. One youngster was still wearing his bronze at practice Thursday, Lipp said.
“I get to take my anger out,” said 12-year-old Marc Anthony Rondon at a practice last week when I asked him what he liked about wrestling. Rondon had placed third in the 99-pound division at the tournament several days earlier.
“It gives me something to do and keeps me out of trouble,” said Unique Henson, a 15-year-old ninth-grader who wrestles at 135 pounds.
Scott gathered about 20 boys and five girls in a circle around him that day as he and another coach, Max Meltzer, a former Bullis and Harvard wrestler, taught them a lesson about maintaining their balance while throwing an opponent off his. The tactics are important, but at this stage, the main lessons are physical conditioning — practice can include 100 push-ups and endurance exercises such as carrying another wrestler across the floor — and life skills: discipline, accountability, respect and hard work, Meltzer said.
“On a football team,” Scott said, “there are 10 other guys on my team, 11 other guys on the other team and three or four referees who we could blame our shortcomings on. With wrestling, it’s you, your opponent and one referee. The chances of your mistakes falling through the cracks are very slim.”
Beat the Streets wrestling began in New York, the idea of Mike Novogratz, an investment banker and former Princeton wrestler. It has spread to other cities, including Baltimore and Los Angeles. After the New York organization staged exhibitions in Times Square and at Grand Central Station last year, Washington wrestlers decided to form a chapter here and began meeting to decide where to start.
One of the men involved was Scott Forrester, whose company was completing the construction of a new gym at Cesar Chavez. The school also had an internal champion for the idea, Vice Principal Bob McCarty. Both are former wrestlers. The school seemed a natural place for the first chapter.
Robert Brams, a former Muhlenberg College wrestler and a Patton Boggs lawyer who represented USA Wrestling’s successful bid to help get wrestlingback into the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games, became president. The Washington chapter is trying to raise money and awareness for a planned expansion in the fall, including the possibility of a program that would be open to any District student, Brams said.
One day after practice began in December, Scott sent the team out for a three-minute water break. At the time limit, one wrestler was back. Scott sent him to collect the others and told him to not to return until everyone else had.
“Most kids, they don’t feel responsible for someone else,” he said. “You’re giving them an opportunity to exercise some leadership.
“Wrestling is what taught me about discipline and punctuality and not making excuses.”
Read past columns by Bernstein and Vicky Hallett at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Wednesday.