A wrestling coach sizes up every teenager he sees — short, tall, rail thin or wide as a doorway. The ancient sport has a place for everyone. That’s why Lydell Henry was chatting up every kid he saw in the mostly empty halls of a downtown Baltimore high school. “You wrestle?” Henry asked one teen who shrugged and said no. “Well, why not?” Henry shot back.
An earlier version of this story included an incorrect photo caption that said Lydell Henry wrestled at Morgan State University. The program was dropped before Henry could wrestle for it.
Henry, 44, who recruits would-be wrestlers for an inner-city youth program he runs, knew what the sport did for him in high school. He grew up in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where drug sales and violence were a daily experience. He got in fights often and, like many kids, was cut from the famed basketball team at Dunbar High School. But a wrestling coach there noticed the resilience and toughness within this student with an average build.
“Honestly, the coach wouldn’t stop bothering me,” Henry recalls. “He would always come find me and tell me to come to one practice. So I did, and I quit a few times but he always got me to come back.”
Henry excelled, placing second in the Maryland Scholastic Association tournament his junior year. He graduated in 1995 and hoped to wrestle at Baltimore’s Morgan State University, which had the premier wrestling program among the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities with four national champions and approximately 75 all-Americans.
“I learned so much about myself,” he says of wrestling. “The sport teaches you discipline and commitment, and you become more aware of your shortcomings. Wrestling teaches you how to respond to difficult things.”
Morgan State dropped wrestling after the 1996-1997 season, one in a long line of colleges to shutter their Division I wrestling programs in the past three decades over financial concerns. Today, not one HBCU has a Division I program. In October, however, Morgan announced plans to resurrect its program thanks to a donation that will help provide annual funding and scholarships. Morgan plans to hire a coach in 2022, recruit talent and wrestle a full schedule for the 2023-2024 season. (The $2.7 million donation, made by the HBCU Wrestling initiative and a former wrestler who runs an investment firm, is the largest ever given to Morgan’s athletics department.)
Everyone familiar with wrestling’s journey to reality again at Morgan State mentioned Henry as the reason for the program’s resuscitation after 25 years. As executive director of Baltimore’s Beat the Streets program, Henry is a catalyst, they said, a man who spends winters driving around the city, from gyms, to schools, to community centers and back again, trying to hook kids and their parents on a sport that changed his life.
“Lydell is a phenomenal resource,” says Edward Scott, director of athletics at Morgan State. “It’s huge to have him” in Baltimore. “We think it’s important to kids to see wrestlers that look like them, close by. We want them to know they can wrestle at a D-I level in Baltimore.”
Beat the Streets, a national nonprofit, was founded in 2005 and is the largest inner-city wrestling program in the United States, with chapters across the country. Henry, a married father of four who works for Baltimore’s health department, co-founded the city’s chapter in 2011 and has helped implement wrestling programs in middle schools across the city. Beat the Streets branches out far beyond wrestling too, with science and math camps held at Morgan State.
It’s a paid, part-time job with full-time demands and constant phone calls. “I’m grinding, you know,” he says to a caller inquiring about the program. “Yeah, we’re practicing Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So come today, and if he doesn’t have shoes, we got ’em.”
While basketball and football remain the more lucrative dream for inner-city athletes, wrestlers talented enough for Division I programs have made a post-collegiate career in coaching or fighting in mixed martial arts. At the Olympics, the sport’s biggest stage, Black wrestlers have stood atop the podium. One of them, Jordan Burroughs, has conducted clinics for Beat the Streets in Baltimore.
One late November Monday afternoon, Henry visited Dunbar to try to connect with the wrestling coach, who also taught history. The coach wasn’t in his classroom, but some wrestlers were, and Henry drilled them about their upcoming season. Then, he and I walked to a small room just beyond the basketball court, where he pointed out names of star wrestlers on the walls.
Not all of those stars went on to succeed in life after high school. The environment was oppressive, Henry told me. As a kid he took the subway to Dunbar from his family’s rowhouse; he described the commute as “traumatizing.” “At the time, Dunbar was surrounded by housing projects and there wasn’t any way around it. You had to walk through [it], and a lot of high school kids were robbed,” Henry recalled. “It was a community that lacked hope.”
After visiting Dunbar, Henry checked in with Eugene Chase, head coach at Digital Harbor High School and a former city wrestler himself. There were fewer than a dozen wrestlers at practice, including some skilled graduates who came back to help train new ones. Henry had secured new wrestling shoes for most of the students thanks to donations.
One new, aggressive wrestler was tackling his opponent like a football player, rather than using a traditional wrestling takedown, but it was something Chase could work with. “Even if there’s just one kid in the room, I will be here coaching that kid,” Chase said.
It was dark by the time Henry got to the Upton Boxing Center in West Baltimore. Upstairs in the gym, where at least one world champion boxer got his start, kids sparred and teens hit speed bags, but Henry went into the bowels of the building, took off his shoes and walked into the youth wrestling practice. The wrestlers ranged in age from kindergartners to middle-schoolers, some struggling to get the new, tight wrestling shoes on their feet. “You will break them in,” Henry promised.
One by one, more adult men came in to help the coach, and the room, like all great wrestling rooms, got warmer and louder. Persuading experienced wrestlers to coach is one of Henry’s main priorities, and he believes a Morgan State program could help fill that pipeline.
It was far too early to tell which kids had that type of talent in the basement of the boxing center in West Baltimore. Some may fall in love with the sport, and others won’t come back again. Henry is always looking, hoping for the day a beginner will shine at a city high school, then bring his talent across town, to Morgan State.
Jason Nark is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a freelance writer.