Martial arts instructor's goal: ‘Men of valor’

The Detroit martial arts instructor whose training video went viral in August will appear on ‘The Dr. Oz Show’ Thursday at 3 p.m.

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Martial arts instructor Jason Wilson became a sensation in August when a video of 9-year-old Bruce Collins III went viral, racking up nearly 1.5 million YouTube hits. In the 5-minute clip, Wilson commands Bruce to punch through a wood block. Bruce takes five swings, before succeeding and breaking down in tears.

Head instructor Jason Wilson teaching a class at the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy.

“Why are you crying?” asks Wilson, as the tears fall. “That’s what this is about son. It’s OK to cry. We cry as men.”

Wilson, a 46-year-old native Detroiter, has been helping boys break through emotional barriers since he launched the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy in 2008.

“It’s a training academy for comprehensive male development. Our mission is to create a generation of men who are physically conscious, mentally astute and spiritually strong enough to navigate through the pressures of this world without succumbing to their negative emotions,” says Wilson on Monday, in a conference room overlooking the Hall of Nations space he rents in the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit in Midtown. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he replaces the banquet hall chairs with martial arts mats.

The national media attention from “Today,” The Huffington Post, CNN and now, “The Dr. Oz Show,” which Wilson will be on Thursday, was never part of his plan to help boys deal with their emotions through martial arts — what he calls “emotional stability training.”

“I’m not a martial artist, but I’m a man with a martial heart,” he says, admitting his 22 years of training doesn’t include a black belt. “I’m not committed to martial arts. I’m committed to saving the lives of boys. Martial arts is just one of the vehicles in which I do it.”

Becoming a big brother

Wilson’s mother, Etta Marie Crum, inspired him to developed the Cave of Adullam. She suffered from dementia for six years and passed away in April. Despite her trials as a single mother — his parents divorced when he was 6 — she became his mentor.

“She was the one who showed me what love is, what sacrifice is — if someone doesn’t have, you give half of yours so that they can have,” he says.

His father, a barbershop owner, developed Parkinson’s disease and died in 2007.

“I grew up without my father,” he says. “He was incarcerated to his employment. He worked literally from sunup to sundown, so I rarely saw him.”

Without a father figure, he adds he felt “pressured to conform to the ways of my world.”

“I started hanging with guys who were in gangs because I needed to feel love from a big brother or father perspective,” he says.

His grades dropped. He lost two brothers who were murdered in Detroit.

“I could have lost my life several times,” he admits.

Head instructor Jason Wilson teaches a class at the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy.

A turning point came at age 16 when he started mentoring drug dealers’ children.

“They would drop their kids to my home because I was the only one they trusted to watch their kids,” he says.

They’d talk, play basketball, even cut the grass. His mother couldn’t understand why he was hanging around kids. He simply wanted to be the “big brother” he didn’t have.

Fast-forward to 1989 when he became a popular Detroit DJ with the rap duo Kaos & Mystro and started chasing a “big music dream.”

For a few years, he toured and produced with rappers like Kurupt and Redman. After producing a song that cursed out women and glorified getting high, Wilson and Redman had a conversation about their faiths. And he realized he was a hypocrite.

“I saw at that moment I had became something that I was against, and I went cold turkey to the music industry,” he says. “I never produced a secular song again.”

Wilson founded Yunion Records to produce faith-based music that countered the negative influence of the hip-hop culture on kids. In 2005, he transformed the label into the nonprofit Yunion (the Y stands for youth) to mentor kids. The programming has reached over 10,000 Metro Detroit kids.

Teaching the four F’s

“When boys come to the Cave of Adullam, the main thing we want them to know is that they’re loved and that this a safe place,” says Wilson, who goes by “Sharath,” which means “servant” in Hebrew.

Over 150 boys ages 6-14 have gone through CATTA, which Wilson created as a branch of Yunion. As he shows their faces on his iPad, Wilson tears up.

“A lot of them said they wouldn’t make it, and they did,” he says.

The program — with a wait list topping 70 boys — has 40 students who are mostly African-American, though Wilson emphasizes all ethnicities can apply. His favorite success story is a Bangladeshi boy who raised his GPA from 2.1 to 4.0 in 24 weeks.

While The Yunion offers tutoring, and Wilson personally checks in with his CATTA students’ teachers every week, he says 78 percent of the boys raise their GPA by 1 point within 16 weeks without any academic training. He cites the program’s four F’s — faith, focus, fortitude and follow-through — as reasons the recruits improve their behaviors and grades.

It’s the principle of fortitude that tested Bruce, who struck a chord with people worldwide who watched him break the board with his hands.

“He had a great fear of failure, so that board became a fear of failure to him,” says Wilson, adding that Bruce actually broke the board practicing weeks before the video was recorded. “Fear of failure set in when he was doing his test because it wouldn’t break. ... I made him go through that because in life, how many times are we faced with a problem that we’re faced with again, and again and again? And you have to have the emotional endurance to overcome it.”

Bruce’s father, Bruce Collins II of Southfield says since his son entered CATTA last year, he’s become more patient. He’s also learned how to handle bullies and keep his emotions in check when asked to do chores or homework.

“(CATTA) teaches them how to get in touch with their emotions and how to deal with those emotions, so that they do not overreact in minor or major situations that they may come across in life,” Collins says.

Students do a drill in a class at the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy in Detroit.

Transforming boys

Since Dr. Oz, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and several Los Angeles filmmakers approached him in the last few weeks, Wilson has capitalized on the attention to raise money. He wants to build a space for the academy (he envisions a haven where boys can train and seek temporary housing), hire more staff and accept more recruits. So far, he’s raised over $52,000 through GoFundMe and private donations.

But his mission is still focused on one thing: “To teach, train and transform boys before the world does,” he says.

In 2013, Wilson and Dr. Truman Hudson Jr. received leadership awards from BMe, a network for black men. Hudson sent his son, now 15, through a Yunion mentoring program and says it was “instrumental” in helping him find his voice. On a larger scale, he says Wilson is aiding Detroit’s resurgence.

“When you look at what’s happening in mid- to downtown, oftentimes the development of the people in the community is not a primary concern to real estate and business development funders,” he says. “But what the Yunion is doing is human capital investment, and we need both human capital, as well as corporate investments, to turn Detroit around. We can’t do one without the other.”

It’s the human capital, the young lives, that keep Wilson breaking emotional barriers each week.

“My boys need me,” he says.

The Cave of Adullam means “justice of the people” and is where David offered refuge for 400 emotionally distressed men. As the Bible story goes, when they left the cave they were transformed into “mighty men of valor.” Wilson hopes to do the same in his cave.

“We transform boys into mighty men of valor — men who can navigate through their emotions without succumbing to the pressures of this world.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Cave of Adullam’s Jason Wilson talks with Dr. Mehmet Oz on “The Dr. Oz Show.”

Watch Jason Wilson

‘The Dr. Oz Show’

3 p.m. Thursday

WXYZ-TV (Channel 7)

Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy

111 E. Kirby, Detroit

(313) 870-9771