Detroit wrestling program also teaches life lessons

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Nick Casas says an after-school wrestling program taught him much more.

The 18-year-old senior at Sterling Heights Stevenson High School first attended the Beat The Streets program when he was in 7th grade at Cesar Chavez Academy.

He spent six years learning the sport, but also how to manage his emotions and his time.

“The coaches did so much for me,” Casas said.

Though his family moved to the suburbs, Casas returned to his old southwest Detroit neighborhood recently to serve as a guest instructor for the program.

Beat The Streets Detroit, which started in 2009, is the local version of a program that first started about a decade ago in New York City. Hundreds of Detroit children have participated, staying off the streets, learning life skills and becoming good students.

Casas is thinking about college and has his eye on Henry Ford Community College, which has a new wrestling program that intrigues him.

If Casas or any of the 9-14-year-old students who go through the program at Detroit’s Patton Recreational Center get a scholarship it would be considered a success story for Beat The Streets Detroit founder Mark Churella Sr., a former state champion wrestler and a three-time NCAA champion at the University of Michigan.

Churella’s hope in rolling out the wrestling mat for up to 80 children twice a week from September to mid-December is that wrestling will be the key to their success.

Head coach Mike Confliti “thought it was an awesome idea” when he first heard of Beat The Streets. He’d been running a wrestling program in Southfield, the Roughneck Wrestling Club, but saw in the program a chance to work with city kids.

“I’d worked in Oak Park, Southfield and Hazel Park,” Confliti said. “This gave me the chance to head south.”

Wrestling offers an escape, Confliti said, if the wrestler is willing to take it. The path to that escape is in the competitive drive the sport teaches.

“In wrestling, you lose and you learn how to handle a loss,” Confliti, who makes his living as an electrician, said. “You learn not to blame anybody. You hold accountability for everything. That’s real life.”

The wrestling that goes on at Patton Recreational Center isn’t the stuff of sauna suits and weight-cutting. It’s the stuff of time management and pushing the body beyond its limits, organizers say. The stuff of being able to quiet down when a coach is speaking, then to drill and repeat what he just taught. The stuff of being coachable, teachable, trainable.

“Everybody has something to offer,” Confliti said. And there are no shortage of ways to offer it.

Former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox used to come to Southwest Detroit as an officer of the court. Now, as a fundraiser and board member for Beat The Streets Detroit, he helps provide a resource that may keep kids from ever seeing the court system.

“I used to prosecute Spanish Cobras in this neighborhood,” said Cox during a recent visit to the program.

In wrestling, Cox, a Catholic Central alum with two sons on the CC wrestling team, sees a sport where any athlete can have success, no matter their situation.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small or fast or slow or even disabled — one guy (Anthony Robles of Arizona State) even won the NCAA title with one leg,” Cox said.

Beat The Streets Detroit’s 2015 season ended earlier this month, just before the start of high school wrestling season. The mat will be rolled out again next September, for 80 Detroit kids in southwest Detroit who need a safe place to spend time.

“Some of these kids may not know where their next meal is coming from,” Churella said of the food insecurity faced by kids in that neighborhood. “So I don’t need a guy to come lecture them on nutrition, I need someone to bring food.”

Ruby Whitehorn, 11, comes to Beat The Streets Detroit to learn new moves so she could do as well as her cousin.

This past season was Whitehorn’s second at Beat The Streets Detroit. At least one-third of Beat The Streets participants are girls. But few view the opportunity the way she does.

“This is a start, if I want to be a pro wrestler someday,” Whitehorn said.

Not a pro wrestler in the sense of the WWE’s John Cena, but in the sense of Adeline Gray, the first American woman wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal.