Bowen High School wrestling coach Ron Wilson talks about his efforts to ensure that the members of his team compete at their best. (Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune)
Bowen High is a neighborhood school in a neighborhood that has seen better days. All the familiar urban ills can be found outside this stately South Chicago behemoth — long-shuttered factories, a shrinking population, unemployment, drugs and violence.
But inside, a few paces beyond the metal detectors, stand four trophy cases bulging with hardware, testament to a culture of discipline and sacrifice that has flourished here for more than a decade.
Bowen’s wrestling team, assembled from a meager student body, is one of the top squads in Chicago. Despite entering high school with little experience in the sport, the team’s athletes regularly win city titles, battle their way to the state finals and earn college scholarships.
The architect of this unlikely powerhouse is Ron Wilson, a city firefighter who caught the wrestling bug when he was a third-grader in nearby Avalon Park. Trim and dynamic at 56, the veteran coach can still toss teenagers to the mat with little effort.
“Basic moves win,” he said in the Boilermakers’ sweltering practice space during a recent demonstration of clinches and counters. “Every trip (to state), those fancy moves will get you in trouble. I want you all to remember that.”
Yet like many coaches in Chicago Public Schools, Wilson’s role goes far beyond teaching the skills of the sport. He raises the money, cajoles the prospects, finds the tournaments, drives the van, stops the nosebleeds, cleans the mats, washes the clothes, visits the homes, talks to the counselors and, sometimes, goes to the funerals.
His devotion has paid off in victories; since Wilson took charge in 2000, Bowen has won 12 conference, seven regional and three city championships. But some say that’s the least of his impact.
“He takes time to spend with the boys,” said Cholonda McIntyre, mother of Bowen wrestler Marquise Paino. “He talks to them, kind of guides them through (problems). … If it wasn’t for this wrestling program and the time Wilson takes with these children, half of them wouldn’t be here, and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
Guidance on the mat
Growing up on the South Side, Wilson needed some guidance himself. His family didn’t have much money — in the winter, he wrapped plastic bags around his shoes to cover the holes — and he was struggling with a learning disability when he started at Hirsch High School.
But Charles Frazier, then the wrestling coach at Hirsch, saw potential in the diminutive freshman after watching him stand up to a bully. He encouraged Wilson to enroll in more challenging courses, bought him a new pair of shoes and got him on the team, where he sharpened Wilson’s innate talent.
“He was quick — really quick,” Frazier recalled. “And he was a good learner. So many times you have to go over and over what they have to do. Ron seemingly picked everything up right away.”
Wilson liked the discipline of wrestling and the way athletes could succeed as individuals and as part of a team. Hirsch was so resource-starved that the team practiced on canvas mats in a basement storage room, but Wilson succeeded nonetheless, making it to state his senior year.
He stayed involved with the sport after he graduated, coaching the Harvey Twisters youth team, and in 2000, after taking a special education teaching job at Bowen, he resurrected a program that had fallen idle (he later took a job with the Chicago Fire Department). Three years later, the team won its first regional title.
Chicago is not an easy city in which to build a wrestling dynasty. Coaches say most CPS kids don’t have the chance to try the sport until high school, unlike suburban or Catholic school athletes who come up through youth clubs or middle school programs.
Seth Adams, who coaches a co-op team for Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville and Air Force Academy High School, said boys in the city tend to prize basketball far above wrestling, and the resulting dearth of athletes makes it hard to find matches.
“Some kids get bored and decide to quit because they’re working really hard and not getting any competition,” he said.
The challenges at Bowen are particularly steep. After years of losing kids to charters, magnet schools and neighborhood out-migration, its student population stands at only 300. Almost all come from low-income families, and nearly a third lack a permanent home.
Then there’s the threat of street violence. Wilson said several of his wrestlers have been killed over the years, including Romelo Golden, 17, shot to death by another teen in the summer of 2012 about six blocks from the school.
“Our guys have a lot to be concerned about other than wrestling,” said assistant coach Michael Golabek. “You don’t know what’s going to happen (in the neighborhood). It’s a winter sport, so even if it ends at 5:30 in the evening it’s pitch black outside. They have to take the bus, and some of them are traveling across the city, moving around from house to house, so it’s difficult.
“It’s not like they can come to wrestling practice, go home, their mom has dinner ready for them, they do their homework and go to sleep. It’s not like that.”
Embracing the pain
Year after year, though, Wilson manages to find kids who embrace wrestling’s Spartan regimen, in which punishing workouts are paired with calorie-conscious meals. He scours the school for athletes with the right attitude, finding some among the kids who didn’t make the basketball team, or football players seeking a way to stay busy during the winter.
When he assembles a corps of solid prospects, he said, he asks them to do some recruiting of their own.
“I tell each kid to bring a friend,” he said. “‘Bring somebody you know who goes to class, who ain’t out there gang-banging, who emulates you. Usually they’ll bring other kids in, but this is a tough sport. I had a kid come inside this wrestling room one day and I didn’t see him anymore.”
Traysi Monden is one of the novices who stuck around, hoping to add to the program’s legacy of success.
“This was influence enough for me,” said the 17-year-old senior, pointing to the banners hanging from the walls of the practice room. “All my friends were here, they were winning all these conference championships and things, and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to win something. I want to be part of something.'”
Many Bowen wrestlers have gone to the state finals during Wilson’s tenure, and some went on to earn college scholarships. Ronzel Darling, a 2012 graduate who became an All-American and All-Academic wrestler at the University of Wisconsin Parkside, credited Wilson for his success.
“He’s the reason I kept on wrestling and the reason I went to college,” said Darling, who is pursuing an MBA after earning an undergraduate degree in accounting and finance. “He really shaped me into the man I am today.”
The team’s camaraderie has spawned an unofficial alumni club, with graduates returning to cheer on the next generation. On Saturday, Zedrick King, a 2013 grad, drove six hours from his home in central Ohio to watch the Boilermakers compete in regionals, the first step toward the state finals later this month in Champaign.
King said the program set him on a path he’s still following.
“Before I wrestled I was a hothead kind of a kid,” he said. “It slowed me down, got my mind right. It made me think for a little while. It kept me out of trouble — a lot of trouble.”
Bowen, which hosted the regionals, practically had the meet won before the first match. It entered wrestlers in 13 of 14 weight classes, a far bigger squad than any of its rivals could muster. One of Bowen’s athletes, 120-pound Marshawn Walker, became a champion without even taking off his warm-ups when his lone competitor failed to make weight.
Every Bowen wrestler finished at least third, ensuring their passage to the sectional competition that begins Friday. Eight won outright, sometimes in dominating fashion.
Walter Temple, who competes at 132 pounds, pinned both of his opponents within the first period. This is the 17-year-old senior’s first year in the sport, but he said he wasn’t surprised by the result.
“I worked hard for it,” he said. “I pushed myself, so I expected to achieve my goals.”
The competition at the sectional meet will be much tougher, pitting the Boilermakers against skilled and crafty opponents. Only the top four in each weight class will advance to the state finals, but several Bowen wrestlers made it through last year, and Wilson said he expected them to do it again.
Whatever the result, Wilson, who has rebuffed offers to coach elsewhere, said he plans to be back at Bowen in November, ready for another season of life lessons discovered in tie-ups and takedowns.
“I would rather see kids in college than see them in jail,” he said. “We need to turn that cycle. All sports do that, but my forte is wrestling. I’m going to bring them through that way.”