Beat the Streets serving Cleveland’s at-risk youth with wrestling passion, prosperity

By Beat the Streets USA | Nov. 07, 2019, 11:21 a.m. (ET)
Photos courtesy of Beat the Streets USA.

Cleveland is one of eight Beat the Street locations serving at-risk, inner-city communities. With help from USA Wrestling, the Cleveland team has inspired a grass-roots movement that uses wrestling as a platform to change lives.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up.

That's not just a cliché from your wrestling coach about powering into the third period.

In a way, those eight words are everything Beat the Streets means to the child who is looking for a safe haven.

Whether its New York, Los Angeles or any of its seven other locations, Beat the Streets strives to change lives. With support from USA Wrestling, Beat the Streets continues to do just that.

In its first year, 85 kids joined Beat the Streets Cleveland and its initiative to provide underprivileged and children from at-risk communities an opportunity to join a wrestling mentorship program that teaches toughness, discipline and perseverance.

The kids, from some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, come from broken homes. Others struggle in school. To put it simply, they lack the all-American childhood that so many parents strive to provide. Those, however, are just some of the reasons why coach Anthony Spooner can't step away.

"I tell all of my students that there's a beauty and a struggle," Spooner said. "Even if you don't see it, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

That's a reminder from Spooner to look up.

When Spooner and executive director Alec McClennan set out to launch Beat the Streets Cleveland, they had that idea in the back of their minds.

So much so that, they meant it literally.

About 10 years ago, Cleveland lawmakers added a sports initiative to school policy that required all sorts of athletic mandates when new schools were built. Somewhere in the fine print, schools were required to purchase new wrestling mats.

At Robinson G. Jones School on Cleveland’s west side, that wrestling mat hung in the rafters of the gymnasium like an anonymous pipe collecting dust.

So on their first pitch to school officials, McClennan and Spooner kept their message to the point: They wanted to teach wrestling and change lives.

They were also the only two people standing in the school that day, seven months ago, to know somewhere inside the gym, there was a wrestling mat was hanging over them.

They all looked up.

“It still had that white dust on it,” Spooner said. “It took forever to be able to wrestle on it. I had to mop it eight or nine times just to get that packaging residue off. There were a few other phone calls we made after that, and when they said they didn’t have a mat, we said, ‘go in your gym and look up.’”

They had their mats, a new program and a new opportunity.

A PROGRAM ON THE RISE

One of the first programs Spooner ran while trying to grow Beat the Streets Cleveland was a gym class takeover.

It was that day, nearly seven months ago, that things began to take off.

The students, from kindergarten to eighth grade, knew nothing about wrestling so Spooner’s idea was not about teaching cradles or head locks. It was, instead, about making this crazy new sport memorable, and what’s more memorable than a sticker that says “Hey mom sign me up for wrestling”?

“We slapped them on every kid that came by us,” Spooner said. “We had some kids walking out with stickers all over them, and the parents did say, ‘man, if it wasn’t for those stickers, I wouldn’t have taken it seriously.’”

But they did.

Spooner said 56 kids signed up and 40 percent of them were girls.

He sold them on the idea of toughness. His message that day was something the kids already knew but never probably realized: Everyone on the mat was a fighter.

“I said, ‘you all fight. Some of you do it with your books in your school. Some of you do it to get to sleep. Some of you fight to wake up. Some of you do it to ask for help,’” Spooner said.

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT

Beat the Streets Cleveland wants to positively alter life’s trajectory for student-athletes by giving them access to youth development, mentoring and wrestling.

The program launched last spring at two locations on each side of the city, and the season culminated with a match between the two sides with special guest referees featuring former NCAA All-Americans, Olympians and local high coaches from powerhouse St. Edward High School.

Olympic coach and former national champion Tadaaki Hatta, Kent State’s Kyle Conel, Olympian Andy Hrovat, Ohio wrestler-turned MMA fighter Tywan Claxton and even Cleveland’s chief of police were just some of the headliners volunteering their time to support Beat the Streets Cleveland on its biggest night of the year.

Going forward, Beat the Streets Cleveland plans to start a middle school league for wrestlers to compete for their schools in the spring.

“We’ve got 20 schools so to get about 600 kids wrestling in that league is the goal and then use that to feed our BTS Academy program for the kids that want to be more serious about it,” McClennan said.

“What I like so far is that we’ve got a great group of people who care about kids and wrestling. I’m just proud to be connected to such an awesome group of people who want to do great things.”

It’s a grass-roots program. Little by little Spooner, McClennan and the Beat the Streets Cleveland team are changing the lives of the kids they serve.

Spooner sees it every day. One of his student-athletes, a first-grader with autism, brings a smile to his face not only on the mat but also with his artwork.

“He’s a great drawer, and his mom knew this was something special when he started drawing headgear and wrestling mats,” Spooner said.

Spooner, who is also a special education teacher, likes to tell the story about two brothers who joined Beat the Streets a day after they got back from a school suspension.

Ironically, that suspension would be their last.

Spooner said wrestling gave them meaning and a platform to stay out of trouble.

“These kids were the first kids in the cafeteria to sign in and the first doing their homework so they could get on the mat,” Spooner said. “The way their mom explained it was that this was the first time in the last three years that neither brother got sent home with a suspension in the month or two they were coming to us.”

They went from terrorizing the school to saving the school, Spooner said, and that’s exactly what he wants people to know about Beat the Streets Cleveland.

It’s an organization for kids to keep looking up, keep fighting and you could help that fight, too.

There was one day Spooner had his wrestlers write down a word that truly resonated with them all. There were plenty of answers, but Spooner’s index card had the word persist because that’s what Beat the Streets means to him.

The opportunities for kids wrestling through Beat the Streets Cleveland are funded entirely through donations. When you purchase your USA Wrestling membership you can support Spooner and his passion to help kids in Cleveland persist.