Wrestling teaches life skills


wrestling team
Redeemer Lutheran uses wrestling to weave together sport, life skills, faith and hope.

By Michael Brenner

In high school, Brandon Porter didn't think much of wrestling. His school’s wrestling coach, who also coached football and taught history, attempted to coax Brandon onto the team several times. The attempt was futile until Brandon heard these words that he took as a challenge: 

“Oh, I forgot,” the coach said. “Wrestling's a man’s sport.”

With these words Brandon not only joined the team, but asked to wrestle the toughest man on the team. It didn’t turn out as he had planned — the guy crushed him — but the experience kindled a fire that eventually led to fifth place in Georgia's state tournament, a lifetime love of wrestling, and a belief in its ability to teach life lessons to young men.  

Brandon started the Northside Wrestling Club for youth at Redeemer Center for Life, a non-profit partner of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.  The center serves as a “beacon of hope” for children and families living in the Harrison neighborhood of North Minneapolis.

He was unsure whether a program centered on a sometimes unknown sport could take root. Basketball is the sport of choice in the program’s Minneapolis neighborhood, and he knew wrestling would be a tough sell. In many ways, the environment was similar to the one where he first discovered wrestling in Columbus, Ga.

“The first year, 17 kids came out, which is pretty good — especially for being a wrestling club in the ‘hood,’” recalled Brandon.     

Redeemer’s wrestlers have seen early success despite their inexperience. Two children placed in a state competition this year: 5-year-old JaMichael Terry and sixth-grader Salah Udeen Robinson.  

It’s more than wrestling

The program, though, is about far more than wrestling. Wrestling is at the center, but practices also include meals, mentoring and tutoring from students at nearby Augsburg College. Critical life skills, such as losing with dignity and working on failures, are taught through wrestling, skills that are useful to children living in the rougher parts of the Twin Cities.

“These kids aren't scared of conflict,” Brandon says. “They live with conflict every day.”

For Brandon, wrestling is a tool to “weave together” sport, life and faith. Wrestling can provide the learning tools to help solve the educational disparities in the city, and Brandon seeks to teach moral and spiritual lessons through wrestling. In wrestling, conflict and competition do not result in violence. And losing, for almost everyone, is acceptable and inevitable. In a place where the answer to adversity and conflict is often picking up a gun, these children are taught more constructive approaches to failure — such as getting back up, working even harder and team work.

In time, the program will also include community service, something that fits a program that is specifically tailored to the needs of their particular community. In addition to providing life’s basic needs, transportation is also provided for the wrestlers. It casts a wide net across the neighborhood and is part of an approach to allow as many children as possible to participate regardless of their circumstances.

“Brandon takes it to the next level in making it accessible to the families,” says assistant coach Mike Tarras.

Practices are normally held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and two of those days include tutoring and meals. The practices are divided into the “bigs,” representing fifth through eighth grade, and the “littles,” who represent kindergarten through fourth grade. The “littles” eat and learn while the “bigs” wrestle, and vice versa.

Reaching into the neighborhood, in the spirit of Christ

The neighborhood’s diverse demographics offer a chance for the program to promote interreligious understanding as well. Muslim students wrestle alongside Christian students — state placer Salah Udeen is one of a handful of Muslims wrestling for Redeemer Lutheran Church. “It doesn't mean that if you're Muslim you can’t wrestle for us,” Brandon says of the program’s ties to his congregation. “The message and invitation to every young person is, ‘We love you and accept you.’”

The wrestlers are opening a new season this spring, one that includes high school wrestlers who had been competing for their schools during the winter. By the time the second year of wrestling at Redeemer begins in the fall, Brandon is hoping to have 25 or more wrestlers.

“We had a lot of fun, and we attracted a lot more wrestlers than we anticipated,” Mike says about the first year. “We were able to expose a lot of kids to some good programs and competition.” 

The Northside Wrestling Club program fits right into Redeemer’s diverse ministry activities as it strives to reflect the kingdom of God on earth, fitting alongside activities such as hip-hop dancing, choir, sewing and other traditional church activities.

It is yet another way for Redeemer to offer “authentic and transformational” relationships with its surrounding community and the congregation, in the spirit of Christ — mindful of caring for and drawing in those who are most vulnerable and at risk.

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