Kids with no purpose usually find ways of getting into trouble, but there’s a summer program at Dover High School aimed at keeping that from happening.
In conjunction with the city of Dover’s Parks and Recreation Department, the school is hosting a wrestling/grappling training club for boys and girls.
“We try to provide as many activities as we can for kids and this is one more that we’re able to offer,” said city sports coordinator Steve Pickering.
The program works to give kids from single parent or low-income homes and those in unstable living situations a way to channel their energies while not in school.
The wrestling program is under the tutelage of Dover High athletic director Aaron E. Harris as well as Paul Collier, Tony DeVary and Kelly Meade.
Professional mixed martial arts champ Hopeton Stewart mentors the self-defense grappling class, which focuses on dealing with conflict and getting out of potentially hazardous situations without hurting anyone.
Classes meet Monday through Thursday at the high school gym.
Discipline the key to success
“We want to facilitate training and at the same time give any kids, particularly underprivileged kids, a place to be when they typically don’t have any place productive to be,” Harris said.
There is no cost and sign-up takes only a few minutes, he added. Attendance isn’t mandatory but Harris encourages everyone to show up as often as possible. He picks up students and takes them home if they don’t have a ride.
Wrestling is more than just getting out on a mat and taking down an opponent, Harris said. It helps develop skills some kids might not otherwise learn about.
“It’s a sport that instills discipline,” Harris said. “It instilled a lot of discipline in me.”
A native of Washington, D.C., Harris came to Dover as a youngster. He was a state wrestling champion before graduating from Caesar Rodney in 1997. Afterward he coached at several different schools, including a stint in Miami before returning to his roots in Delaware and a position at Dover High.
Throughout those years, he’s learned many lessons, Harris said, lessons he wants to pass on to others.
“I’ve taken from the sport organizational and time management and structure skills,” he said. “That’s something we pass on through this program and through any high school wrestling program in general.” Richard Fonticiella of Dover would agree: he’s attending the summer camp and a member of Dover High’s team.
“Wrestling is my main sport, and I just want to get better,” he said. Being a part of the program has taught him dedication and respect for authority as well.
“Coach is tough on us, but it’s his rules that help us do the right thing,” Fonticiella said. “He gives us lessons in life; he was a kid once, and he’s been through it.” The discipline that comes with wrestling and the physical fitness it entails has one other thing going for it: it’s fun.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t like it,” Fonticiella said.
Do no harm
In an adjacent room, about a dozen teenagers are going through mixed martial arts champion Hopewell Stewart’s grappling class.
But the kids aren’t immediately learning the sport: first they face off in a game Stewart calls “battle ball:” similar to dodge ball and a lot more physical. Everyone then takes a five-minute break for meditation.
Stewart sits in front, his eyes closed as the students emulate his classic yoga position.
Afterward he starts work on teaching them what he calls the triangle technique: getting out of a situation where an attacker has managed to get a victim on his back.
The aim is not to overpower the assailant, Stewart said; it’s to get free and get away but without injuring the opponent.
Stewart’s attitude about defense comes from life experience: he and his mother came to Dover from their native Queens to escape his abusive father. While attending Central Middle School he fell in with others who were getting into gang activity, but eventually realized that kind of life would cause nothing but grief.
Stewart credits that attitude change to counselor David Thomas.
“I got into a lot of fights and was on my way to being suspended,” he said. “Dr. Thomas had a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with me. He told me if I didn’t get my life together, I’d be in jail or dead by 18.” Taking those words to heart, Stewart enrolled in mixed martial arts training and joined Dover High’s wrestling team, becoming its captain in his senior year.
Stewart then worked as a disciplinarian and counselor at CMS, trying to help students acting like he used to. He started his grappling program in 2015 with just two students, and eventually merged it with that of the Capital City Wrestling Club.
He’s on his way to becoming a mixed martial arts champion with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, having won his two amateur matches.
As important as that goal is, his work with students is as rewarding.
Stewart spends a lot of the class on the mat himself, allowing students to put him into holds from which he easily escapes. He’s tough, keeping any horseplay to a minimum, but also forgiving.
“If you don’t get it today,” he tells one student having trouble with a particular move, “you’ll get it tomorrow.” Stewart is guided by the tenants of Japan’s samurai Bushido code, stressing loyalty and honor along with martial arts skills.
“We teach kids how to defend themselves, how to do that without throwing a punch,” he said. “It’s being a man without striking back. It’s very much self-defense.” The no-cost wrestling and grappling program runs through the end of July and anyone can sign up at any time.
Contact the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for more information.