When the boys in a Hyatt Park gym start talking about chicken wings, it isn’t time to chow down but to practice their takedowns. Mats 2 Men, a wrestling program, is trying to enrich their lives and teach character while also getting their fathers more involved.
By Kasey Meredith
March 30, 2016
The excited screams of young boys greet you the minute you walk into the gym of Hyatt Park’s Antioch Baptist Church on Thursday nights. Some chatter about “chicken wings,” but it’s not about what they’re having for dinner. They’re talking about wrestling moves.
The boys are here for Mats 2 Men, which uses wrestling to teach obedience, discipline and self-control to boys from kindergarten through high school. But it’s also where they can have fun and spend some time with their fathers.
Wrestling requires individual action, self-control and focus to win, but there is still a team aspect, which holds you accountable, says Scott Szalwinski, co-founder of the program.
“If I lose or tie it or win it, I just feel happy,” 12-year-old Miguel Baker says, “because if I lose I’ll least know what to do the next time I get in the ring.”
Szalwinski says he wrestled in middle and high school but only got into coaching when his son started wrestling in high school. He connected through mutual friends with Bersail “BJ” Jones, a pastor at Antioch Baptist, and Mats 2 Men was born out of their similar upbringings and desire to give back to the community.
One of the older boys, 15-year-old Myron Andrews, started with Mats 2 Men when it began five years ago. For him and many of the boys, it’s an outlet for energy and a way to have fun.
“It’s better than being on the streets all day,” says Andrews, who now wrestles and plays football for Westwood High School.
Both Szalwinski and Jones want Mats 2 Men, which meets Tuesday nights at the Hyatt Park Community Center and Thursday nights at Antioch Baptist, to be a haven for boys like Andrews.
“My passion is saving kids’ lives and giving them another outlet to understand that there is value inside of them,” Jones says.
Jones won’t say much about his home life growing up, other than that his parents weren’t around much, but he says a program like Mats 2 Men would have benefited him.
Both Szalwinski and Jones say Mats 2 Men is only one part of shaping a young boy’s life. The other part is at home, and their fathers are key.
While the boys go head to head during practice – lifting an opponent and then slamming him on the mat – six fathers circle, recording the boys’ every moves on their smartphones. Jones says more fathers have become involved in Mats 2 Men this season and that the program has grown overall.
One of those circling is Nicholas Cooper, whose 9-year-old son, Chaze, is out on the mats. They started coming after hearing a lot about Mats 2 Men from other children in the community. Now, Nick is bringing his friends and their sons.
“A lot of kids don’t have their daddies here, the fathers don’t attend to them, so it’s a reward to my son, and that’s how he feels and expresses it to others,” Cooper says.
He is almost always at the Mats 2 Men practices, sometimes guiding the warmup sessions. When the boys start to wrestle, he cheers them on.
Bad attitudes don’t last long. If a boy decides to throw a temper tantrum, Jones will often tell him to leave so that he doesn’t affect the rest of the group. But stick around and you’ll see the boy almost always comes back to the mats.
Or, as Miguel Baker puts it, “I know it’s just for fun, so what’s the point in getting upset?”
While Mats 2 Men focuses on obedience and discipline, it also relates to the wider goal of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative to address “persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.”
Szalwinski and Jones hope to expand Mats 2 Men not only in South Carolina, but also in other parts of the U.S. Other clubs are now in North Carolina and Michigan.
At the end of the day, they aren’t interested in formal thank yous or even wins or losses.
“The win is that a kid comes away from a season, with a mentor,” Szalwinski says. “That’s a lot more important than wrestling.”
And, Jones says, “When I can step back and see that he’s become more lenient and he’s listening, instead of wanting to challenge everything, and when he sees the fruit of his results, becoming victorious in his matches, that’s thanks enough.”