Building wrestlers in The Dungeon

Tangling on the mat are Kenny Peipher, 9, (left) and Christian Butler, 8, as instructor Chris Hanlon (far left) watches. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Tangling on the mat are Kenny Peipher, 9, (left) and Christian Butler, 8, as instructor Chris Hanlon (far left) watches. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 06, 2014

The tiny room sits in a building at the end of a dead-end alley in Port Richmond. It is through a set of doors on the right and down two flights of stairs.

Sneakers, backpacks, and bottles of water are crammed into the four small alcoves carved out of the far wall. Those would serve as the windows, if this room had any. The original brick walls are caked with coats of white paint above where the yellow mats end. Newspaper clippings hang in various states of browning.

Ed Schneider calls it "The Dungeon." It is not an easy place for first-timers to find.

But most of the nearly 40 boys - and one girl - swirling around in the stale air Thursday night did not need any directions. They have been coming twice a week, sometimes more, nearly year-round since they were 4 or 5.

This is the room where Philadelphia's best wrestlers are made. In the basement of the Rizzo Police Athletic League Center on the corner of Clearfield and Belgrade, the city is making its gains against the Central Pennsylvania powers that have long ruled the sport.

Philadelphia's first high school state champion, Father Judge's Joe Galasso, grew up in the rowhouses down the street. He started training in the PAL Wrestling Club when he was 9.

His high school coach, James Savage, wrestled here as a kid. Savage's teams, stocked with wrestlers who cut their teeth in this room, dominated the Catholic League, first at North Catholic and now, Father Judge.

Schneider, one of the program's coaches, estimates it has sent youngsters to 40 high schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. It has produced five high school state medalists and more than a dozen college wrestlers.

The latest wunderkind, 13-year-old Jameel Coles, recently became the first wrestler from the Philadelphia area to win the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling title twice.

"We talk about it as a thing called grit. It's being able to face adversity," Schneider said. "It's always been a blue-collar sport. And once you get a kid hooked, they're here forever."

Schneider, 44, is one of those. He has been a coach with the PAL program for 26 of its 32 years, since his own days as a wrestler at North Catholic ended.

In recent years, PAL wrestling has benefited from coming under the umbrella of Beat the Streets, a nonprofit organization that props up wrestling in urban areas with cash and coaching.

Beat the Streets Philadelphia has opened 11 hubs around the city that train more than 1,000 young wrestlers. Executive director Chris Hanlon, who wrestled at Penn, says they are modeled off what Schneider has achieved at the Rizzo PAL.

It will not be easy to replicate the experience here.

The Dungeon, bordered by its four hard walls and a narrow hall that the parents hover in, shapes the wrestlers who emerge from it. Schneider likens it to the neighborhood gym Apollo Creed trained at in the "Rocky" movies.

Brandon Black, 29, a former La Salle and Shippensburg wrestler who returns to coach, said it is not a good practice unless the youngsters sweat enough to set off the fire alarms.

The quarters are close, so the wrestlers learn mat awareness from the start. There is no place to run and avoid contact. It is not wrestling for the meek.

"We're brutal," said Kyle Mallon, 18, a junior at Father Judge who lives in Bridesburg. He was first brought here by his father, whose picture is tacked to the wall.

"A lot of people underestimate you, especially when you're an inner-city kid and you go out there and you're wearing a Father Judge singlet or a PAL singlet," Mallon said.

"We always attack. It makes us tougher. Especially having to deal with a lot of stuff that we have to deal with outside of here."

There is a fraternity of those who came from here. During Thursday's session, wrestlers with shirts from Father Judge, St. Joseph's Prep, Roman Catholic, and Malvern Prep tangled side-by-side with those barely in grade school.

Bobby Endy, 17, of St. Joseph's Prep, wrestled Galasso, his childhood friend from Port Richmond, twice in the finals of playoff tournaments.

"Almost every single team from Philly, there's a kid from PAL," Endy said. "When we go to a sectional tournament, city tournament, doesn't matter what team you're from, you shake everyone's hand. You're all there together."

Some day, everyone expects, Coles will be there, too. The seventh grader at Woodrow Wilson pinned every opponent he faced in Hershey last month.

The 5-11, 180-pound Coles dreams of attending the Hill School in Pottstown.

"I just tried this for the first time, and it felt liked I needed to do it," Coles said.

A poster honoring Coles' accomplishments hangs just to the left of an arch-shaped piece of white wood. The wood bears the signatures of visitors who have won NCAA titles.

Edinboro coach Tim Flynn. Penn State wrestler Ed Ruth. Olympic gold medalist Bruce Baumgartner.

There's plenty of space for more names, and they hope, a signature of someone who started in The Dungeon.


tmcmanus@philly.com

@ByTimMcManus

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|