As kids growing up in a city known for its toughness and grit, Deshawn Fentress and Mark Mendes focused most of their energy on wrestling.
The demographics of Brockton are tough, characterized by low income and high unemployment, said Mendes.
But a free summer wrestling clinic, put on by former Brockton High coach Jim Maher, gave the pair an opportunity to hone their skills and mature, eventually paving their paths to college.
“When I was in high school, this is probably what made me a state champ,” said Fentress, as he watched 30-plus aspiring young grapplers work out in the wrestling room at Brockton High one night last week. “I didn’t have much money when I was growing up, but I got to come in here.”
Fentress and Mendes combined for two sectional titles and a pair of state championships, earning their tickets to the athletic hall of fame at Brockton High.
The 1999 grads, now both 32, have been reunited on the mat.
Fentress returned to the wrestling program as head coach last year, joining Mendes, who was already on staff as an assistant and junior varsity coach.
The last six years, Mendes has run the summer clinic, every Wednesday night from 6 to 8.
“It’s very special,” Mendes said. “It hits home because [in] Brockton, a lot of times you can get lost in the crowd. It gives the kids a good place to learn a little bit of discipline, hopefully get into school and use this for a steppingstone in life.”
Smash Mouth Wrestling became a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2010 and runs from April through the Monday after Thanksgiving, the first day of the high school season. Each session draws 20 to 40 kids from Brockton, Bridgewater, Raynham, Canton, Easton, and Stoughton. Attendance has remained strong during the summer months.
Fentress and Mendes are not alone.
Lee Beane, a 2002 graduate of Bridgewater-Raynham Regional, operates Brick Road Wrestling in Lakeville, while Russell Lindsay runs the Dungeon Training Center in Hanover. Both are also nonprofits, attracting grapplers from Cohasset, Duxbury, Hanover, Kingston, Plymouth, Pembroke and Norwell through August.
Former state, national, and Olympic champions, as well as collegians from the area, make the trip to train and help mold younger wrestlers.
Fentress and Mendes don’t teach in their school district, but through networking, have opened their doors to two-time Division 3 national champion Kenny Anderson (Wartburg College), as well as grapplers from Bridgewater State University and a rotation of college coaches.
In operation since 2006, the Dungeon is in its third location after previous stops in Quincy and Whitman. The club won the 2013 Bay State Games competition, edging out Lowell-based Doughboy Wrestling . The 13-week clinic costs $225.
Beane, a three-time state champion (1999, 2001, 2002) at B-R who was one of the first instructors at Dungeon, started Brick Road with a friend, Freddy Conrad, and moved the operation to their own complex. The rates ($55 per month for unlimited classes, or a $10 mat fee for an individual workout) are reasonable. Considerations are given to those who can not afford the fees.
Beane said his goal is to have two $500 scholarships that will be given to wrestlers who show dedication and citizenship.
“We’re not in this to make money,” Beane said.
“We want it to be as inexpensive for the kids as possible. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to come to a place like this when I was coming up through school.”
For Amanda Gomez, a recent Brockton High graduate, the camp still serves a purpose, even after she received her cap and gown.
The Bridgewater State-bound Gomez joined the Brockton team for her senior year after training in judo since she was 3. Wrestling is a part of her family’s background (her father, Jose, wrestled at Cambridge, Rindge & Latin), and Gomez compiled a 7-11 record in her one varsity season.
Gomez wears her motivation on her arm, in the form of a tattoo that reads “reality” and “fantasy” depending on which way it’s looked at.
“The fantasy side would be my goals in life and what my dream life would be,” Gomez said. “The reality is what I am now. It reminds me of what I have to work towards.”
Her short-term goal is to be the first person in her family to graduate college, but her reality is that she’s still working on becoming a freshman who is settled into college life. She is also determined to make the wrestling team at Bridgewater State.
Chris Sullivan, a rising senior at Canton High, captured the Division 3 state title as a sophomore. He’d like to go out with another this winter.
He alternates among all three clinics, but has been going to Smash Mouth since he was in sixth grade.
“When I first came here, I was the worst wrestler in the room, I got beat up by everybody,” said Sullivan. “It was a slow development climbing up the chain.
“Most of it is I’m looking towards my future in college,” with a focus on gaining entry to the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. “My dad’s a construction worker and he always instilled in me that he wanted me to do better than he did. He’s pretty smart, he taught me a lot of good things like hard work and you’ve got to shoot for the stars.”
On the mat, Sullivan emphasized that his fate is in his own hands. Even if attendance drops off once football and soccer seasons begin, he is going to be at clinics each week until the first day of the season.
Fentress said that type of determination is what helped him earn a New England championship at Worcester Polytechnic Institute after beginning his wrestling career midway through his sophomore year at Brockton.
“It’s such a great accomplishment,” Fentress said. “It feels good to tell these guys where I started, where I am in my life and to let them know the simple rules: hard work (and) discipline is going to help them a long way in life.”Peter Cappiello can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @petecapps.