“I enjoy doing big things,” said Al Bevilacqua before the Beat the Streets (BTS) 2012 Gala and Benefit last week. “That’s been my body of work for over 47 years – doing big things. Fortunately, we found Mike Novogratz who really loves to do big things.”
The last few weeks fit the bill as “big” for Bevilacqua, beginning with over 80 hours of train rides to Oklahoma where he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, receiving the Order of Merit. It certainly wasn’t the first ceremony for Bevilacqua, who is also enshrined in several other Halls of Fame, including those of New York State Wrestling, New York University Athletics and Massapequa High School. However, this induction was especially meaningful since his son Chris joined him as an honoree, receiving recognition as Outstanding American.
“I’ve been in other ceremonies before but this was a big one,” he said. “Having my son there alongside me made it even better.”
After a long return trip on the rails to the Northeast, the week continued to be “big” with last Thursday’s BTS Gala in Manhattan. After a freestyle dual between the United States and Russia in Times Square last year, the first sporting event held in that section of Manhattan, the 2012 event was even bigger.
It once again offered a battle between some of the finest American and Russian grapplers, but it also included a three-competitor wrestle-off for the 60 kg Olympic spot won by Coleman Scott.
When asked what excited him most about the “Grapple in the Big Apple”, Bevilacqua didn’t hesitate.
“I look at the crowd,” he said before the event. “I look for the television cameras. We have trouble as a sport attracting mainstream media coverage, but now we have major newspapers and news broadcasts covering this event.
“Around 1.1 million people pass through Times Square every day,” Bevilacqua continued. “Maybe they stop and watch for a few minutes. Maybe they catch some of the four hours on the JumboTron. That’s a lot of eyes seeing wrestling. You need to go where the people are. That’s what excites me about the event. You have to build the interest, the passion, the excitement.”
That theme of building and maintaining a love of wrestling comes up again and again in conversation with the celebrated teacher, coach and wrestling promoter. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the BTS program. Years ago, the New York native saw the nation’s big cities as an untapped area. He firmly believed as an educator that developing wrestling programs in middle schools and then high schools in urban areas would have profound benefits for both the sport and for the kids.
While he had characteristically big plans, he knew in this case, things needed to start small. A parent contacted the organization and suggested approaching the principal at Simon Baruch Middle School.
“I had to go into sales mode to get things started in New York City,” Bevilacqua said. “I explained it as an educational after school program that develops life skills through a great activity; not as a sports program.”
The principal decided to give it a chance and BTS began in the one institution with 28 kids.
“I have always seen after school programs as an extension of the school day,” Bevilacqua said. “It’s the best classroom in the building. It’s a laboratory for all the academic subjects.
“It’s a laboratory for mathematics. Mathematics relates to a movement skill – it’s all about movements that create angles. It’s a laboratory for biology, understanding the human body and a quality of life. It’s a laboratory for history — we talked about the 13 United States Presidents that wrestled. We tied it into education. But most importantly, the kids had somewhere to go after school and had a lot of fun. We followed a curriculum of ‘fun and fundamentals’ created in the early 1970s by the United States Wrestling Federation. It is the ‘cornerstone’ of our program.”
Ten weeks later, metrics on the 28 participants were measured, including attendance, deportment and grades. The principal said it was “the greatest program they ever had” at the school and she arranged a luncheon meeting with another 10 middle schools.
“I simply opened the program by introducing myself and then turned it over to the Baruch Middle School principal,” Bevilacqua said. “At the end of the luncheon, they all came on board.”
Interestingly, when looking for people to lead BTS in these institutions in the early stages, Bevilacqua didn’t seek out experienced wrestlers.
“Finding adults who have the passion to help kids was most important,” he said. “I almost preferred that they didn’t know that much about wrestling because wrestling people tend to compete too quickly. We recruited teachers in the building and told them that they would be judged on how many kids started, how many finished and then how many came back the next year.
“When you put the competition model in too quickly, there’s a tendency to worry about weight and take a lot of the fun out of the sport,” Bevilacqua continued. “That’s why so many kids quit. The youth numbers nationwide are very good, but the numbers drop off because somewhere along the way the experience isn’t good. The first step is to build up the passion in the kids; make them love the sport.”
Following this philosophy, Bevilacqua said that in the first two years, the BTS participants didn’t compete with anyone outside of their own practices. In year three, with 20 programs on board, they had a “Wrestling Day” with a clinic, lunch, coaches certification program and scrimmages without referees.
Of course, now, several years later, many of those early participants are competing at the high school level. While competition has not been the focus of the program, especially in the middle schools, the gains being made on the mat by those involved in the BTS program in New York are evident.
The Public School Athletic League (PSAL) had its first NYPHSAA state finalist this year when Brooklyn International’s Cheick Ndiaye took second place at 106 pounds in Division II in Albany. Several other grapplers who have spent time with BTS, including McZiggy Richards (3rd at 182), Patryk Kopczynski (4th at 220), Rrok Ndokaj (4th at 170), Abubokarr Sow (5th at 126), and Cristian Masaya (6th at 152) also earned All-State honors.
“The PSAL started wrestling 30 years ago, but the quality didn’t compare to much of the state,” he said. “It’s the largest section in the state in terms of schools. There are over 300 high schools and we’re in 65 of them. We’re in 58 middle schools. We’re starting to see the results. Now we feel that a sleeping giant is awakening.”
More proof of that giant’s emergence came in early May at Broome Community College in Binghamton at the New York State Freestyle and Greco Championships. BTS took first place as a club in Junior Freestyle and Greco, along with top three finishes in both styles in the Cadet Division. In all, BTS had 14 champions and 17 silver medalists, including six first and eight second place winners on the women’s squad. (BTS is targeting the start of 25 women’s programs in the schools over the next five years).
But perhaps more than the victories on the mat, Bevilacqua is proud to see wrestlers continue the sport at the next level. Several seniors will be wrestling in college, including (but not limited to) Brooklyn Tech teammates Kopczynski (Hunter College) and Masaya (American), Wingate’s Ahmed Elsayed (Brown) and Monsignor Farrell’s Ndokaj (Bloomsburg).
“That’s what it’s about. I can’t emphasize enough that it’s an academic thing we’re doing,” he said. “It’s not just a wrestling program. We use wrestling as our tool. I’m an educator. I have a competitive part and an educator part. The success we’re having is not because of the wrestling, but because of what we’re doing for the kids, helping them work through what is frankly in my opinion a dysfunctional school system.
“Many of our donors are not the usual wrestling people,” he continued. “We find that too many of the guys that get the most out of wrestling usually don’t invest by giving back to their schools and colleges. Most of our donors are people that became successful because of the life skills and the toughness they learned from wrestling. They love wrestling and recognize what it’s done for them. They do ‘big time.’ They want to give that back to help others.”
Giving back is what the BTS Gala held last week is about. The first year, Bevilacqua said the “Gala” was a get together in a Chinese restaurant. The second, it was a party for the donors. Later, in the style Bevilacqua likes, things started to get bigger.
The Intrepid aircraft carrier in 2010. Times Square in 2011 and 2012. In each of the past three years, Bevilacqua said over $1 million was raised for the program.
“Times Square is big,” he said. “It’s the best promotion we could think of to educate and expose people to wrestling. But it’s important to remember that nothing big ever happens because of one person. People mention me and Mike Novogratz, but there have been so many who have helped to build Beat the Streets. We’re a long way from our vision but we’re getting there. We’re building. You’re seeing the results and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”