Locally-led Highland Park wrestling club connects with youth

The only remaining structure from what was once Highland Park High School is a small 500-square-foot building that stands directly behind the Highland Park football field. The building, known as “The House of Pain" is dilapidated but functional. Inside, head wrestling coach Lovell Washington is coaching fifth grade school athletes through a series of drills. He has them doing sprawls, spins, and swings. He walks over to each student individually to make sure their stance and form are correct. He gets down on the floor next to a young student, demonstrating the movement himself, then gives her a head nod after she performs the same movement correctly.

“It's a rite of passage to teach one, so once you learn it, you gotta teach it,” he says confidently. “Growing up, any move, once I perfect it in a match against another opponent, my father would make me come back and teach one of the little guys behind me,” says Washington.

“It does a lot for me to watch these kids grow,” adds his father Glenn Washington.  

The father-and-son duo (along with 10 other staff) oversee Silverback Academy, a non-profit organization that's committed to training and developing youth in the sport of wrestling. The organization caters to ages 5 to 18 and competes in the MYWAY and NUWAY wrestling circuits (think of AAU, but for wrestling). ​​​​​Lovell Washington grew up an accomplished wrestler under the tutelage of his father, who still serves as president of the Silverback Academy. 

“He’s my backbone, you see me, I’m his shadow,” Lovell Washington says. "I’ve been doing this my whole life all the way to now. It's something that never stops. I took it all the way through college at Harper in Palatine, Illinois."

Silverback has operated as a wrestling club since 1998 but converted into a non-profit in 2014 and is a rare organization in the city of Highland Park and wider Detroit. Enrollment sits just under 50 students, with the majority of the participants being African American. 

Silverback Academy program coordinator Carlton Clyburn.

“Transitioning into a non-profit allowed us to get grants from the UAW and Wayne Metro and others,” says Silverback's program coordinator Carlton Clyburn (whose son was also a wrestler with the organization).

Although wrestling is one of America’s oldest sports, it seems to have lost its way of late in Detroit. Only two high schools in Detroit have wrestling teams. Mumford High School has had one since 2014, while Cass Tech announced in June that they would introduce a wrestling team for the first time. The lack of African American participation is glaring at the college level as well. According to a 2022 National Collegiate Athletic Association survey, only 6% of Division 1 wrestlers are African American, compared to 48% of college football players and 55% percent in basketball.

“Some parents are fearful, some parents don’t understand because they don’t know anything about wrestling,” says Lovell Washington.

“It's not really in the public school and there are no little leagues in Detroit. The kids just aren’t getting introduced to the sport,” adds Clyburn.

To counter this, Silverback recruits by reaching out to Detroit’s grade schools and high schools. They do traditional fundraisers, pass out flyers, and communicate with coaches of other sports to educate their players that participating in wrestling can enhance their skill set in other sports like football. The academy has also become a go-to organization for suburban high school wrestling coaches looking for players.

“You can be a little fella’ in wrestling because you're wrestling against people your own weight and age. In football little fellas don’t have a chance but you can be a dominant wrestler and go to college and be a wrestler,” Clyburn says. "So it creates other opportunities for people who want to compete in sports but may not be tall enough to dunk a ball or big enough to play football." 

Lovell WashingtonAnother important aspect that has helped the Silverback Academy with recruiting is the success of its students. As an organization, they've averaged over 750 victories a year which translates into a 91% winning percentage. In 2023 alone they’ve had seven athletes finish in the top three of the Tournament of Champions, six finish first in the NUWAY National Tournament, and eight finish in the top three at the MYWAY State Championship Tournament. Over the last five years, Clyburn estimates they’ve assisted 15 athletes in earning college scholarships. While the winning percentages are impressive, Clyburn still sees more room for improvement.

“We get them to college but some don’t stay there,” he says. "We have to equip them so they’re able to sustain being there. It's just building these youths into responsible adults."

“The academy also instilled in me a solid work ethic by having to learn fundamentals and skills by repetition, practice, and training, as well as focusing on my goals, winning matches, and staying on track with my health by having to make my weight classes,” says Cordell Clyburn, a proud Silverback alum from 2017. "The overall lesson is 'don't let nobody beat you by outworking you, it’s your life'.”

The collegiate transition of their athletes has not been the only challenge for the Silverback Academy. Their building has been burglarized several times, which makes it hard to maintain equipment and supplies. Clyburn says there is development coming to the surrounding area and they’ve been in talks with the city about upgrades to their own facility. 

“We would like to stay where we’re at and build it out and help get our whole facility up,” says Clyburn.

Another big challenge the Silverback Academy have constantly faced is being the only Black wrestling team at most of their tournaments. For newer wrestlers in Silverback, it's the first time they’ve had to witness and brave overt racism, particularly in areas outside of Detroit, says Clyburn.  

“The crowds are very hostile, they don’t hold back,”  he adds.

While wrestling may never get the same attention as some other sports, the Silverback Academy is proud its name is known nationally in the wrestling circuit and is honored that it's considered a pillar of the Highland Park community. 

The Silverback Academy may have inspired hundreds of students but the staff feels those same kids have inspired them as well.

“It's been a lifesaver for me, it's been a life-changer to me,” says Glenn Washington. "It taught me about sharing. Coaching is a two-way street, saving lives is a two-way street. People gotta’ share their kid with you so I can coach them. But when they do, we show them how to be champions."

Photos by Kahn Davison Santori. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.