Building a Family
This week Jim Hummel profiles an inner-city teacher and wrestling coach who is going above and beyond, rewriting the job description of what it is to work with students and athletes. Meet him - and the team he's turned into a family.
By day he is a teacher in the Providence School Department, where he's worked the better part of the past decade.
But this is where you'll find Ed German after school: at Hope High - where he has been head wrestling coach the past three years. The season may officially run from November to March - but for German, who was a star wrestler at both Mt. Pleasant and later at Rhode Island College, it is a year-round calling. And one that goes - and one that goes way beyond the mat.
The boys are his extended family and he has been there for them 24/7 - even taking some into his own house when they needed him.
German's mother decided to move him and his two younger siblings to Providence from New York City when he was 13.
German: ``She was tired of the drug dealing going on and people dying right in front of her salon. There were a lot of things going on, things going on in school, even though we went to a parochial school it was what was in the neighborhood, she didn't want us to be there.''
German landed at Nathanael Green Middle School and had a chance to go to Classical, but opted for Mt. Pleasant because he wanted more diversity. He played football and basketball, but soon found wrestling was his niche.
German: ``The basketball coach said I was too rough that I should try another sport.''
He became captain of the Mt. Pleasant wrestling team, then onto RIC, studying to become a teacher.
Hummel: ``When did you think about becoming a teacher?''
German: ``Third grade.''
Hummel: ``When you were in third grade?''
German: ``Third grade, yes.''
German: ``I don't know. I always liked helping people. I always wanted to help.''
Hummel: ``So there was no question through junior high, high school, college, that's what you wanted to do when you got out?''
German: ``Yes, I just didn't know how I was going to do it.''
He has taught bilingual classes and worked with special needs students, this year teaching 5th-graders at Alfred Lima Elementary in South Providence. When the kids hear the you-can-do-it speech, it rings true because Ed German was many of them growing up.
German says his mother had what he calls a ``heavy hand,'' and left him behind in high school when she moved to Florida. At one point he was in the DCYF system.
So wrestling became a refuge. And when the job opened up at Hope three years ago, he created his own family of wrestlers and coaches. He inherited a program that had six kids the year before he arrived.
Hummel: ``Did you know anything about Hope before you went there?''
German: ``I knew that we always kicked their behind when we wrestled them in High school, so that was awesome.''
Hummel: ``You had fond memories in that gym?''
German: ``It was always a win for us.''
His first year: 42 came out for the team.
Hummel: ``How did that happen? Did the word go out: Ed's in town, or what?''
German: ``Fliers, recruiting, talking to kids, pulling in kids, same thing I saw my coaches doing, but we went full force. `Just try it, come try it, come try it and the kids loved it. Once they go in and they know what the sports about, they loved it.''
He was named Division 2 coach of the year in 2009.
German quietly spends the coaching stipend he receives - plus some of his teaching salary - on kids who may not be able to afford shoes, or for registration fees to special meets the school won't cover.
Last month he hosted a cookout in his backyard that drew nearly two dozen of the kids. He gave them a pep talk for next year, and handed out awards from this past season - a season that saw the team just miss a divisional championship.
The graduating seniors told the younger kids about the wrestling family and what is expected of them going forward - as the torch passes to next year's class.
Hernandez: ``I love that dude.''
Kevin Hernandez is one of those who just graduated.
Hernandez: ``He's like a dad figure you know. I've never had the best family because it's been, like, separated. I really consider Coach Ed a father figure.''
Hummel: ``What was your first impression when you met him?''
Torres: ``When I saw him I saw the person that was really, has a heart for children and the compassion and the stamina and the support he was willing to give to the children and to the adults around here and to the parents.''
Mercedes Torres is the principal at Lima Elementary and was German's boss this past year. And she learned early on how important the wrestling team is to him.
Torres: ``He leaves out of here and he said `Ms. Torres I have to get to the training. I can't miss.' I says: okay.''
German says the beauty of wrestling is it's both an individual and team sport.
German: ``You have your team that pushes you while you're at practice. But when you're out there, it's your behind. So you have to have that discipline to go out and succeed. And I always tell my kids when I'm recruiting - we're here to help you on and off the mat.''
And that means he and his wife, who have a 3-year-old daughter - sometimes have taken kids into their own home, just as one of his coaches did when German ran into a rough patch in high school.
Hummel: ``So you've had some of them over at your place? Temporarily?''
German: ``Yes, yes.
Hummel: ``Not so temporarily?''
Hummel: ``Days, weeks at a time?''
German: ``I'd say weeks, couple of weeks.''
Hummel: ``Is part of this - is a lot of this - shaped by what you went through. I mean you put yourself in their shoes when you were that age?''
German: ``I think so....''
Hummel: ``And what wrestling did for you?''
German: ``Yeah. I don't like to think about it, though....''
You almost always see German and his assistant coaches wearing ties because he wants to send a message.
German: ``I made it a point that I would do it every day so they could see a person that came from their own background, from their own neighborhood, dress in a proper manner and show them that they can do it. Show them that just because you're given this life now, that you're dealt this life, you have to do it forever. You can actually change your ways, change everything about yourself, you know?
And I do it every day, banquets, wrestling matches, everything. You see me at wrestling matches, it's the same thing.''
Hummel: ``I see you down there on the mat, on the floor and there's the tie.''
German: ``Yeah, except for tournaments. Tournaments get tricky.''
Hummel: ``It gets hot in those gyms doesn't it?''
German: ``Especially when a kid is doing the right thing. I just want to...''
Hummel: ``When does that top button go down?''
German: ``I think about the 4th match in.''
Hummel: ``It gets pretty hot at the end of the day, doesn't it?''
German: ``Aw man.''
Now he's taking it one step further.
German: ``This year I'm planning a class for 10-15 kids on how to dress nice with ties and everything. How to go out and look for a job. We're going to go fishing.''
Hummel: ``In your ties?''
German: ``Well not in our ties, that's going to be one of the pluses at the end of the six week they're going to have their own, at least two to three shirt and ties and pairs of pants they can take with them. I'm asking the kids to pay $10 to $20 as an investment. And when it's done they get that money back but they don't know that. ''
He doesn't want to see them go down a path that he might have been on - had it not been for the sport - and his own coaches.
German: ``It's about taking chances and I'm taking my chance with them. I love what I do with them, I love what they give to me. They make me happy. They really do. It kind of fills a hole that I have inside - fills a very big hole.''
Hummel: ``Is that hole from childhood?''
German: ``I think so, yeah, I think so.''
Hummel: ``Where would you be without wrestling?''
German: ``I don't want to think about it because the ACI would sound appropriate. The ACI would sound appropriate. I was getting into a lot of trouble before. So yeah, the ACI would sound appropriate.''
Hummel: ``So it gave you structure and motivation and taught you stuff?''
Hummel: ``That you're trying to pass on now?''
German: ``I have to. I have to.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.