Cristo Rey builds family dynamic with first-year wrestling program

Coach Jose Ramirez supervises wrestling drills in the basement of Detroit Cristo Rey High School in southwest Detroit. Ramirez started the new wrestling program at the school — just the seventh wrestling program in the city of Detroit — to teach students the value of hard work, cooperation and sacrifice in learning a new sport. (Photos by Daniel Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

Competing with a limited roster, in the school’s basement, southwest Detroit program one of only seven city schools that wrestle

DETROIT — As 10 wrestlers make their way around a mat spread out in a corner of the school’s basement that serves as a wrestling room, coach Jose Ramirez watches from a distance.

The wrestlers know the drill; they don’t need a babysitter.

Coach Ramirez goes through the lineup, answering questions from parents and organizing information for an upcoming meet. The Cristo Rey wrestling program is only three months old, but already he has built a culture — a family.

“I had a handful of kids when I started coaching through Beat the Streets Detroit, which is a program that tries to promote wrestling in the city of Detroit,” Ramirez told Detroit Catholic in early February before the Catholic High School League meet.

Ramirez said he got his own start in wrestling when his high school coach encouraged him to try the sport. At Cristo Rey, Ramirez has had to recruit the squad from scratch, as most students are unfamiliar with the sport.

Ramirez grew up in Florida, where he got into wrestling with encouragement from his high school coach, Willie Gatson, a two-time All-American at Iowa State who recruited him to join the team. Today, Ramirez follows in his old coach's footsteps, roaming the hallways of Cristo Rey, trying to persuade students to try a sport that has little to no cultural roots at the southwest Detroit — and mostly Hispanic — Catholic school.

“When you don’t have kids lined up to come try out, you have to go after kids who were cut from another sport, or just aren’t doing anything,” Ramirez said. “That’s what my coach did; I got started because someone invited me. So I’m inviting them to try something new.”

Ramirez followed Gatson to Eastern Michigan University, where Ramirez wrestled for the Eagles while earning a degree in education.

Ramirez, a teacher at Academy of the Americas in Detroit, also coached at Grosse Pointe South High School and started a youth wrestling club in southwest Detroit called the Detroit Wrestling Academy. He stopped coaching when his son started attending University of Detroit Jesuit High School, so he could be a more involved parent. 

Ramirez goes over wrestling technique with his team, most of whom have never wrestled before.

“I was in the bleachers for two years, but U of D got a new coach, and I guess he must have overhead me cheering remotely from the bleachers,” Ramirez said. “He recognized I wrestled before and invited me to come and help him. The next day, I’m at practice, rolling around and helping where I can.”

Ramirez stayed at U of D Jesuit for five and a half years, coaching one of the few established wrestling programs in the city. Besides Cristo Rey, Detroit only has six high schools — including Hamtramck — that wrestle. The sport is largely dominated by suburban and rural schools at the state level.

After his son graduated, Ramirez kept coaching at U of D Jesuit until a new challenge came up that would keep him in the Catholic League — starting a wrestling program at Cristo Rey from scratch.

“I have two daughters who love wrestling as well, and I knew they would not be able to wrestle at U of D Jesuit,” Ramirez said. “Looking at everything, I made the decision to come here.”

Cristo Rey wrestlers run through drills during practice in the school's basement.

Ramirez said the wrestling program has strong support from Cristo Rey's president, Mike Khoury, athletic director Kevin Cumming and assistant coach Anthony Kreucher. 

Ramirez said Kreucher has been “instrumental” in helping build Cristo Rey's wrestling program. “I call him my inside man,” Ramirez said. “He knows the building, the staff, the kids and wresting as well.”

With a limited roster that only fills 10 of 14 weight classes, winning dual meets and tournaments is a challenge, especially in the hyper-competitive Catholic League. The Wolves placed second out of seven teams at the Detroit City Meet before tying for ninth in the Catholic League, but Ramirez said success of the upstart program is measured less by wins and medals and more on planting roots for future success.

“During my transition from U of D Jesuit to Cristo Rey, I realized the definition of success was not to win championships, but to impact lives,” Ramirez said. “Our success is based upon whether these kids graduate school, that they go to college and get a degree. When these kids improve on the mat, it’s not just in wrestling, they are improving their lives, improving their communities where they plant roots.”

Headgear for student-athletes featured a cross and a crown of thorns, a reminder that everything the students do is a reflection of their Catholic faith. 

Throughout the practice, Ramirez repeats a motto emblazoned on wristbands given to the team, “#DMGB” — doesn’t matter, get better — a defiant cry to take the joys and pains that come with wrestling and turn them into fuel to strive for constant improvement.

Working with wrestlers who haven’t seen a mat before this past November, Ramirez spends a lot of his time getting kids to invest in the sport and the concept of a team. The team did service projects throughout the season and a mandatory team trip to Ann Arbor to see the University of Michigan wrestle No. 1 Iowa in the Crisler Center.

The trips and service projects are part of building a family culture.

“We have T-shirts with the motto: Mi Familia Contra Tu Equipo,” which translated means, 'My family versus your team,'” Ramirez said. “We take these young men and ladies, from freshmen to seniors, and tell them if you see one of your teammates in school, I don’t care who they are, you reach out to them, you sit with them at lunch, you give them a high-five, you give them a hug if they need one. And this season, they have been growing as a family.”

Building a team ethic in a sport such as wrestling — where individuals compete one on one, with no teammates to help them — might seem weird to an outsider. But learning what it means to be dedicated to hard work, sacrifice and teamwork stay with students long after they step off the mat, he said.

“One of the reasons I’m here today is my coach in high school reached out to me and made a difference,” Ramirez said. “At the start of the season, I tell my kids, 'You are about to do one of the toughest things you have ever done in your life, but you will be tougher because of it. And at the end of the season, you are going to believe me when I say you can accomplish anything.'”