Brown Deer wrestling program revived by retired firefighter
MILWAUKEE - Looking at the packed room of wrestlers at Brown Deer High School, it's hard to imagine what once was.
"When I came in, it was in a co-op with Vincent High School," said Julian Gladney, Brown Deer wrestling coach. "The co-op, it dwindled down to almost nothing. I think Vincent had lost their wrestling program, and Brown Deer was lost without anywhere to go."
Five years ago, in came Julian Gladney, a retired firefighter with an extensive wrestling and coaching background. He was hired by Brown Deer Athletic Director Gerald McGregory to revive what they did not want to lose.
"I know Brown Deer has a really strong wrestling history, so I wanted to build that back up," said Gladney.
From there, the passion project was on.
"We only had three kids at the beginning, and then we went to having a youth program," said Gladney. "After our youth program kicked off, our high school program started to get a little better."
That's right. After starting the 2018 season with just three wrestlers, the team slowly grew from there. The next year, they had six to eight kids. Then 10. Then 17, and this season, they're at a record-high 28 wrestlers.
"I think that the culture is changing a lot, and I think that a lot of kids who want to be a part of that program, they're coming out, and they're signing up," said Gladney.
So how does a coach build his program? Well, from within.
"We were able to build this up through our football program," said Gladney. "Last year, as a matter of fact, I became the head football coach here, but a couple years ago, I was the assistant coach, and a lot of our football players, we told them, you know, ‘If you want to be a better football player, you got to come out for wrestling.’"
That message got through to football player Anthony Strong, back for his sophomore season on the mats.
"He was like, 'If you join wrestling, I'll make you a state champion,' so I was really interested in what he had to offer," Strong said.
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With the kids on board, Coach Jamal Vaughn from Messmer and Coach Sedrick Hay added their talents to the team.
In fact, Hay also coaches the youth program, and his five kids and four nephews all wrestle at Brown Deer.
"It's been fun," Hay said. "Trying to change a culture at a school, right? I know I get in this because I'm passionate about what I do. I love working with kids. As a kid, I know what it is to have talent but nobody to push you to those limits."
That culture shift is why this program has become the team to join.
"If you want to break those generational curses, these kids come every day," Hay said. "'Coach, I did this different.' I said, 'That's good.' ‘Hey, look at my grades.’ I said, 'That's what I'm talking about.' Just for somebody to believe in them. I think Milwaukee would be better if we could do that with every kid."
These wrestlers are certainly embracing it all.
"It's just a really great program to have, you know," Strong said. "Our culture is just really strong. We're very much like a family."
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They've worked hard on the mats and have put together some knock-out performances this season. The team is 4-2 in the Woodland Conference and 5-5 overall.
For the first time in 13 years, they finally have two Woodland Conference champions. Maximus Hay and Makhi Rogers earned those honors. Strong also earned a second-place finish at the conference meet.
"I think everybody's on notice right now," said Hay. "They see us. I think they see us coming."
They most certainly do.
"There's a lot of buzz about what Brown Deer has done in the last four years, how we built the program from three to where we are right now," Gladney said.
From what once could have been lost, to now, what can be, it's been a transformative journey for one team that could not be taken down.
"It's very fulfilling because it's something that I've talked to the kids about," said Gladney. "When you have a plan, trust the plan, and then just keep working through all the different things that come up, and you'll be successful."