Mumford wrestling defies the odds in Detroit

Mumford High School's qualifiers for the Michigan state wrestling tournament practice in their wrestling room -- a converted classroom with repurposed wrestling mats lining the floor. Michael Rothstein/ESPN

DETROIT -- He stepped off the mat, peeled off his headgear and started wandering away in disbelief. With one slam of the referee's hand on the mat, it was over.

Izell "Cage" Sanders wasn't a wrestler anymore.

That Sanders was here in the first place, representing his inner city high school in the Michigan state wrestling tournament, was unlikely. He picked up the sport two years ago as a way to improve his football tackling. Three years before that, the Mumford High wrestling team didn't exist at all.

Mumford is the first wrestling program in the Detroit Public School League -- the brainchild of a sportswriter-turned-teacher who grew up around the sport. Sanders' growth in wrestling over the course of his career is emblematic of why the program exists -- despite how difficult it was to start -- and what it means to finish.

Mumford wrestling receives almost no funding from its school district; what little money it receives is just enough to pay for buses to a few of the events the team attends every year. The vast majority of the team's budget is built through donations, which come from family, friends, Mumford alumni and those in the community intrigued by its story. Much of the financial support comes from a combination of the team's GoFundMe page, the nonprofit Beat the Streets program and, when everything else fails, the pocket of their coach, Peter Cunningham.

Cunningham spent approximately $3,000 of his own money on the program in his first two years before Beat the Streets became involved, and he still foots the bill for gas for the team's transportation and the occasional Uber for one of his athletes. He manages his team's $8,000 per year budget, which goes to buses, tournament entry fees, singlets and other gear.

When other schools in Detroit shut down, Cunningham searched to see if he could take some previously used equipment. Other items have come through creativity, like showing up with a U-Haul to Central High School one day to commandeer unused mats to build Mumford's own wrestling room. On the day of Mumford's first match as a team, Cunningham had to drive to a store that made singlets in Hazel Park, Michigan and paid $800 out of his own pocket so his wrestlers would be dressed correctly because the ones they had ordered never arrived.

"He's the vision. He's the heart and soul," said Michael Conflitti, a coach with Beat the Streets. "This is Peter Cunningham's masterpiece.

"... And [in] three years, he put together a team that, I swear to God, they were a formidable team. He's keeping it together. He's keeping kids off of detention, off of suspension, getting kids to class because they love wrestling."

Mumford had a wrestler reach the state tournament before 2019 -- a transfer student during the program's third year -- but this season was different. Sanders was the first true Cunningham protégé to reach the final stage of wrestling's playoff system in the state, in a sport he wouldn't have picked up at all had he not missed a tackle in football junior year.

"The running back had scored, he was on the 2-yard line and he scored and I could have stopped him when he ran the ball, but he ran through me," Sanders said.

Cunningham told Sanders that wrestling would give him the tools to help him tackle better. Three weeks later, Sanders took the coach up on his offer. Sanders walked into the Mumford wrestling room thinking it might be more like the WWE than anything else. He learned quickly it was much different.

"At first, I didn't like it," Sanders said. 'But after I started winning, I stayed."

And now it was over. After the loss that ended his career, Sanders -- pinned twice in two hours -- shuffled up the tunnel inside Ford Field that Friday afternoon, the lone figure inside the massive entrance the Detroit Lions run down every home football Sunday.

Cunningham, before he went in search of Sanders, looked around moments after his wrestling season ended. "Pretty good for him to get here, man," he said to no one in particular.

Cunningham, 35, is still new enough to teaching. After graduating from the University of Toronto in 2006, where he wrestled for two seasons, he became a sportswriter -- interviewing wrestlers, not coaching them. He eventually moved back home to Michigan and covered high school sports for AnnArbor.com and then MLive where, in full disclosure, he was a former colleague from 2009 to 2011.

"I was burnt out doing what we were doing," Cunningham said. "And I was applying to other [journalism] jobs but I didn't want any of them if I got them. I took my hat out of the ring and was like, 'What do I really want to do?'

"The people I was interviewing -- I was more inspired by, than by doing the work itself. So I'm meeting coaches and teachers. That was always my other, 'What would I have done, if not writing, was teaching or coaching.'"

He applied for Teach for America, knowing he and his wife, Katie, could end up anywhere. On his application, he wrote he preferred to stay in Detroit. His family is here. He says he believes in the revitalization of the city.

"[In] three years, he put together a team that, I swear to God, they were a formidable team. He's keeping it together. He's keeping kids off of detention, off of suspension, getting kids to class because they love wrestling." Michael Conflitti, a coach with Beat the Streets, on Peter Cunningham and Mumford wrestling

Cunningham landed at Mumford as a math teacher in 2014 -- an old school with a new building, at the time part of the Educational Achievement Authority's effort to try to rebuild failing schools and in need of teachers. This was an institution that once had enough notoriety to have a "Mumford Phys. Ed. Dept." T-shirt worn by Eddie Murphy's Axel Foley character in "Beverly Hills Cop." One of the producers of that movie, Jerry Bruckheimer, is a Mumford graduate.

"Teaching was in concert with coaching for me," Cunningham said. "I don't think I ever would have thought about teaching if coaching wasn't along with it," Cunningham said. "And of all the sports that I ever did, wrestling was the one where you learn from the best when you do it."

Cunningham attended camps run by Olympians and All-Americans growing up, and knew what the sport gave him -- discipline, focus and work ethic.

A troubled student whom Cunningham had struggled connecting with had said he had wrestled at a previous school. Cunningham had always wanted to start a wrestling team at some point at Mumford and this gave him a chance. So he asked the kid: Do you want to wrestle?

"I told him, you start being an OK human, I'll start taking you to practices," Cunningham said. "He was a good human and a good wrestler, actually. I started talking to a few people about how we could start our own team."

Though the Mumford athletic director at the time said the team wouldn't have any funding, they would sign the paperwork needed to create the team. The Michigan High School Athletic Association pushed the application through.

By the end of the 2014-15 season, Mumford and its one-wrestler team traveled to Jalen Rose Charter Academy -- another neophyte wrestling program -- and schools in nearby Birmingham for practice and opportunities to enter into tournaments. This gave the one-man team other wrestlers to scrimmage against.

The next year, with more than one wrestler but not enough to field a true team, Mumford and Jalen Rose Charter combined teams at least once to compete in a dual meet. University of Detroit Jesuit, a private school five minutes down the road, also allowed Mumford's smaller team to practice with its team. Even now, Cunningham's team will occasionally head to Birmingham to practice, especially when the individual state tournament is underway.

Cunningham continued to suggest wrestling to students who showed athletic interests but struggled to pay attention or show up. Wrestling offered them a purpose and a reason to get to class.

"I wouldn't have went to college without wrestling," said 18-year-old Joseph Sutton, a Mumford senior expected to attend Michigan State next year. "I don't think I would have finished school."

Word spread. Eight kids came out for the second season, and by the third year, in 2016-17, there was a core of 15 wrestlers -- including their first All-State wrestler. Last year, participation numbers grew to 20, with a high of 25 this year -- and with that surge, the program had its most successful season to date with its first district champion, Michael Watson, and a district team title.

Wrestling pushed more students to be invested in schoolwork to stay eligible. Some started to think beyond high school. The discipline and work ethic Cunningham says he believes the sport provides started with two hours every day in Room 220A, the classroom converted into a wrestling room. It continued throughout the wrestlers' daily lives.

Cunningham makes sure everyone on his team is taken care of as much as he can, including the occasional meal and ride to school or practice. At Mumford, students have to rely on public transportation or rides from others. Not every parent has a car, and even if they do, they often need it to get to and from work. Cunningham also set up weekly study tables and sought out tutors for students in whatever subjects they needed help.

The commitment that Cunningham and those who've wrestled for Mumford showed over the past few years has helped change the course of each of their lives. Michael Watson knew nothing about wrestling when Cunningham suggested to his mother and her boyfriend that he come out for the sport during a parent-teacher conference. Three years later, Watson won the team's first district title, and now he'll wrestle at Henry Ford Community College next season.

"Enhanced my character, a lot. Plus, it's a stress reliever," said Watson, the team's senior captain. "Some things that I go through, when I wrestle, it just takes all the pain away. Wrestling can change somebody's life a lot."

Watson thought he'd be wrestling inside Ford Field, instead of sitting in Section 131 near his coach after losing in the regional tournament. Cunningham is staring at Mat No. 16, where Sanders will wrestle his first match against eventual state champion Anthony Boone of Lowell.

In a crowd of enthusiastic wrestling fans, one man approached Cunningham and tapped him on the shoulder.

Cunningham turned around.

"Coach," the man, who was wearing a pink Haslett High School T-shirt, said. "Just want to thank you for not only what you're doing at this school but for the sport of wrestling." Then he extended his hand.

Cunningham, almost speechless, thanked the stranger from a school two hours away from his before he walked away. People know about his Mumford program now. A story earlier this year in the Detroit Free Press gave Cunningham's efforts some visibility, as did the attention paid by famous Mumford alumni Jemele Hill and WBC junior middleweight champion Tony Harrison -- both of whom have donated to the program.

On this day, though, Cunningham is focused on what's happening on the mat -- and there, Mumford has lost. Two wrestlers, Sanders and Kobey Caldwell, qualified for the state tournament, but Caldwell missed weight and had to forfeit -- something that bugged Cunningham all day.

Then Sanders lost twice.

Two years ago, Sanders thought wrestling was the world of Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels.. He was so raw that when he got his first win his junior year, he had no idea he had actually won. Within two years, Cunningham helped Sanders develop into what he'd become at Ford Field: a wrestler at the state tournament, devastated over the end of a career he initially had no idea he wanted.

"I've never seen someone accelerate at the pace he did to get where he is," Cunningham said. "... He feels like s--- right now. You know. He feels like, even though he's not someone, he loves football. He did wrestling because, I don't know, he enjoyed it a little bit. But no one wants to lose that way, no one wants to end that way and he's not proud of himself right now. So I wanted him to know how proud of him I am."

It's why Cunningham followed Sanders up the tunnel. He found him slumped against a wall outside the Lions locker room. He leaned over and put an arm around him. Sanders stood up. They embraced.

Cunningham whispered something to Sanders. By the time he was done, both were emotional. Cunningham sat in the same spot he found Sanders, took his glasses off and dropped his head. He had put so much of himself into this program, including a 45-minute commute each way from Ann Arbor and countless hours away from his growing family.

A security guard walked over. "Are you all right?" he asked. Cunningham nodded. They would be.

Cunningham stood up. The two walked down the tunnel together, one last time as coach and wrestler. Sanders, who often won McDonald's bets of a large fry, two cheeseburgers, a 10-piece nugget and large iced tea for hitting goals set by his coach, cashed in after losing his last two matches. He's expected to play football at Central State University next year.

His career in wrestling has come to an end.

But the program continues. Mumford Athletic Director Kevin Jackson said the team helped change the culture of the school, calling Cunningham a "guardian angel." The success led to conversations that the Michigan High School Athletic Association, Cunningham, other coaches and his wrestlers hope become the long-term benefit of what he started: more wrestling programs in the city of Detroit.

"It's the thing I'm most proud of," Cunningham said. "Outside of my family, it's the most proud of something I've ever done."