InterMat Reads: A Saint in the City

It sounds like something out of a movie: self-described "corn-fed white guy" from a small town in Washington State becomes wrestling coach in an inner-city high school with a 98% Hispanic population outside Los Angeles. He has to deal with challenges such as wrestlers who don't show up for practice, blow off dual meets and tournaments to visit family or for similarly lame reasons, and put up with parents who don't see the value in their kids being involved in any extra-curricular activity, let alone wrestling. All in a community that was grappling with poverty, drugs, gang activity, undocumented workers, and other societal challenges.

This story is not from movie ... but it is the real-life experience of Scott Glabb, head wrestling coach at Santa Ana High School in California. Coach Glabb tells his story in the brand-new book, A Saint in the City: Coaching At-Risk Kids To Be Champions, published by Tate Publishing.

Taking on a program that was in a predicament

When Glabb came to Santa Ana in 1990, he inherited a program that was flat on its back. Here's the opening paragraph of A Saint in the City:

Scott Glabb
Seventy-two to zero. That was not a score. It was a massacre. Christians fed to lions, Reagan over Mondale, Custer at Little Big Horn. It seemed like more than mere cross-town wrestling rivals facing off in a hot Orange County, California gym.

As I sat on the bench, watching the slaughter through the cracks of my fingers, I knew I had a long, difficult road ahead. The humiliation that ran through my body, coupled with embarrassment, told me that the coaching gig at Santa Ana High School would prove much more challenging than I expected.

After the match, a lone fan from the crowd consoled me, "You can always look at the bright side; you could have lost seventy-eight to zero."

That is the highest possible margin of defeat in a dual meet in high school with thirteen weight classes.

That was just one loss in Glabb's first season at Santa Ana in 1990. That year, his team compiled an 11-16 record.

Then Scott Glabb had an epiphany.

"God spoke to me," said the long-time wrestling coach. "He said, 'You are never going to win.'" I gave up on the idea of winning, and instead, decided to invest in the kids, helping them in character building, developing their spiritual side, making them better individuals. I threw my life into these kids."

"I had found my calling."

Scott Glabb's investment in his wrestlers paid off. By his third season at Santa Ana, the Saints wrestling team won the league title ... and, in the 20 seasons since arriving at the school, Glabb has coached state and national champions.

One coach's journey ...

Just to be clear, A Saint in the City is not a how-to manual to guide coaches on how to turn around a struggling program. At least not in the technical sense of providing pointers on running a practice, or what workout techniques work best to turn out champions. Instead, it is the story of the individual journeys of a young coach who had been battling depression ... and wrestlers who overcame various challenges of their own to find redemption in wrestling, and for their lives beyond the mat.

Scott Glabb discovered wrestling in seventh grade in Vancouver, Washington, thanks to neighbor kids who had gone out for the sport. His first year, he won one match -- "and that was in the practice room," according to the Santa Ana coach.

"I loved wrestling, and really needed it," Glabb continued. "My parents were going through a divorce, and I was dealing with self-esteem issues."

Glabb won a league championship in high school, and took up freestyle wrestling, too. He went to Pacific University, where he wrestled a couple years.

"I got pounded on. I wrestled only in a few tournaments."

"My coach said, 'You've got a good heart, but no talent.'"

Glabb transferred to Eastern Washington University, where he continued to wrestle, and did some coaching. He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's, and his Washington State teaching certificate.

He was drawn to southern California to be closer to his girlfriend at the time, and, once settled, became head wrestling coach at Marina High School in upscale Huntington Beach. However, dealing with his own depression and lack of experience as a high school coach -- and frustration in dealing with some athletes who did not share his commitment to the sport -- Glabb resigned, and, in the fall of 1990, took the head coaching job at Santa Ana, a school that was 180 degrees different than Marina.

"It's a real blessing to have had the wrestling career I had, to prepare me to be the coach I was to become."

Here's how the 47-year-old Glabb described himself -- and his situation at Santa Ana High -- in A Saint in the City:

I came from the old-school command style approach of coaching: I call the shots, you do what I say, and don't question me. I always stressed dedication, discipline, commitment, and hard work for success as an athlete. These words were light years away from my team's vocabulary."

I finally concluded that they did not wrestle for the same reasons I did ...

As I worked with them over the months, the wrestling room became a haven. A place that attracted the lost and lonely on campus, the talentless and clumsy, as well as the corrupt, the angry, and the misguided. In fact, wrestling their opponents was effortless compared to the real matches they faced off the mat ...

... and a journey for his wrestlers

The prime focus of A Saint in the City isn't on Coach Glabb, but on the wrestlers at Santa Ana High School.

Left to Right: Jose Leon, Alex Becerra, Fernado "Rat" Serratos, Scott Glabb, Roger Santiago, (Kneeling) Miguel Valencia, Froilan Gonzales and Alfonso "Bubba" Perez, (Back) Alex Perez
At the beginning of the book, Glabb describes Santa Ana High as being a beautiful old building, constructed in the late 1800s, "cleaner than most suburban high schools." Then he paints an overall picture of the neighborhood as it was in the 1990s, an area where drug deals and random gang violence were such an integral part of the landscape, some parents would not permit their sons to walk home after wrestling practice.

Most of the book is devoted to individual profiles of some of the most notable wrestlers ever to wear a Saints singlet. Some are notable for their considerable on-the-mat accomplishments, while, for others, the glory has come since, in their lives after high school.

Glabb tells the story of each wrestler as he remembers him on his team, then concludes each profile with a concise "Reflections" write-up that gives the reader an idea of what that individual ultimately meant to the coach -- how that wrestler touched Glabb's life beyond wrestling.

If the book can be boiled down to an overarching theme, it would be one of overcoming considerable odds to achieve great things in wrestling -- and beyond. Most of Scott Glabb's wrestlers had never seen a wrestling mat until coming into Santa Ana High's wrestling room. Most of their parents had no experience as athletes themselves, so they were not necessarily the most supportive in terms of their sons' wrestling careers. (In the book and in the interview for this article, Glabb provided examples of parents' indifference, such as taking their kids out of wrestling events to visit family ... or not bothering to attend state tournaments, even when provisions for their travel were offered.)

Here's an excerpt from the book that sums up coach Glabb's attitude toward his wrestlers:

My hope as a coach and educator is to see more people in my profession drawn to work in inner-city, urban schools. So many of us have a fairytale picture of working in the best schools and coaching the best teams. We think of how much it would do for our self-esteem if we have successful students and athletes.

I have taught and coached high schools from one end of the socio-economic conditions to the other and I can honestly say I have gotten more satisfaction and pride from teaching and coaching those students who were challenged and at a disadvantage than I did from working with those who had it all. To see miraculous metamorphosis of individual from the time they entered the ninth grade to the day they graduate and to know I was a part of that change is the most gratifying and remarkable feeling one can have.

The spirit to coach

Scott Glabb is a man of faith. Not just in terms of having faith in his wrestlers' ultimate success ... but in terms of having a personal relationship with God.

Glabb became a born-again Christian at age 13. That was about the time his parents were going through a divorce.

Santa Ana wrestlers on summer trip to Washington State in 1995
"I was going to a Catholic church, but really going through the motions," Glabb disclosed in the interview for this article. "My sister was going to a little church across the street. I really liked the pastor, and came to join that church."

"It was there that I found the Lord, and truly became serious about my faith."

"I am still close to that pastor, and, in fact, he married my wife and I."

"Kids at Santa Ana, a lot of them were lost. I took some of them to church, or introduced them to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes."

When asked if there were any concerns expressed by parents or school administrators about bringing faith into a public high school wrestling program, Glabb immediately answered, "We had a shooting in the crosswalk in front of the school, gangs on campus."

Then he added, "I was doing these activities after class, and after practice. It was all strictly voluntary, no pressure to participate ..."

"No one said a thing to me ... Most parents came from a Catholic background, so they did not have an issue with what we were doing."

How the book came together

A Saint in the City has been a decade in the making.

"I started writing in 1999," Scott Glabb disclosed. "At the time, our team doctor liked what we were doing, and encouraged me to write a book, to share our story with others."

"You second-guess yourself, wondering, 'Would anybody want to read this?'"

But that questioning didn't stop the Saints coach. "I did interviews, looked back at newspaper coverage."

"I worked with a ghostwriter (John Scott Lewinski) who typed the manuscript, and provided some direction as to how to organize it."

"I had a publishing deal but waited 4-5 years while a movie deal was in the works," continued Glabb, reinforcing the notion that his story as coach at Santa Ana High School sounded like something out of a Hollywood film. "However, that hasn't come through, so we went ahead with our original publisher."

Asked if there were any issues that have sprung from the book being published, Glabb responded, "I haven't received any negative feedback about it. I thought there might be some, especially since Santa Ana has changed a lot since I arrived in the early 1990s."

"Santa Ana wrestling has developed a reputation for tough wrestlers. I wanted to tell their stories, let people know what these kids went through ... There aren't a lot of wrestling programs in inner-city schools."

Winners by any measure

Even if the real-life story of a small-town coach transforming the wrestling program at an inner-city high school has yet to be made into a movie, the results seem to be straight out of a feel-good summer blockbuster.

In 1993, the Saints won their first league title
At the direction of coach Scott Glabb, the Santa Ana High School wrestling program has come a long way in the past two decades since that 11-16 season in 1990. In 1993, the Saints won their first league championship, followed by sixteen more league titles in a row. Glabb's teams have also won eleven CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) titles, with 23 individual CIF champs, 48 state qualifiers, and 15 state placers. He can also claim two national championship wrestlers: Tony Perez in 1998, and Jose Leon in 1999. Overall, the Saints have compiled a 312-56 record under Glabb.

Perhaps more significantly is the difference the program has made in the lives of so many individuals and their families. Before stepping into the wrestling room, many of the athletes profiled in A Saint in the City appeared to be headed in the wrong direction ... yet redirected themselves into productive careers with rewarding family lives.

For more information on Scott Glabb and the Santa Ana Saints wrestling program -- and to purchase a copy of A Saint in the City: Coaching At-Risk Kids To Be Champions -- visit the Web site


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