American’s Elijah Murphy wins ESPY Award but relishes on continuing his mentorship work

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Photo by Jay Mutchnik

WASHINGTON – American University student-athlete Elijah Murphy recently saw his face on television being honored during the ESPY Awards and was left in awe.

Together with Howard University student-athlete Niah Woods, Murphy was one of seven recipients of the 2020 Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award. The 157-pound wrestler said he did not know he was nominated until days before the show.

The moment his face flashed on the screen during the broadcast was “surreal,” but confirmed to Murphy that his work mentoring middle-school-aged children in the Washington, D.C. region meant that he was “doing something right.”

“[To] be in the same conversation as all those professional athletes and having people like Billie Jean King say your name and acknowledging the work that you’re putting in and saying that you’re an inspiration and that you give her confidence for the future alone, it really means a lot,” Murphy said.

The Northwestern High School alum was awarded for his work for The Grassroot Project, mentoring middle schoolers in Washington, D.C. in an array of topics, and will direct a grant to the organization to continue its outreach programs in the city.

The Grassroot Project partners with more than 50 D.C. public and charter schools to provide health education programs taught by NCAA student-athletes, which they call “non-traditional health educators.” The program chooses to work with student-athletes to build trusting relationships with the young students to discuss sensitive issues related to their health.

Topics include sexual, mental, and physical health, as well as nutrition. To break the ice, the “educators” are trained to start the conversation with interactive games before splitting into small group sessions.

While several of college friends were mentors, Murphy was unsure that his introverted personality would fit with the program’s objectives. His reservations on public speaking and being “goofy” around middle school students made him feel nervous and apprehensive initially.

“At the beginning, I didn’t see myself doing that because of the person I was, but I saw it as an opportunity for personal growth and also giving back and doing great community work,” Murphy said.

The Eagles athlete recalled the first few visits at a Washington, D.C. middle school where he was caught off-guard by their advanced knowledge levels on sexual health. Students already knew about antiretroviral drugs, the types of other medications needed to manage HIV, and the exchange of different bodily fluids can spread sexually transmitted diseases.

The District of Columbia Department of Health reported 12,322 D.C. residents, or 1.8% of the population, were living with HIV in late 2019. The humbling experience of not having answers, taught to mentors during training, moved Murphy to be a better listener and speak in a conversational tone.

“I talk to them as equals,” Murphy said. “Because I know that when I was that age, I didn’t like people talking down to me as if they were better than me or just because they’re were older than me, so they’re my equals.”

Along with his status as an American University student-athlete and a native of the area, students began to gravitate towards him.

“Being a Black student-athlete from Prince George’s County, you can go into one of the middle schools and impart to someone just basically being someone who looks like them and who is doing something that they want to do, which could potentially be a D-I athlete, or it could be to go to a college,” Murphy said.

Admittedly, having students trust him to share their lives with him can take its toll on Murphy. The discipline instilled in him as a wrestler pushes him to strive for perfection and shoulder their experiences with multiple conversations.

His journey began at Northwestern, where he went 85-30 during his career, leading him to American. The sport’s push for excellence helped him “walk the walk” in becoming a better mentor for his students.

“I wouldn’t be at American University right now if it weren’t for wrestling,” “I would never have met my coach while I was in high school, which allowed me to have that access to American University and had that connection to be able to go to American or be a part of The Grassroot Project.”

Murphy recently received his bachelor’s degree in psychology and has begun working towards his master’s degree. He plans to return to the mat for the 2020-21 season as a redshirt senior wrestler while completing the course work for his advanced degree a year early.

Murphy also plans to continue his work with The Grassroot Project as a paid internship program, while helping the organization revisit the mental health curriculum. He hopes to add listening sessions that tackle topics like systematic racism stemming from the protests fueled by the death of George Floyd.

Had the pandemic not occurred, Murphy believes students would have used the program to discuss police brutality and its effects on mental health in their community. The desire to share one’s experiences inspired him to join together with University of Maryland wrestler and Fort Washington native Jahi Jones in a two-part Instagram discussion on race in America.

His overall goal is to spread the importance of mental health in the African American community, and Murphy believes it starts with his work on a mentor. 

When asked about his thoughts of being looked up to, Murphy said his position as a role model goes beyond than his personal exploits as an athlete and relishes the opportunity to continue that path going forward.

“It’s being able to help them in any way, shape, or form, and that’s extremely important to me, as a psychology major, as a human being, and as a Black man,” Murphy said. “That’s extremely valuable to me to help when help is needed or make any type of impact, and I can.”

Coronavirus has shut down local boxing gyms

By Ron Harris/The Sports Pulse Boxing Writer

WASHINGTON – COVID-19 has shut down sports from middle school to the pro game. The major competitions are just beginning to put together schedule proposals for consideration between owners and the players.
Nothing has been decided as of this report for many leagues such as MLB, but those are team sports.

Individual sports, like boxing, have also been hit hard, no pun intended.
Several local, DMV gyms are ghost towns. All have been stopped in their tracks by this deadly virus.

Old School Gym run by Buddy Harrison in Prince George’s County may have been hit the hardest.

“My gym closed down,” Harrison said. “Several family members were laid off from their jobs. It’s been hard,” said Harrison, who trains his son Dusty an up and coming contender. “I have a roof over my head, and I am luckier than most.”

Harrison uses his gym for more than just getting boxers ready to fight.

“My gym is more of a shelter than a boxing gym. I have a lot of kids from broken families and foster homes, and they feel much safer in my gym than they do at home, so when it closed, I worry about them. I keep in touch with some of them.”

Championship trainer Barry Hunter runs the Headbangers Gym in Southwest, Washington, D.C. Hunter is well known as the trainer of the Peterson brothers, Lamont and Anthony.

Lamont is a former world champion fighter.

Lamont Peterson (pictured above). Courtesy photo.

“Covid has been disruptive,” We were supposed to fight on the MGM card on March 14. We got a call on the 12th that the card was canceled, and it has been downhill since then.”

Hunter trains pro fighters as well as young amateur boxers.

“Our whole program is structured.” The typical day pre-virus was thrown off. “We now open the gym around 10 am and stay until 2 or 3, and then the kids would come in and stay to around 9 or 9:30. It was a big void. We had been doing it a certain way for many years.”

“We are following the Districts’ opening schedules. I think we are in phase one of the opening. Once we open, we are going to have the gym disinfected every day before and after the classes,” Hunter said.

Barry Hunter (pictured above). Courtesy photo.

We will limit the number of people in the gym to 10 and below.” Safety will be their top priority. “We will have hand sanitizers, and the fighters must have their own gear. We cannot have any sparring yet. We are following the CDC guidelines.”

The Russell family is in a different category.

“Our gym is a private gym. It is just like my own home. It is in PG County, but it is private”, says Gary Russell, Sr., who trains his sons Antonio, Antuanne, and current world champion, Gary Russell, Jr. “I am allowing my family to train. None of them have the virus, but we are not allowing the many others that use the gym to come in.”

Gary Sr. has left several messages with Al Heyman, the boxing promoter that schedules all the Russell brothers fights. “I don’t know why I have not heard from Al. He has my number. We are trying to find out what is going on with the future.”

MoCo and PG County athletes win MPSSAA scholarship awards

By Harry Lichtman and Demetrius Dillard/The Sports Pulse

GREENBELT — The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) has announced the winners of the 2020 Minds in Motion Scholar-Athlete scholarships, with a male and female recipient being selected from each of MPSSAA’s nine districts.

Back in March, the MPSSAA state semifinals had to be postponed and eventually canceled, along with the spring sports season, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic student-athletes were awarded nonetheless.

Two Montgomery County Class of 2020 winning athletes were Reece Petrolle of Damascus High School and Joanne Liu of Thomas S. Wootton High School.

Petrolle was a member of the boys’ lacrosse team at Damascus, as his senior season was unfortunately taken away from him due to the pandemic.

“It’s such a great honor for Reece to win the award,” said Swarmin’ Hornets Athletic Director Cliff Elgin. “He is a true student-leader and a great voice for our student body and supporter of all our athletic teams.”

While Petrolle mainly played boys lacrosse for Damascus, he was also on the football team until injuries prevented him from playing football any further.

Liu is also a multi-skilled athlete, competing as a swimmer and running track and field for Wootton, as she became the school’s first recipient of the award.

“We are all very excited,” said Patriots athletic director Alton Lightsey. “I was also able to teach her last year in Advanced Placement Language and Composition, where she impressed me with her analytical thinking and writing.”

Parkdale, Eleanor Roosevelt student-athletes honored with ‘Minds In Motion’ scholarships

David Onwonga of Parkdale High School and Jourdan Page of Eleanor Roosevelt High School have demonstrated outstanding initiative in the classroom and in their respective sports, prompting the MPSSAA to award them the ‘Minds in Motion’ student-athlete scholarships.

Of the 650 applicants throughout the state, only 18 were recognized, which speaks volumes as to how distinguished the honorees were. 

Each winner was awarded $1,000 apiece. According to the MPSSAA, applicants had to be seniors with a minimum 3.25 weighted GPA and “have participated in interscholastic athletic activities sponsored by MPSSAA.”

The Allstate Foundation has sponsored this thirteenth annual program since its inception in 2008. A total of $152,000 in scholarship funds has contributed towards empowering and supporting the education of tomorrow’s future leaders. 

Onwonga was beyond qualified for the Minds in Motion scholarship with a 4.1 weighted GPA and having excelled in outdoor and indoor track & field, basketball, and cross country between his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

Parkdale Athletic Director Brian Moore said he encouraged Onwonga to apply for the scholarship in early spring. Onwonga took a stab at it, and a few months later, MPSSAA sent an email notifying him that he was a scholarship winner.

“I knew he was certainly qualified for it,” Moore said.

“This goes to show, once again, whatever stereotype you have about Parkdale or Prince George’s County athletics, he (Onwonga) comes to dispel any of those myths…What he’s done with this particular award is put Parkdale High School on the map and in the conversation with other schools around the state that we produce stellar student-athletes.”

Of the 18 award winners, Onwonga may have one of the unique stories. He went from battling asthma to becoming one of the best long-distance runners in PG County. 

He endured a good deal of injuries and setbacks, but let none of the adversity hinder his success as a student-athlete.

As a sophomore, Onwonga tried out for the basketball team and was cut initially due to lack of stamina, he said, which of course, was a result of having asthma. However, the coach allowed him to participate on the team anyway and gave him a piece of sound advice at the end of the season that would change his high school athletic career.

“When the (basketball) season ended, he directed me toward track conditioning to get my endurance levels up,” Onwonga said.

“I trained for like two months… and I ended up winning county’s at the novice level.”

His sophomore season, Onwonga competed in the 800-meter run for Parkdale’s track & field program and won the county championships at the novice level. 

David Onwonga pictured above. Courtesy Photo.

As a junior, Onwonga ran cross country but unfortunately suffered a hip flexor tendonitis injury halfway the indoor track season, sidelining him for about four months, which means he missed the county championships, regionals, states and majority of the outdoor track season.

After recovering from the injury, Onwonga returned for the final three weeks of the outdoor season and set a personal record in the 800 with a time of 2:07.

“What drives me is not winning, but seeing my time improve,” Onwonga said. “When I see that I improve from a certain time, it makes me want to work harder.”

The summer before his senior year, Onwonga got hurt again: this time, a hamstring injury took a month to heal. Nonetheless, he was able to bounce back in the fall and place third in the county championship and at regionals. 

Onwonga went on to win the county title in the 800-meter run (time of 2:02) as a senior. 

Then arose another obstacle that unfortunately sidelined Onwonga for the regional and state meets: a plantar fasciitis injury.

Jourdan Page, an outside hitter for Roosevelt’s volleyball team, was a starter for three seasons after being bumped up from junior varsity as a freshman. Throughout her career with the Raiders, she has led her team to a regional championship, a county championship, and a 4A state semifinal appearance.

“It’s awesome to see someone recognize her for not only her athletic accomplishments but also the other parts of her Roosevelt achievements,” said Head Coach Scott Fifield.

As a junior and a senior, Page led Roosevelt in kills (170 this past season) and was second in digs.

Page, also a captain on the team, also recorded 52 aces, 34 blocks and 44 digs as part of a stellar senior campaign. Additionally, Page boasts a 3.8 weighted GPA. She applied for the scholarship in April, she said.

“I was honestly just looking for scholarships that I would qualify for, so I just saw this one, and I was like ‘Why not?’ It’s better that I apply for it and just see what happens than not go for it at all,” Page said.

“I was just very honored to receive (the award). Not just for the money, but the recognition is nice because it shows how much – being an athlete – you have to work on the court as well as off the court to be balanced.”

Page will head several miles north to compete for one of the better volleyball programs in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) at Morgan State University.

Page added to her athletic and academic accolades as a board member with the Student Government Association, the Black Student Union, and a volunteer with the Emerging Youth Leaders program and All America’s Youth Growth & Development program. 

According to Page, the fact that two PG County athletes were selected for the scholarship disproves any negative stigma attached to local athletics and academics. 

“I feel like people tend to look down on PG County sometimes, so it shows, you know, we have talent that needs recognition too,” she said.