As a prison corrections officer, Tyrone Neal has seen what a life without an education can do.
"For most of the guys in there, it's a vicious cycle -- they get out and they end up coming right back in," said Neal, who works the night shift at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup. "You can put a newspaper out for them and they can't read it. Most of them never got past the sixth grade."
And as a first-year wrestling coach at Southern High, Neal is going to do what he can to keep his wrestlers on the right path.
"A lot of the kids say I coach like they're in boot camp," said Neal, a 1971 Southern graduate who was a two-time high school state champion wrestler.
"But what I see at work makes me work even harder to help the kids improve. And if they work hard, they can make it. They can do anything they want to do. I emphasize getting an education and getting through school."
That's what Neal did. He went on to collegiate wrestling glory at Montgomery College-Rockville, winning two JuCo National titles, and at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he was a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference champion.
Since building his Edgewater home 12 years ago -- next door to the house he grew up in and where his parents still live -- Neal, 38, has mellowed with age, partly because his job at Southern has taken him back to his roots.
Neall recalls, "Every time South River had to wrestle Southern I used to hate it -- but I never told them."
He won't have to worry about the Seahawks until his Bulldogs visit South River High on Jan. 5. And after nine years as an assistant coach at South River, Neal said coaching in his own backyard is a bonus.
The fact that his 15-year-old son, Sherrard, is also on the team, is just the icing on the cake.
"When I started assistant coaching at South River, Sherrard was just 1 year old," said Neal, whose other son, Tyrone Jr., 12, a three-time junior league county champion, also will attend Southern in a couple of years.
"I told my wife, Cynthia, that it would be a dream to coach my kids through high school."
"Having him as a coach was kind of hard to accept at first, but then I started calling him 'coach,' " said Sherrard, who was a regional runner-up as a sophomore. "He's heavy into discipline, but he never puts anybody down. He's very good in that way."
In a few years, Neal's job could become even more family-oriented. His nephews, Tremain, 13, and Ryan Graves, 12, hope to graduate into the Southern program from the United Youth Junior League.
Neal said the head coaching job keeps him a little busier than last year, when he assisted then-head coach Larry Bozzella, but it also helps keep him in shape.
"The best part about (the coaching job) is that I still get to work out.
I know what it takes to stay in shape and being able to practice is an incentive," said Neal, who weighs a staunch 178 pounds and enters an occasional tournament now and then.
"You might find it hard to believe, but teaching these kids can be harder than what I've been doing at my other job for the past few years."
The mat is Neal's classroom. In fact, Guy Pritzger says, one only gets on the wrestling mat with Neal when it's time for a lesson.
"When he grabs hold of you, he's got your full attention. There's only one way you're going to get him off of you and that's with a hacksaw," said Pritzger, the head wrestling coach of Owings Mills High in Baltimore County.
"About six years ago was the last time I wrestled him in an over-30 tournament," said Pritzger. "In his previous match, I had seen a guy get taken off in an ambulance after Neal finished with him. So I asked Tyrone to take it easy on me. So he pins me, picks me up to my feet and brushes me off and asks me, 'Was that easy enough for you?' "I just wanted to get off the mat. The guy is just tough and I have a terminal fear of wrestling him."
Since their first meeting, Pritzger has gotten to know Neal pretty well.
"Tyrone's one of those guys who is very humble, but he has high expectations for discipline and grades as well," said Pritzger. "He'll raise the level of that program and he'll do it for the kids."
Neal certainly has no problem getting his message across to his wrestlers.
Senior Jason Braithwait is all ears. He believes that Neal can help him improve on last year's season, when Braithwait (152 pounds) was a county and regional champion as well as a state tournament runner-up.
"You not only hear what he's saying, but you feel it. He gets right out there and wrestles with us and shows us how the moves should feel," said Braithwait, who was 33-2 last year. "He's got us setting real high goals for ourselves and we're looking for a real good season."
Under Bozzella, the Bulldogs went 8-6 last season, with a 140-pound state titlist, Larry Bozzella Jr., Braithwait finishing as a runner-up and Chuck Rollins (189) placing third.
Neal wants to improve on that and has his Bulldogs pointed in the right direction.