What began in jest has become a serious commitment for Dunbar's Martius Harding.
And if the 15-year-old junior remains on course, his new-found hobby could mean an all-expenses-paid college education.
In March, Harding completed his second varsity wrestling season, yet he compiled a 27-6 record with 13 pins. He was second in the Baltimore City and Maryland Scholastic Association tournaments. His year-ending 1A-2A state runner-up finish was the highest of any city wrestler, earning him a No. 6 ranking by the Maryland State Wrestling Association.
"When football ended in my freshman year, I just wanted another sport," said Harding, who turns 16 on July 20. "A school announcement was made about wrestling, and I went out as a joke."
Lately, however, his opponents aren't laughing.
The 5-foot-8 Harding is spending his summer training with the Northwest Wrestling Club, which competes out of McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
Last weekend, Harding was one of five champions for Northwest in the Amateur Athletic Union Grand Nationals at Hersheypark Arena. He won the Greco-Roman competition and was second in freestyle.
"I was totally focused," said Harding, who had a pin and two technical falls in Greco-Roman, and two pins and a decision in freestyle. He led his freestyle title bout, 5-0, before being pinned.
"I was blowing him out, then I just relaxed," said Harding. "But I was totally demolishing people until then."
Harding has wrestled successfully from 165 to 178 pounds since May -- a fact he attributes to workouts with two-time All-American and Owings Mills graduate Grant Johnson, a three-time state champ and The Baltimore Sun's 1992-93 Wrestler of the Year.
They train every day, preparing for the July 6-10 Cadet Nationals in Columbus, Mo.
"Martius is intelligent, very athletic and very disciplined. He shows a lot of dedication, taking the subway from the city to practice," said Johnson, who is headed for Boston University.
"Last year, I worked out a little with [Randallstown's 1991-92 Wrestler of the Year] Mike Jenson, now I look up to Grant," said Harding, whose 3.8 grade-point average makes him an attractive college prospect. "Someday, hopefully, I can do what they've done."
He was 4-0 in a freestyle tournament on May 9 in Wilkes Barre, Pa., where he had three technical falls. Two weeks later, Harding went 4-1 for second place in the freestyle regionals in Elizabethtown, N.J., with a 2-1 win over Mount St. Joseph All-Metro Danny DeVivo.
The win avenged Harding's 3-1 MSA title bout loss to DeVivo, who was heavily favored, having qualified for the July 6-9 Cadet World Championships in Duisburg, Germany, and the Aug. 1-10 Tour de Monde in Bulgaria.
"I knew Danny's style and felt the odds were in my favor," said Harding, who was second in the May 29 East Coast Club championships. "You can lose focus at big events, but I'm learning to take control under pressure."
During the city's inaugural venture into the 1992-93 state tournament, Dunbar's was the most successful program. Three sophomores -- Harding, Bruce Pendles (112, fourth) and Hermondez Thompson (130, fourth) -- paced the Poets to eighth place in the 70-team field.
Pendles was the big name throughout the season, having
become the Poets' youngest MSA champ a year earlier. Pendles won this year's city title, later finishing second in the MSA and regionals.
"There were points where I got jealous," Harding said. "But I told myself, 'Your day will come.' "
Harding went only 10-9 as a freshman, so his efforts last winter surprised most. Inside, however, Harding wanted to do even better.
"Losing focus was the main reason I lost so many championships," Harding said. "Some days I'd practice hard, other days I wouldn't. Then I'd get psyched out in the match."
After having scored two overtime victories over Walbrook's Jamil Stokely, Harding lost to Stokely, 13-6, in the city tournament's title bout. A week later, he placed third in the regionals, losing a 4-3 semifinal to Northeast's two-time regional champ Al Grunder.
The following weekend, Harding reached the state title bout after handing Francis Scott Key's fourth-ranked county and regional champ Ed Null only his second loss in 34 bouts.
Harding lost the title-bout rematch with Grunder, 10-4, but Johnson says things will be different over the next two seasons.
"Martius is beating guys who have wrestled a lot longer than he has," Johnson said. "By his senior year, he might exceed what I've done."