Tragedy in grappling with right and wrong

March 20, 2002|By Gregory Kane

"YOUR CHOICE."

How often a wrestler hears those two words. In my day, the choice came after the first of three two-minute periods. All a guy had to do was choose whether he would start the second period in the up (offensive) position or the bottom (defensive) position. Occasionally, the decision made the difference between victory or defeat.

When I wrestled, the combatants made the choice. These days, most wrestlers look to the sidelines and have their coaches decide if they should choose top, bottom, neutral or to defer the choice to the opponent. (The latter two choices were added by the reformers who never tire of tinkering with an already great sport that doesn't need improvement.)

Wrestling was a better sport when wrestlers made the choice. It was that one act, that choice of up or down, that made wrestling the sport that most closely resembles life, which is, basically, just a struggle against this obstacle and that one, a series of choices that lead us to success or failure.

Kevan Fletcher must have made the right on-the-mat choices often at Patterson High School. He joined the team at the start of the 2000-2001 season, his sophomore year. Fletcher came to Patterson from Walbrook High School - "swaggered in" is probably the better expression, to hear Patterson wrestling coach Troy Stevenson tell it - and, in short order, had challenged half of Stevenson's squad to a wrestle-off.

"My name is Kevan Fletcher, and I'm your new wrestler," Fletcher told Stevenson when they met the first time. Stevenson reminded Fletcher that at Patterson, the wrestlers keep their grades up and themselves out of trouble. Fletcher answered that he was on the honor roll at Walbrook.

Stevenson's new wrestler won 28 matches - a record for a sophomore. This season, Fletcher came in second in the city tournament and placed fourth in the regional tournament, qualifying for the states.

Last week, nine days after competing in the state tourney, Fletcher was found dead in his East Baltimore rowhouse. Police said he had been beaten in the head and shot. An 18-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Police said all three young men knew each other.

We still don't know if Fletcher made bad choices that led to his death. The police investigation continues. We can only hope that Fletcher is blameless. We already know that another area high school athlete made an awful decision that led to his death.

Derrick Breedlove, good enough in football to win an athletic scholarship to Virginia's Hampton University, tried to rob a Dundalk liquor store the same week Fletcher was killed. A store clerk shot Breedlove dead.

Darien Kess, whose wrestling talent far surpassed Fletcher's and that of possibly every other kid in the area, made all the right choices on the mat and none off it. The same season Fletcher walked up to Stevenson and announced himself as Patterson's new wrestler, Kess was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country. He was a shoo-in for an athletic scholarship at perennial collegiate wrestling powerhouse Iowa State. But Kess got himself kicked out of Overlea High School - as he had done previously at Archbishop Curley High School - and now sits in jail on attempted murder, assault and robbery charges.

Breedlove and Kess join other Baltimore-area athletic knuckleheads whose bad choices ruined their lives: Dunbar's Skip Wise (drug dealing), Cardinal Gibbons' Quentin Dailey and Northwestern's Adrian "Birdman" Ward (rape).

So Fletcher's the guy we should all hope made no bad off-the-mat choices. At his funeral yesterday at Gospel Tabernacle Baptist Church, folks said he did all the right things. Fletcher helped his mom and grandmother out when they were sick, joined the church three years ago, made average if not great grades and spent his free time writing or improvising rap lyrics.

That was the Fletcher whom Stevenson and the throng of mourners packed in the West Baltimore church remembered.

"I'll never forget his wiggling hands, his staggered walk or the unnecessary Band-Aids," Stevenson said as Fletcher's friends, schoolmates, teammates and relatives laughed in appreciation. "He is a young man all of us, especially me, will never forget."

Stevenson strode from the mike and back up the aisle after completing his comments, then stopped and turned. He went back and placed a wrestling medal on Fletcher's coffin. Then, wiping tears from his eyes, Stevenson walked back up the aisle as many of the mourners stood and applauded his words.

"He was looking forward to coming back and wrestling one more year," Stevenson said outside the church after he, four of Fletcher's teammates and three of his friends acted as pallbearers.

There will be no more choices for Kevan Fletcher. The appropriate punishment for his killers would be life with no choice of parole.

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