Hendricks keeps Mervo on the run

Veteran track coach wins even without facilities

May 14, 2002|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Freddie Hendricks is a man rich in respect, if poor in track facilities.

Beloved by colleagues and students for his personality and dedication, "Butter" has coached a highly successful track program for 30 years at Mervo - winning 11 conference and state titles - even though the red-brick school in northeast Baltimore has had no track of its own.

That's supposed to change. A $27 million renovation project at Mervo includes a track and football stadium that eventually will bear Hendricks' name. The facility, under construction since July 2000, is scheduled for completion this July.

However, the stadium is locked up, off-limits because of a lawsuit, said vice principal Margie Sasiadek.

BEKA Industries, Inc., is suing the city school system for $497,000 to cover cost overruns it claims occurred during construction, including the building of a stadium retaining wall and an underground drainage system.

Sasiadek said the stadium won't open until September 2003, in order to give the grass a year to establish itself. "The track could open sooner, but we'd have to find a way to keep people off the grass," she said.

Hendricks is 60 years old and would like to retire. He'd also like to coach on that track before he steps away. Right now, he's not sure what the future holds.

But, for another season, he's had to make due.

He readies his team for this week's Class 4A North Region championships at Poly by practicing at City College's track a half-mile away on 33rd Street, or by training for distance at Lake Montebello, directly in front of the Hillen Street school, or by running hills up Tivoli Street behind the school.

Because of the overall school renovations, the No. 2-ranked, 37-member boys team has no locker rooms, showers or weight room. It dresses in Hendricks' classroom before walking to City. Hendricks, a physical education teacher, loads track equipment into his car each day. The situation is especially frustrating for Hendricks because he almost can reach out and touch his dream. From a second-story classroom window, he gazes down upon the track. His expression drifts from longing to frustration to anger and finally to resignation.

He says the new track, which is completed except for a rubberized surface on top of its asphalt base, has problems. It is four to six inches too narrow, goes under water every time it rains, has ultra-sharp turns and the pole vault pit is dangerously located right next to a stadium light pole.

His disappointment is clearly evident; nevertheless, he swallows it.

"It's a mess. But I'm happy we finally got a track," he said. "That's enough. But it has taken so long. Calvert Hall built a track in four months."

A challenging environment hasn't stopped Hendricks and Mervo from achieving track success, thanks in part to his patience and meticulous attention to detail.

The Mustangs have won four outdoor state championships since joining the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association in 1993. Before that, they won seven Maryland Scholastic Association titles. And they have won nine of the past 10 city championships, including last Saturday's latest city title.

But for Hendricks, it is not all about championships. It's about teaching his athletes how to overcome adversity by stressing academics, building a tradition and convincing kids that high expectations and impressive achievements aren't just for those from better neighborhoods.

"He is the best thing that ever happened to me. He has kept me out of trouble. The whole team came from the deepest, baddest parts of Baltimore," said senior Andrew Hackett, a triple and high jumper who hopes to attend UMES. "But he has turned us around and made us who we are - good, civilized people. He's a father away from home, and a real, great human being who stresses being a team and practicing hard."

Although Mervo is considered a vocational school, with only about 25 percent of its seniors going on to college, all six seniors on the track team will attend college - four or five likely on scholarships.

"He teaches you to focus on grades," said senior half-miler Jabari Bush, one of the outstanding performers on this season's team. "A couple of times I slacked off, and he was always there to keep me on track. I admire him. He doesn't just teach you how to run, but to be a better person."

Hendricks has had the same assistant coach for 18 years - Ron Neal, a special education teacher at Canton Middle School who jumped for Hendricks from 1976 to 1978.

"It takes a great person to do what he does," said Neal, who coaches distance runners and jumpers. "He was a father figure for me, as he has been for many of these kids. The kids call him dad or grandpop instead of coach. He's filled in as a parent to many kids whose parents have died. I've dealt with a lot of coaches, but don't know of anyone else I'd rather work with."

Neal said Hendricks has a special talent for motivating the kids.

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