City wrestling legend inspired boys both on and off the mat

January 31, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

FOR THE PAST 25 years, Jerome Featherstone Sr. was known to local high school wrestling aficionados as "the only guy to beat Rico."

Rico is Rico Chiaparelli, perhaps the greatest wrestler to come out of the Baltimore area's greatest high school wrestling program: Mount St. Joseph. Chiaparelli went on to finish fifth, fourth and then first in the NCAA championships during his three years as a varsity starter at the University of Iowa.

Featherstone's life took a different path: three years in the Marines, a marriage of 19 years, three children, and coach of the McKim Center junior league wrestling team, where he steered perhaps dozens of black boys away from the clarion call of the streets.

Featherstone died Tuesday night as an ambulance drove him to Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax, Va. Slippery conditions caused his car to skid off the road and crash as he drove up Interstate 95 to his Harford County home from his job as a Homeland Security immigration agent in Arlington. He was 43.

Chiaparelli wrestled only three seasons at Mount St. Joseph before heading to New Jersey's Blair Academy for his senior year. Featherstone was the only Maryland wrestler to ever beat him in high school. But for his wife, children, friends and those boys in the East Baltimore neighborhood Featherstone grew up in, he was more than just "the only guy to beat Rico." His return to East Baltimore to help youngsters was something he had to do, felt compelled to do, after what happened to his brother James.

"[Jerome] wanted to make a difference," said Featherstone's wife, Pamela, "especially being from the projects."

It was in those East Baltimore housing projects where Featherstone saw his brother rousted from bed after 3 a.m. Police had come to arrest him for the murder of Johns Hopkins medical student Alan Paul Trimakis. That was in January 1979. James Featherstone, only 16 years old and a wrestler at Dunbar, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he still remains. Jerome Featherstone was a senior at Mervo.

Pamela Featherstone said her husband fervently believed that his brother was not the triggerman. The real shooter, she said, still walks East Baltimore's streets.

"Everybody knows he's the murderer," Pamela Featherstone said, "yet my brother-in-law is sitting in jail. But Jerome saw how being with the wrong people at the wrong time led to his brother's imprisonment."

Jerome Featherstone and his wife would often visit those East Baltimore projects and sometimes invite young men to their Harford County home. The boys had no parental figures to guide them, and her husband provided that.

"Jerome was a man amongst men," said Dwight Warren, Mervo's current wrestling coach who introduced Jerome and James to the sport when he coached at McKim. "He was a good wrestler, a great husband, a good coach and a supreme dad. He provided that missing link of structured discipline and love to a lot of kids. If I had a son, I'd like for him to emulate Jerome."

Jerome Featherstone's son, Jerome Jr., is already emulating him. I met Jerome Jr. at last year's Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association championships. He'd just lost a tough, close decision for the second time to Mount St. Joseph's Sam Lewnes. My friend Greg Brown introduced Jerome Jr. to me as "one of the nicest kids you'd ever want to meet."

Brown's description was right on target. We both assured Jerome Jr., a 160-pounder at Boys' Latin, that he'd beat Lewnes the next time. He did, in the finals of the state private schools championships. Jerome Jr.'s quiet, dignified demeanor wasn't a case of the apple not falling far from the tree. It was more a case of there being very little difference between the apple and the tree that comes along only once in the proverbial blue moon.

"I've been looking for another like Jerome for a long time," said Elmer Dize, Jerome Sr.'s coach at Mervo who is now an assistant coach at Overlea. "I can't think of a finer young man I've ever worked with, and I've been in the business 50 years. I can't remember him missing a practice or match."

Jerome Sr. twice placed third in the Maryland Scholastic Association championships. He could have won it, Dize said, but didn't want to drop a weight class and push another kid out of his spot.

That was totally in character for Jerome Sr. Before his Homeland Security job, he was a Howard County deputy sheriff who transported prisoners to court. Pamela Featherstone said she and her husband met one of the men who was released. The guy bought lunch for them.

"He said he just wanted to buy [Jerome] lunch because he treated him like a human being," Pamela Featherstone recalled.

Jerome Featherstone's public viewing will be from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Vaughn C. Green Funeral Home at 4905 York Road. The funeral will be Wednesday, with a family hour from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Mount Pleasant Church at 6000 Radecke Ave. Interment will be at 1:45 p.m. the same day at Garrison VA Forest Cemetery.

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