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Former wrestler goes to the mat for his kids

An English teacher by day, Paul Burke devotes his evenings teaching boys 5 through 14 years old the techniques of wrestling.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Cameron Wheeler, 7, wormed around and popped out of a headlock.

The move earned a comment from his wrestling partner and praise from the coach, Paul Burke.

"He got called "meanie,' " Burke said. "That means he's doing good."

Twice weekly, the peewees take to the mats at Roberts Recreation Center, 1246 50th Ave. N, where Burke teaches a beginning wrestling class to youngsters 5 through 14 years old.

This is the amateur version, the sport of high school, collegiate and Olympic athletes, no kin to the rasslin' circuses televised in huge arenas.

Burke, 27, has a pedigree in the sport. He was a protege of Russ Cozart, veteran wrestling coach at Hillsborough County's Brandon High School, widely known as having one of the state's consistently powerful programs.

During his days at Brandon a decade ago, Burke won a district championship and reached the state tournament one year. He finished second in his weight class at the 1991 AAU nationals.

During his senior year, he came back from a football knee injury to help the wrestling team. And after the 1992 wrestling season, he earned all-county and all-Western Conference division honors.

Burke sees Cozart as a father figure and role model. "He always taught that if it's hard, you work harder. I think I owe a lot of who I am to him," Burke said. "To this day, if I have a question, I call him and ask him."

Cozart, 47, is a six-time world champion in the veterans division. "I'm proud of Burke," Cozart said. "It's really nice to see him starting at a grass-roots level, teaching the young kids."

Burke, whose day job is teaching English at Falkenburg Academy in Tampa, coaches about a half-dozen youngsters during the 90-minute classes, including his son Kolton, 6.

All are boys, but Burke said he would "definitely" coach girls if any show interest. The next round of classes begins June 1 and will be held Tuesdays and Fridays, 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Fee is $40 for St. Petersburg residents, $56 for non-residents.

Burke keeps his charges busy.

After 15 minutes of warmup drills, the class starts practicing techniques.

Duck-unders, snap-downs and double-leg takedowns, for example.

"Now pay attention," Burke admonished during a class last week. "We're going to learn a new move."

It was a front headlock, and Burke demonstrated on Michael Schlesinger, a former Dixie Hollins High School wrestler watching his 9-year-old brother Brenden learn.

With his left arm, Burke grabbed the back of his opponent's right arm, circled his own right arm around his opponent's head and locked hands underneath. Burke also showed how to escape the hold.

"It's pretty technical stuff," said Warren Wheeler, one of the parents watching class. "(Burke) repeats it, and the kids get it, eventually."

Sometimes giggling and chatter rose from the mats, but Burke quelled incipient disorder.

"Less talk, more wrestling," he commanded.

Then it was on to learning about post-and-turn, circle-and-shoot and inside control.

- For information about the wrestling classes, call Roberts Recreation Center, 893-7754; or Burke at (727) 502-9587.

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