When Mae Jemison High School wrestler Tyrique Simms leapt into the arms of assistant coach Daryl Priest after winning a state title Feb. 16, it marked the latest chapter in the team’s amazing underdog story.
Jemison has finished in the top-10 team standings in each of the program’s first three years, has produced two individual state champs and has seen alumni earn full scholarships to universities such as Vanderbilt and Birmingham-Southern.
Perhaps no one is prouder of the Jaguars’ success, on and off the mat, than Chris Scribner. While teaching at J.O. Johnson in 2013, he founded the wrestling team that would evolve into Jemison’s program in late 2016. Scribner was the head coach of the first Jemison team, and he has assisted the Jaguars the past two seasons.
“I think that every single student at Mae Jemison High School, every wrestler on the team, can succeed, however they define success,” said Scribner, 31, a New York City native who attended Georgetown University. “I’m not going to be satisfied until every single student at that school gets what they want out of life. That seems like a lofty goal, but it’s really not. If every human life has value, I can’t just sit here and be like ‘I’m OK that, for some people, life doesn’t work out well.'”
Huntsville City Council President Devyn Keith, a northwest Huntsville native, took early notice of Scribner’s work.
“Scribner and the individuals around the program are everything that is needed in northwest Huntsville,” said Keith, who played football at Samford University.
“I was a product of people like Scribner supporting me, that got me to the next level in life. When people make the investments that they don’t have to make, there are usually good outcomes on the other end.”
Do you see what I see?
Simms is the latest Jemison success story. The sophomore, in only his second year wrestling, helped the Jaguars finish seventh as a team in their first season after moving up to Class 6A. His improbable run to the 113-pound title included a semifinal victory over reigning 106-pound state champ George Vazquez of Pinson Valley.
“No one but the Jags expected him to be a state champion,” Scribner said. “I was just thankful that he qualified for the state tournament. Then he goes and wins the thing. The best part about it was, I looked over in the corner of the VBC and I see all his teammates from the Jaguar family blowing up and jumping up and so excited. It was like they all won a state championship.”
The soft-spoken Simms won 30 of his 42 matches for the season.
“He’s a hard worker, respectful and has the highest quality of character,” Scribner said. “He’s the type of person who, when I’m an employer one day, I’m going to hire. He’s just an amazing person to have on the team. Even though he doesn’t talk a lot, his actions speak for themselves, and his actions are always positive.”
Taking a chance
Scribner never planned on launching a wrestling program. He arrived at Johnson via the Teach for America program in summer of 2013 and had his sights set on becoming the Jaguars’ track and field coach.
Scribner ran in college, so track seemed like a natural fit. On his first day at Johnson, he approached assistant principal Roderick Tomlin about coaching track. Tomlin said that Johnson was in greater need of a wrestling coach, so Scribner, who wrestled in high school, accepted the position. What he didn’t know was that he had just taken over a team that didn’t exist. Johnson had gone more than a decade without a wrestling program. Scribner had no wrestlers, no assistant coaches, no practice mat and no uniforms.
He was undeterred.
“I’m a little crazy and something just clicked,” Scribner said. “It was like ‘We’ve got to make this thing happen.'”
Johnson placed 17th as a team in 2015 and eighth in 2016.
Scribner and his underclassmen moved down the street to Jemison High School, a newly built facility, following the final year students attended classes at the J.O. Johnson campus.
The inaugural Jemison squad finished fifth in 2017, and Jailen Young became the first Jaguars state champion in any sport when he captured the Class 1A-5A, 106-pound title.
A village of support
In addition to giving kids an opportunity to compete, the Jemison wrestling program has a goal of seeing each of its seniors accepted to college.
“Scribner is not from Alabama,” Keith said. “Nobody told him to do the things he’s done to help those kids. He just knew it needed to be done. From a council member to a school teacher to mayor to senator, we have to care about the people who are not our neighbors.”
Scribner left Jemison following the 2017-18 school year to study law at Vanderbilt. He has continued to make the trek from Nashville to help Jemison wrestling. He and Priest were assistant coaches this past season for Vincent Nuckols, a math teacher who served as faculty sponsor and head coach.
“If we didn’t have coach Nuckols and coach Priest, who volunteer their time for the kids, we wouldn’t have a team,” Scribner said.
And it’s not just Jemison coaches that Scribner credits with the team’s success.
“The coaches in Huntsville City Schools played an integral part in the resurrection of Jaguars Wrestling,” Scribner said. “Coach Dowd at Butler helped me make my first schedule and then became my assistant for three years. He’s now one of the best head coaches in Alabama. Coach Cagle from Columbia and Coach Harris at Huntsville have been incredible mentors.
Scribner said no one gave him the motivation and model for success like Joe Dasaro, Grissom’s longtime head wrestling coach who is retiring in 2019 after being one of the winningest high school coaches in the state in any sport.
“He gave me the motivation to start the team and to take this responsibility seriously,” Scribner said. “I love him for what he did for our program, and this state will miss having him around as much. Huntsville is the best city in America. Coaches like these and students like those on the Jemison wrestling team exemplify that.”
“I’m proud of the kids. They are a family and they’ve turned this team into something way more than wrestling. I think sports are great and I think wrestling is great, but it’s not about sports. Jemison wrestling is really about family and spirituality, frankly. I think the kids have created that.”