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More than 170 Philadelphia children younger than 18 years old were direct victims of gun violence in 2020.
That number doesn’t touch on the reverberating effects of the shootings, of kids watching their friends vanish before their eyes, before they can follow their dreams, before they can even graduate high school.
Jeff Whittingham, an Atlantic City native who became a Temple football star, is hoping to do his part to interrupt the siege of violence with a free jiu jitsu program for local teens.
The initiative launches Wednesday at Gracie Academy, where Whittingham trains. The South Philly Brazilian martial arts school is donating the space and lending some instructors, after the studio owner saw Whittingham mentoring young athletes on Instagram.
“This is the perfect opportunity to change the narrative in Philadelphia,” Whittingham said, “because the homicide rates were at an all-time high last year.”
Called “Growth, Love, Success,” the program will host around 20 middle and high school-aged kids each Wednesday to learn a modern take on the ancient Japanese martial art designed to help smaller fighters overpower their opponent.
Whittingham said he knows the sport isn’t the norm for kids of color in Philly. “In Black communities, you hear about boxing, basketball, football,” he said. “You never see a Black man or Black kids do jiu jitsu.”
Matin Bryant, in his first year of high school at Universal Audenried, started practicing with Whittingham in the summer. He said he’d never really thought about martial arts before, but that he started working with Whittingham after a friend suggested it.
“When you first see him, you’d probably think he’s this scary person,” Bryant said of his brawny, 6’2″ mentor. “But when you actually get to meet him, he’s a funny person. He makes the work fun.”
The 15-year-old is ordinarily a football player. The sport’s been put on hold by COVID, so the jiu jitsu is even more welcome.
‘I was one of those kids’
Whittingham, now 30, attended Temple on a full football scholarship. When he graduated with a criminal justice degree, he wasn’t picked at the NFL draft and decided free agency wasn’t for him.
In 2016, he started hosting annual Christmas toy drives and backpack drives. In spring 2019, he discovered jiu jitsu. Whittingham took to the martial art and, as a long time athlete and competitor, quickly began winning competitions.
He had a near death experience when he sustained head trauma during a competition. Inspired to do more, Whittingham engaged in a 25-day personal project of random acts of kindness.
That led to his plan to mentor kids in Philly and give them something to do outside their neighborhood, as well as instill positive values. “I was one of these kids,” he said, “so I know what it’s like to go through certain situations.”
High school student Bryant grew up watching martial arts on TV and in movies. Is the real-life sport anything like the Hollywood version? “Not at all,” Bryant said.
The lessons the sport teaches — control, patience, mindfulness and discipline — are translatable skills Whittingham wants to pass down to his mentees.
Those lessons are already catching on with Bryant, who said it’s taught him “not to give up.
“Always keep pushing,” Bryant continued. “And when you feel like you’re about to give up, work 10 times harder.”
Interested parents can sign up or join the waitlist by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.