For over a decade, Naseen Pennington has been a familiar face at the BTSP mentoring center and on wrestling mats throughout Philadelphia. From wrestling on youth days at the Palestra & stopping by the mentoring center on weekdays to leading his high school team & setting an example of excellence at our mentoring center, it’s been so rewarding watching Naseen grow, overcome obstacles, and become the young man he is today.
Naseen’s wrestling career began in the third grade at Belmont Charter when Coach Ed McCabe encouraged him to give it a try. Where many kids begin wrestling with at least some trepidation, Naseen enjoyed it right from the start. He enjoyed the physicality of the sport, the early success he found competing, and being a part of a close-knit team.
One part of being on the wrestling team that Naseen really liked, in fact, wasn’t a part of the sport at all. Following practices, a Penn wrestling alumnus who had coached at Belmont, Geoffrey Bostany, would regularly take a group of Belmont wrestlers to the BTSP mentoring center in University City. While Naseen and his teammates were a little younger than the typical BTSP mentoring participant, Geoffrey would regularly bring the team there and Naseen remembers it fondly. “I never really had much homework back then, but we all enjoyed being there. It was a safe place to go after school, to socialize, and of course to grab some snacks!” Despite getting little done academically at the mentoring center back then, Naseen was an excellent student who consistently earned A’s & B’s through his middle school years. Through his success, he earned the opportunity to attend high school at the special-admit school Parkway Center City.
As a wrestler, Naseen consistently got better through his younger years and in his 8th grade season he qualified for the PJW State Tournament. Although he came up short, losing in the blood round, he remembers feeling content in knowing that he gave his best effort consistently—and his coaches agreed! To this day, Coach McCabe remembers Naseen as the epitome of hard work and humility. Whether it was drilling, conditioning, or just showing up on time, McCabe always knew Naseen could be relied on. To illustrate his point, Coach McCabe shared a little story with me about Naseen’s determination:
“In his 8th grade year, training for the PJW State Tournament, we ran an ironman drill at the end of one of our final practices. For 10 minutes, we rotated 5 coaches (some were active collegiate guys) in on the kids & it obviously tested their conditioning & mental toughness. Naseen didn’t fade during the drill, it was awesome to watch. Then, in the final minute of the drill, Naseen actually took down one of the college guys we had helping in the room! After practice, once the kids had left, I told the college guy it was a smart move to give up that takedown and he said that wasn’t his plan – Naseen just caught him!”
For many Belmont kids entering high school, the transition can be challenging. Where small class sizes & an abundance of staff provides Belmont the capacity to ‘meet kids where they’re at’, most high schools do not offer the same type of individual support – especially rigorous special-admit schools. Despite being an excellent student and hard worker, Naseen was no exception to this struggle. Early in 9th grade, Naseen saw his typical A’s & B’s he had earned at Belmont dip significantly – again, not due to laziness or poor decision-making, but rather feeling overwhelmed & somewhat lost. As he struggled, Naseen began to return to a familiar place, Belmont. Coach McCabe was of course happy to see Naseen and used to having alumni visit, but eventually it got to the point where Naseen was dropping by, almost daily. Shortly after, McCabe learned that Naseen was really struggling to adjust to the high school workload and he quickly reconnected Naseen with the mentoring center at BTSP. Having been familiar with the center from his younger years, Naseen was easily convinced to get reengaged. After getting some advice from BTSP staff & McCabe, Naseen actually decided it would be in his best interest to ‘press pause’ on wrestling for South Philadelphia High School (Parkway doesn’t offer wrestling) to get his academics under control. Naseen was then paired with a mentor in Jake Johanson and immediately the two got along. Jake remembers being impressed with Naseen right away. “His understanding of his own shortcomings and his eagerness to improve was extremely impressive. I just felt lucky (and still do) to be working with such a driven kid.”
Naseen & Jake worked together twice weekly, for hours at a time over the course of the next three years (At the time, typical, one-on-one BTSP mentoring sessions took place for about one hour each week). Jake helped Naseen develop tactics for staying organized, provided homework help, and held him accountable to stay ahead of his studies. The two were regularly among the last to leave the office each night, working on various projects or doing extra work to get ahead. Beyond that, Jake was someone Naseen could lean on. “It didn’t matter if it was about school, wrestling, or really anything – it was really nice to know I had someone who was vested in me succeeding” Naseen said. Naseen saw improvements in the classroom quickly during his freshman year but admitted that it wasn’t easy for him by any means. As his grades improved, he didn’t get complacent either. Naseen continued to work with Jake on virtually the same schedule throughout the remainder of his high school years.
As his grades went up toward the end of his freshman year, Naseen and those around him felt like he had the structure in place to add wrestling back into the mix. To close out the year, Naseen finished 5th in the Philadelphia Public League which left him hungry for more in years to come. Once he learned to manage his time effectively, he was able to commit more time to wrestling. Each of his next three seasons, Naseen earned 20+ victories and qualified for the PIAA AAA NE Regional Tournament. Although he never managed to make it to the state tournament, Naseen is content with how things played out knowing the effort he put in. As Naseen puts it “I achieved my goals in wrestling. I wasn’t a state qualifier, but I always left it all out on the mat & I know I gave it everything I had. My goal was to finish it out & to never quit. I accomplished that & I’m proud knowing that.” Looking back on what he’s learned from the sport, Naseen put it succinctly, “What I love about the sport is that you get out what you put in. There’s basically no luck and there aren’t handouts. Hard work is rewarded with success and fulfillment.”
Next year, Naseen has decided to attend a two-year program at Community College of Philadelphia to study Behavioral Health & Human Services before finishing his degree at a four-year university. Although he elected to attend CCP, it should also be noted that Naseen earned a significant scholarship to attend Eastern University in PA. After reviewing the information in front of him, Naseen and his family felt like CCP would be the best choice for him and his goals. Congratulations Naseen!
Editor’s Note: Beyond assisting Naseen, Jake has had a tremendous impact on many more kids at Beat the Streets Philadelphia. Jake was a catalyst in sparking action toward a major mat room renovation project at Belmont Charter – Naseen’s old wrestling room! The project, completed by BTSP in partnership with Resilite, Puro-Tec, & Digitas Health, provided a much-needed facilities upgrade to the Belmont mat room which serves nearly 200 wrestlers each year. Thank you Jake!!!