Longtime Rizzo PAL athlete, coach James Mangan named Beat the Streets executive director
By Melissa Komar
James Mangan speaks with the confidence of a veteran in his role as executive director for Beat the Streets Philadelphia, despite entering the second official day on the job when he stops to reflect about his new responsibilities.
It might be because he has prepared for the position for 27 years.
Beat the Streets is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that helps establish and manage wrestling programs in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and provides mentoring youth development services to “alter the trajectory” of student-athletes’ lives.
The wrestling program at Rizzo PAL in Port Richmond where Mangan got his start is one of the programs that has been affiliated with Beat the Streets since the organization was established in 2009.
The 35-year-old Frankford native took to the mats of Rizzo PAL when he was 8 years old and wrestled with the organization until he attended Community College of Philadelphia.
“It’s always been a Rizzo PAL experience for me,” Mangan said. “Rizzo was the only program in Philadelphia at the time that had wrestling for youth.”
While wrestling at Frankford High School, he was a volunteer coach at PAL and returned as an assistant coach after college.
But before he was sporting the PAL singlet, he was a football player.
Mangan and his parents heard about the wrestling program from fellow families involved in the Frankford Boys Club football program who lived in Port Richmond and Fishtown.
“That first practice turned into many afterward,” Mangan said. “Initially, it was to complement training for football and it quickly became my sole focus as an athlete. Wrestling took priority rather quickly. By the time I got to high school, it was all about wrestling.”
Officer Ernie Rehr, center director at Rizzo PAL, came to the facility a couple years after Mangan started wrestling.
“I tried to turn him into a third baseman in 1992 for my baseball team and that was a short-lived experiment,” said Rehr laughing. “He went right back to wrestling.”
Even as a young child, Mangan had exhibited leadership qualities, according to Rehr.
“He was a leader on the wrestling team as a youth. He was a leader on his high school team and just adapted to become a volunteer coach,” he said.
Being able to see one of the longtime participants and coaches from Rizzo PAL go on to lead an organization so intertwined with its programs is what makes Rehr’s job worthwhile.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “Between the mentoring of head wrestling coach Ed Schneider who has guided him every year and to have mentored him as his PAL officer, Jim becomes the success story we can portray to other kids.”
Rehr, along with longtime coach and Fishtown native Schneider, became two of Mangan’s main role models.
“Officer Ernie has been the officer here since I was involved,” Mangan said. “That consistency over the years that provided in the program was really helpful. Knowing what to expect, having routine in my life and his dedication to the mission of cops helping kids was very important.”
Schneider was just as influential
“Coach Schneider was really my long-term mentor,” Mangan said. “As a kid growing up, it’s one thing to have a strong parent relationship, but you really need adults in different capacities to support and mentor. Schneider was certainly that for me, not only in wrestling, but just having conversations about life.”
The Mayfair resident remembers being in seventh grade and through those conversations with Schneider, he began to think about where he would go to high school and life beyond.
Schneider met Mangan in 1990 and remembers his drive even at an early age.
“My earliest memory of Jim was we were at a small tournament at Bishop Egan High School and Jim took first place and he was the only kid from our program that took first place that day,” he said.
For the next two decades, Schneider worked with Mangan, first as an athlete and then as a fellow coach.
“Jim helped raise the bar for developing kids not only into wrestlers, but into good people and students,” Schneider said. “After knowing Jim for almost 30 years and watch him develop into a successful adult and family man, it’s amazing that he truly has the opportunity to play a part in shaping the future direction of wrestling in Philadelphia.”
When Mangan was involved with wrestling at PAL, the focus was on middle school students, with high school wrestlers serving as mentors to the younger athletes.
“It’s always been a regional training hub for amateur wrestling in the city,” he said. “When high school practices were over, I’d play a role coaching and helping. There would always be a few kids like me so we could train together before and after those practices. It always provided that opportunity to give back to the community through volunteerism, but continue to work on my skills as a wrestler.”
The landscape of high school wrestling in Philadelphia was also different.
When Mangan wrestled at Frankford, Philadelphia schools were not yet competing in the PIAA.
“Once you got to the end of your public-school season, your season was over, whereas the suburban schools and most of the other schools in Pennsylvania would go on to their regional and state championships.”
Rather than tally wins, Mangan ranks being part of the successful wrestling program at Frankford, which, along with the program at Northeast Catholic High School, helped open doors for future athletes to compete at the PIAA state level, he said.
Entering its ninth wrestling season, Beat the Streets was a key component in expanding the wrestling culture in Philadelphia even further.
“The timing of it was wonderful. You had my generation of wrestlers go on to have great results at the high school and youth level, and there was just a sheer need for wrestling in the city,” Mangan said. “It aligned pretty closely with the Olympic wrestling issue where it was almost pulled from the Olympics, so there was a big national campaign to support wrestling. The landscape of wrestling in Philadelphia now is completely different than it was 10 years ago.”
Within a year of its formation, Beat the Streets helped established 10 programs in the city, according to Mangan.
“That really created a league for different programs to compete against each other, but still share a brotherhood that Philadelphia is known for,” he said. “So as these kids went to compete at different tournaments, they traveled as one with Beat the Streets, but still had competitiveness among them because they had team associations separate from Beat the Streets.”
Beat the Streets sponsors the individual programs to help them achieve their goals.
And these goals go beyond the mat. Mentoring and emphasizing education are just as important to the mission of Beat the Streets.
Mangan talked about wrestlers who never considered college and some who went on to Ivy League schools because of Beat the Streets.
“Wrestling is the transportation mechanism to get kids further along,” he said. “The discipline, work ethic and perseverance you learn on the mat supports the overall mission, and those are lessons I’ve applied to my family and business life. That’s how Beat the Streets separates itself and serves kids in the city in a way like never before.”
And while wrestling is as embedded in his blood as his DNA, it comes second to family.
“It’s family first. Career was always secondary to me,” Mangan said. “Having two boys, I thought it was important for us to remain in the city. The diversity and culture is paramount. My wife and I both grew up here and there’s that legacy. It just reinforces the importance of family.”
Sons Tyler, 13, and Carter, 8, are carrying on that legacy of family and wrestling on the mats of Rizzo PAL.
Now, Mangan will have “an extended family of 1,400 more sons and daughters.”
As executive director, Mangan will report to the Beat the Streets board of directors and oversee all the operations while carrying out the organization’s mission, “positively altering life’s trajectory.”
BTS uses wrestling and mentoring to accomplish this mission, having served approximately 1,400 student-athletes in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas in 2016.
“Wrestling is the catalyst. It’s the feeder,” Mangan said. “Being able to make a difference in roughly 1,400 kids in Philadelphia with Beat the Streets and giving them opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise through wrestling and mentoring and academic tutoring is amazing.”
Mangan will direct community relations and lead fundraising efforts to expand the program, and, he will still coach.
“That will always be a part of what I do,” Mangan said. “The amount of time and energy I put into the coaching at PAL for the last 18 years, that won’t go away.”
As executive director, Mangan has two immediate goals: expanding the mentoring department through off-site annexes and expanding opportunities for girls to participate in wrestling.
“The impact like Police Athletic League and Beat the Streets has had on me personally, with my own development and the development of my boys, is a similar story shared with 1,400 kids that wouldn’t have otherwise had that opportunity,” he said. “Making sure we stay true to that mission for every student-athlete of altering life’s trajectory regardless of what program they’re in or what part of the city they came from, or whether they are a boy or a girl, is the goal.”