By Sandy Stevens
Like the lead character in a drama, Henry Priest declares, “Wrestling saved my life.”
The camera then pans a series of scenes: the premiere at the May 2007 Cannes Film Festival of a Priest-produced film, “American Identity,” a story of two soldiers affected by Sept. 11; the 37-year-old Californian developing sports-related films as executive producer of productions for the National High School Coaches Association; audiences intent on Priest’s inspiring tale at leadership and motivational workshops.
Turn your attention now to the flashback.
Along with an older sister and two younger brothers, Priest was born and reared in East Los Angeles, an area, he says, “pretty much known to have a large population of gang members.” In fact, for three generations, his family members and friends had succumbed to the pressure to join local gangs.
Though Priest resisted, he recalls, “I had all this negative energy piled up. I was this angry kid.”
Then during Priest’s junior year at Schurr High School in Montebello, the wrestling coach sought him out. “I was recruited because I was this tiny, tough kid,” Priest says. “I competed at 98 pounds my senior year.”
Still, gang life was always within arm’s reach. “While I was at practice, focusing on setting goals and being part of a team, my cousins were in a gang, getting shot and shooting people,” he says. “There were even times when after practice, I would go visit my cousins in the hospital.
“Wrestling kept me off the streets and in the gym and among mentors pointing me in the right direction, and there was structure in the wrestling team, the same as in a gang.”
He also found success. Ranked eighth in the state, he finished just one match away from placing in the master’s tournament, the qualifier for the one-division California state tournament, one of the toughest state meets in the nation.
Priest hadn’t aspired to go beyond high school, but his coaches got together and presented him with a $300 scholarship to the local community college. It paid for his first semester.
One coach told him, “If you can succeed in wrestling, you can succeed in anything else in life. Until now, you haven’t been pointed in the right direction.”
That gift also planted a seed in Priest. After attending Rio Hondo Community College and earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Whittier College to become the only college graduate in his family, Priest created the Schurr Wrestling Alumni Team or SWAT.
“Former wrestlers would come back and help me coach,” he says. “I’d calculate their hours and (on that basis) they would get scholarships through AmeriCorps. In 1999, we gave away $30,000.”
Approximately 40 alums from East Los Angeles returned to aid the wrestling program, Priest says. Numbered among that group are men who have become teachers, an accountant, a police office and the owner of a million-dollar business.
“Not all of them were interested in college but in the momentum (of the program),” Priest says. “It created this beautiful synergy within the neighborhood.”
He also coached at El Monte High School and taught skill development courses. “I was brought in to curb the dropout rate,” he says. “Basically, I’m great about working with at-risk kids because I was an at-risk kid.”
While he was still in college, however, filmmaking entered Priest’s life when his coach sent several guys to audition for “Spooner,” a wrestling story staring Robert Ulrich. Priest gained a supporting role and thought that was it.
“I walked away from Hollywood because I wasn’t trying to be an actor,” he says. “Then one day I got a call from Nike for an audition. I didn’t get the role, but I became their technical adviser.”
Next he scored a commercial for Adidas and several other companies, and a role in “Underdog,” a wrestling film by Disney that was showcased around the world.
“This film thing was happening on weekends and on the side, and I never respected it,” Priest says.
Then in 2002, the grants supporting his teaching program ran out. “I realized I had Nike, Adidas and Disney on my resume,” Priest says, “and I figured I should be doing something else.”
Friends in film school helped him learn how to produce. “They paid for school, and I got a free education,” he says. “Now I have more than five big budget feature films in development, and I’m attached to many about our sport that are racing to be the next ‘Vision Quest’”
He produced “Veritas,” the story of Lehigh wrestler Jon Trenge, which was screened at this year’s NHSCA senior finals. “We’re talking to distribution companies, hoping to do a theatrical and DVS release this summer,” Priest says.
A script in development for “Beyond the Mat” deals with two high school best friends who find themselves in the same weight class. “The script was selected out of 300 in competition for a presentation in New York, which means there’s a buzz about the script,” Priest says.
He is also working on a script about his own life, including a time when a family member was murdered. Without his knowledge, Priest’s relatives who were gang member made arrangements for him to avenge the loss. They called him into a meeting and said, “You have to be ‘down’ for the family.”
“I’m so ‘down,’ I’m going to change this family,” he replied.
Living in downtown Los Angeles, Priest is now training and coaching two of his nephews, as well as two sons of a cousin who had been involved with a gang.
Voicing appreciation to his mentors and to the wrestling community for their support, Priest says, “Once I was in wrestling, it’s what kept me and held on to me. It’s pretty evident my family saw wrestling help me and wanted it in the next generation.”
In other words, watch for the sequel.
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