Rec center serves as pillar in changing neighborhood

By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Jim McElhatton)

Last fall, Darius Holland led T.C. Williams as the starting quarterback to the Titans’ first football playoff appearance in more than 20 years.

But if you ask him about some of his favorite sports memories, he’ll also talk about pickup basketball and a game called “Mat Ball” he played while growing up at the Charles Houston Recreation Center.

Holland, who will be a senior next year, lives just a block from the recreation center, which has served as an anchor for his family and many others in the Parker-Gray neighborhood.

At a time when city officials are grappling with ways to cut the budget — including parks and recreation — Holland and his mother Myra Matthews sat down to talk about how the rec center and the city’s sports programs have had a deep impact on the family in ways that cannot be gauged on a budget document.

Holland practically lives at the rec center. He goes to school, practices football, then comes home. Immediately, he goes to the rec center. He often plays basketball, though courts aren’t open as long as they used to be, he said.

“I come up here all the time just for the environment,” Holland said. “Most of the people here behind the desk I’ve grown up with.”

Holland is the oldest of four children. And his younger brother, who is 12 years old, especially looks up to him, said Matthews.

They live in a neighborhood that’s undergoing rapid change. On one side of Wythe Street there is public housing, where Darius and his family live, while expensive new townhouses spring up across the street and seemingly around every corner.

“Despite the neighborhood we live in and the things you see in the street, you look at your older brother and you see he didn’t hang out, he didn’t do drugs, he didn’t sell drugs,” Matthews said. “He goes to school and he plays football. He’s a well-known person in the city and people respect him.”

She was no different growing up. When Matthews lived on nearby Columbus Street, she went to the rec center just about every day after school.

“It was my home,” she said. “Every day after my mom got home from work, she’d say, ‘Every day you hit that rec and they’ve got to put you out at night.’ And I’d say, ‘Well mom, it’s better than being on the streets.’

“We don’t do the streets, we don’t hang in the streets.”

The rec center reopened after extensive renovations in 2009, boasting a host of amenities that the old center never had. But things also have changed in less obvious ways, Matthews said.

“The staff was harder on us,” Matthews said. “I remember them being hard on us and back in the day, you’d think they’re really getting on my nerves, but I respect them more now for being that positive person in my life.”

But Holland — though he’s only 17 — can rattle off the names of rec league coaches and figures who he calls role models through the years, dating back to the days when he couldn’t play pee-wee football because he didn’t make weight.

At 17, he’s at an age when most of his contemporaries are looking forward to leaving their hometown and starting the next chapter of their lives in college. Holland shares that enthusiasm, but he also can’t help looking back. And he’s concerned.

He doesn’t know the intricacies of the budget pressures city officials face year after year, but hopes his younger siblings get the same opportunities he did growing up.

“We used play this game called mat ball,” he said, explaining that wrestling mats were used for bases — hence the name of the game.

“It was the most exciting game I ever played,” he said. “It was a kickball concept, but you had to go around the bases twice to score and there were four outs. It just made for great competition and interaction. It was safe and it was fun.”

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