The Next Generation Academy (NGA), the Fort Wayne-based nonprofit that focuses on youth and community development through areas of interest, has two indelible platforms: music and sports.
Naturally, the sports half of the NGA is all about wrestling.
"I was [an] alright [wrestler] in high school," NGA Executive Director Gralan Early said. Early was a three-time state medalist at North Side High School. In consecutive years, he placed second in the state, fourth, and first overall in 2003.
Early received a scholarship to wrestle for Northern Illinois University, starting all four years. Upon graduation, he received a degree in Management and Organizational Leadership. "Basically, how to run a nonprofit," Early said.
The NGA seeks to develop youth physically and psychologically. Wrestling is the perfect vessel for "getting their minds right," Early said. "At the end of the day, you have to take care of your business in order for the team to be successful. The harder you work, the more you make the team and yourself successful."
Warrior Elite club at Indiana Tech teaches kids all the way through college, starting as young as age 5. The club has produced multiples student athletes competing at the Division 1, 2 and 3 levels. Early's younger cousin came up in the club and just placed second at the NAIA finals this year.
Early teamed up with Sam Young, the then executive director at the Old Fort YMCA (now closed) to start the first iteration of the club, with old mats from Lakeside Middle School that "used to fold up like an accordion," Early said. "My biggest thing was to get more African Americans into the sport. We do excel once we learn the skills."
The wrestling club is now at Indiana Tech, where Early coaches. (He's also one of the "lighthouses" at the Bedrock Youth Academy, a part of My Brother's Keeper).
Music, so embedded in our every day, is another natural platform for the NGA, according to Early.
"If we really want to truly understand the perspective of young people, we cannot ignore music. Why are the youth gravitating to a guy who is 19 years old? A kid will identify with [that young guy]."
That young guy, more than likely, will be a hip-hop artist who might suffer from a perception problem, said Early. "Most grown folks don't understand the negative things being said can still have some positive. Most people don't want to sell drugs, but it's just a way of life; it's what they were seeing on a daily basis. Right now, you can make a 100 songs about racism because that's what we see right now."
NGA takes the art of music a step further with entrepreneurship, ushering their kids all aspects of music production, including shooting music videos. One of Early's pupils has worked with multi-platinum artists, and hasn't even graduated from Indiana Tech yet.
When he was in high school, Early came close to a record deal before the money ran out for new artists. Vega, his group consisting of 5 hip-hop artists, played everywhere you could in Fort Wayne and the Midwest, opening for the likes of Bobby Valentino and Snoop Dogg.
He still dabbled in music in college, recording friends in his dorm room. Things didn't get real until after graduation, with a Sweetwater Sound internship, a stint at the FWCS teaching music production, and partnerships with local producers like James Scott.
Today, Early would rather produce. "That's where I really wanted to excel at. I can do it when I'm a 100 years old and just push buttons."
Once a Kid
The NGA "was a vision of me and my brothers," Early said, whose vision included starting with just wanting to help other kids out. Early and his brothers, from a broken home, was raised by his grandparents and "a slew of other people."
Early is currently a Dean at Thurgood Marshall Academy and finds it ironic that he's now in charge of discipline at the school. "I was a trouble kid." But he had the youth programs at the Salvation Army to keep him on the straight and narrow. "Without that, I wouldn't know where I would be."
He was born in Fort Wayne, but was raised in Lima, Ohio, where the Salvation Army filled idle time with a safe place to play sports and opportunities to learn to play instruments like the trumpets and the drums. (Early loves most to the play the piano).
The Salvation Army is where "I first found my real faith," Early said. "My grandfather was pastor and (yeah) we had to go to church, but I didn't really find God until I was there.
With the NGA, the wrestler, the musician, can steer others "in the right way, [avoiding] bumps to their heads and really have a shot at life."