CHATHAM — Carnell Wrencher doesn't remember being hit by the car, flying through the air or landing on his head.
He just recalls lying on the ground, praying he wasn't going to be paralyzed.
Wrencher was a fourth-grader at Lawndale Elementary Community Academy when he darted across a West Side street into the path of that car. The impact was so severe, it nearly severed his left leg, which is still held together in part by a pair of metal rods.
"I looked down at the leg and had to stop looking at it," Wrencher said. "I remember saying, 'I don't want to be in a wheelchair.'"
Seven years later, Wrencher has become an IHSA state finals-qualifying wrestler at Simeon Career Academy. The 16-year-old Englewood resident finished 31-6 this past season in the 132-pound weight class. On Wednesday, he also started participating with the South Side Scramblers, a wrestling club team led by the Simeon head coaches.
Those coaches believe Wrencher not only has a chance at a state title next year but a shot at a Division I scholarship.
"He's definitely one of the kids that's feared in the city," Simeon and South Side Scramblers head coach David Burchett said.
A MEETING OF FATE
On the day of the car accident, Wrencher had just finished getting a haircut.
He wanted some snacks at a convenience store across the street.
"I was running across the street and didn't realize a car was coming," Wrencher said.
Wrencher said he was told by witnesses that he was struck by the car, catapulted into the air and landed hard on the ground. He was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, where the rods were inserted and closed by 24 staples. On a 1-to-10 scale of pain with 10 being the worst, Wrencher described the experience as an "eight."
Wrencher said he endured about five months of therapy before he felt comfortable walking. By fifth grade, he was playing football and basketball with friends, and he continued to participate in those sports until the start of high school.
He never thought of wrestling as a Simeon freshman because he was only 5-feet tall and 98 pounds.
He joined the Wolverines after perhaps a meeting of fate. Wrencher was studying in the Simeon library and needed to use one of its computers.
Burchett, a University of Illinois at Chicago graduate who is a special education aide at the school, also supervised computer use. The Ashburn resident half-jokingly told Wrencher he could have a computer if he signed up for the wrestling squad, which was beginning its first season.
Wrencher did just that, despite his tiny frame and the fact he couldn't even complete a single pushup or pullup.
"He was a little-bitty guy," said Simeon and Scramblers assistant Gerald Gaddy, of Chatham. "He wasn't athletic at all. But after a while, we could see he did have athletic potential."
Wrencher was immediately hooked on the sport, and began increasing his strength. By the end of his freshman year, when he took second place in the city as a 101-pounder, Wrencher could do 50 straight pushups and pullups. He won the city championship as a sophomore in the 113-pound division, when Gaddy said he spent endless hours in the school's weight room.
"He just kept coming in for more, more, more. He was possessed," Gaddy said. "Here's a kid with no wrestling background coming from this horrific issue, and here it is. He was a tremendous worker."
He's also grown like a bean pole since freshman year. Wrencher now stands 6-foot-1, and he's used his ultra-lean frame to confound the opposition. Of his 31 victories this past season, 23 came via pin. And he was a crucial in helping the Wolverines reach the state finals as a team in only their third year of existence.
"He's a very technical wrestler, waiting for opponents to make mistakes," Burchett said. "Extremely smart, and he's getting stronger."
AN 'INSPIRATIONAL' STORY
Burchett expects Wrencher, who owns a 3.1 grade-point average, to earn a wrestling scholarship, possibly at the Division I level. Where he competes as a collegian likely will depend on how he fares at state as a senior and how much exposure he receives from the Scramblers.
Burchett said the Scramblers program is designed to promote inner city wrestling for children ages 4-18. At the high school level, Wrencher said the program grapplers from Brother Rice, Simeon, Urban Prep Academies, Hyde Park Academy and Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Practice began Wednesday, with the first tournament set for April 26 at Navy Pier.
There are no defined weight classes in the Scramblers, which suits Wrencher just fine. He sees the club circuit as another opportunity to improve his style, which he classifies as defensive. Wrencher also noted that although there are no lingering effects from the accident, he's always led with his right leg and protected his left during wrestling matches.
"My leg has never hurt in a match," he said.
Wrencher views wrestling as a path to college and a way to motivate his three younger siblings: sister Leilani, 12; and brothers Samuel, 7, and Damauri, 4.
"It's very important to graduate from college because they are looking up to me trying to set an example for them," Wrencher said.
He also hopes others are emboldened by his journey.
"It should be an inspirational story, especially to certain people who've experienced what I've experienced," Wrencher said. "If you always work hard, you still achieve your goals at the end."