Martial arts is Darnell Andrews’ passion. He can’t imagine a day gone by not spent in the sweaty Beta Academy gym on Florida Avenue sparring with Thai Boxing hitting partners and teaching what he loves, what he cherishes, to up-and-coming fighters.
Andrews, 27, got into the sport in 2011. Growing up, he had always enjoyed watching Bruce Lee, Jean Claude Van-Damme, and Steven Seagal on television and in movies and had mimicked their moves.
Soon after starting to fight, Andrews, with help from a friend coworker at Whole Foods, found the academy. He received a free 1-on-1 lesson and “that was it, there’s no looking back.” Today, Andrews’ goals are to continue fighting -- the Beta team travels regionally for tournaments -- into his mid-30s, ramp up his teaching, and by age 35 “run my own gym.”
In sitting across a table from Andrews, his love of martial arts is crystal clear. He gives off an air of refreshing confidence. He will own a gym. He will train and groom and mold young fighters in Washington, DC, for decades to come.
But where is this passion coming from? Why is Andrews so dedicated to a sport that he didn’t even compete in until his mid-20s?
It all started with soccer. And DC SCORES.
“I’m going into my fourth year training, and it’s actually due to the soccer thing -- the whole sports thing period.”
Those are Andrews’ words. Soccer, a pursuit unknown in so many African-American communities, was his initial love. Soccer made him realize how far a sport can take you and what kind of impact it can have.
Andrews is quick to acknowledge that he never would have discovered the game if not for DC SCORES. It was 2000 and his family, after a year in Maryland, had moved back to a neighborhood in SE DC close to J.C. Nalle Elementary School.
Andrews’ friend James encouraged him to come out for the soccer team (as is often the case, he had no idea DC SCORES was more than just soccer -- he would find out soon!).
“I was like, ‘What is that? I don’t even know what that is!’ Andrews recalls. “I’m thinking to myself like, ‘I don’t know.’
“That began my whole athletic career.”
The next day, James introduced Andrews to Mr. Young, the DC SCORES soccer coach and also the school’s PE teacher. Young encouraged him to come to practice. Before long, Andrews, then in fourth grade, was a consistent participant.
His dedication to soccer grew stronger as he bonded with James and the other fourth-graders on the team. The kids grew close. They dreamt of big soccer trophies. They “practiced whenever we got a chance -- lunch time, recess, he’d bring us into his classroom and set up drills for us,” Andrews said of Young.
“We were all pretty much learning together, so everyone was making mistakes. We basically got to grow as a team.”
In the spring of Andrews’ fifth-grade year, the determined Nalle boys team made it all the way to the City Cup elementary school championship. There, they watched, mesmerized, as the Truesdell Education Campus team from the west side of the city put on a skills clinic to win the cup.
Andrews was disappointed, sure, but he had found his passion, he was sure of it.
In the early 2000s, DC SCORES didn’t have middle school programs. So Andrews, even though enrolled at program partner Maret School, was unable to continue playing on a SCORES team.
He kept playing the sport, however, thanks to DC SCORES athletic director at the time Mingo Roberts, who connected Andrews with a club soccer team and provided the resources for him to play. Andrews played club soccer until he was 17 and spent a year on the team at Eastern High School, too.
But then life interfered.
With his mother taking care of both him and his younger brother, Andrews needed to work to support his family. When a DC SCORES staff member asked Andrews to help out at the annual DC SCORES Cup charity soccer tournament -- with a chance to play, too -- the teenager agreed and got to participate on Whole Foods’ team.
An application later, Andrews began working at the Whole Foods on P Street in DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood. At first, he worked a flexible schedule that allowed him to stay committed to soccer. That changed quickly, however -- especially with commuting from Columbia Heights to school and then practice at Coolidge High School and then work; basically, touching three corners of the city -- and in the fall of 2005, Andrews’ competitive soccer career effectively ended.
At age 17.
“I didn’t want to be a captain or a starter and I wasn’t making it to practice,” Andrews said. “I didn’t feel like a captain or a leader should be getting away with things.”
He began working 40-hour weeks at Whole Foods. He picked up soccer a little bit the summer after graduating from Eastern, but found himself out of shape and unable to dedicate enough time to it with his work schedule.
Andrews continued working at Whole Foods until this past fall. He married and had two kids, Angela and Makaylah. Life wasn’t bad, but that competitive pull -- that feeling he’d have on every game day -- tugged at him … and tugged some more.
This fall, four years into martial arts training and teaching on a part-time basis, Andrews left his Whole Foods job to pursue his passion full-time. He credits the sport he initially fell for.
“With the soccer, I don’t know where I could have been right now,” Andrews said. “Now I feel like I can get somewhere with the martial arts thing.”
Knowing the impact the program had on him, Andrews has steered his daughters to DC SCORES. Makaylah, 8, isn’t quite into it yet -- but she’s just a third-grader at Bruce-Monroe Elementary. Angela, on the other hand, talks often of the program and her team at Cesar Chavez Prep Middle School. The 11-year-old sixth-grader is “really excited about it,” Andrews said. “We’re making progress.”
Andrews makes it to most Chavez games and can’t believe his eyes -- the skill level of the players is equal to or even greater than what he saw in the City Cup game against Truesdell. He admires how the kids space the field. And he takes pride when his daughter mentions looking forward to the spring season -- “that’s what she’s been talking about.”
“I’m just happy,” Andrews said. “It’s something that I can pass on, feel comfortable passing on. It’s still tough (not playing), but I’m just happy to be able to help and it’s something that I’m passionate about.”
When Andrews thinks back on his time at J.C. Nalle and even Maret and Eastern -- all stops that included soccer and also significant personal development -- SCORES was always there for him. It provided a team of peers, a dedicated coach, and an introduction to a new sport at Nalle. It led to Roberts not only connecting him with the club team but also getting Andrews his first job through the SCORES referee program. It helped lead to the Whole Foods job Andrews held for a decade. And of course, it laid a seed for what he’s doing now.
“Without SCORES starting the soccer program (at Nalle), I don’t know where I would be right now,” Andrews said. “I can’t say I wouldn’t have gotten in the martial arts, but I mean it helped me with the first sport I ever played, they helped me with my first job.
“It helped me in so many ways, and to hopefully have my daughters go through the same system -- everything helps people in different ways.
“It could be a future in soccer for them. I don’t know!”