Seeing gang problem in Compton was eye-opening (cont.)
A little while later a school official flanked by security guards entered the field. Everyone except the players was ordered to leave. In a matter of minutes, the bleachers and track were empty, and every entrance to the field was locked down. Police were stationed at each gate. I'd never seen anything like this at a high school sporting event. But it's standard procedure in Compton.
The only non-player remaining inside the stadium, I waited there until the Dominguez bus pulled up to a gate and security removed a chain and padlock, enabling the team to enter. As the players ran on the field, I said hello to head Coach Keith Donerson, who permitted me to shadow him during warmups and the game.
"Take a knee," he told his players, as they gathered in the end zone. "Get in tight."
After a brief pep talk, Donerson turned things over to his team captains to lead the players in The Lord's Prayer. "Say it like you mean it," Donerson told them.
Donerson told me that most of his players don't have dads. He said he felt an obligation to his boys that went well beyond football.
After the game started, I went looking for Hamm's father in the bleachers. I talked to dozens of people before I finally found him seated with his wife, Donyetta. I told them how impressed I was by their son.
"My husband and I were told we would never be good parents," Donyetta said.
"Why?" I asked.
They told me how they met. They were both 15. Kitam Sr. was running with a street gang and selling drugs. Donyetta got pregnant and had to drop out of her high school. At 16 she was on welfare and raising their first child. Not exactly an ideal start for a family.
Yet there they were, still together 24 years later, with two daughters in college, a third daughter living at home, and Kitam Jr. fielding scholarship inquiries from top schools around the country. "We don't let Kitam go anywhere without permission," Donyetta said. "He has a structured home. We eat meals together. Having a father in the home makes a big difference."
That theme of fatherhood and family as a counter to gangs kept coming up everywhere.
Dominguez beat Compton 21-14 that night. The next morning I met Coach Donerson at Dominguez High. His four best players -- Lacy Westbrook, Lavell Sanders, Alphonso Marsh and Brandon Beaver -- were with him. Westbrook, a 6-5, 300-pound lineman who has committed to UCLA, got dropped off by his mother, Stephanie. I asked her why Lacy had turned out so well.
"First and foremost, Lacy goes to church and Sunday school every week," she said. "So he's spiritually based. Second, his coaches are the same kind of men. Third, I'm not a dump-off mom. I'm involved with him every step of the way."
All four players told me they'd witnessed gang violence and said their biggest fear was their environment. "I've been banged on," said Brandon Beaver, one of the top defensive backs in California. "I was at a party and shots were fired. People were running everywhere. Kids got trampled. I don't go out anymore."
When asked the toughest part of being a teenage boy, Beaver didn't hesitate. "Growing up with the right people," he said. "All my friends have tattoos all over their neck and face. They are in jail. They smoke."
"I notice none of you guys have tattoos," I said to the group.
They looked at each other and grinned. "It's easy to be like everyone else," Beaver said. "Being different is hard."
Marsh also plays defensive back and is being recruited by a number of Pac-12 schools. He credited Donerson with saving him from the streets. "Coach is a father figure," Marsh said. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have stayed with football. If not for football, I'd be on the street gang bangin'. I'd be in jail."
I left Compton that weekend convinced that football wasn't just a ticket to college for some of these boys. It is a diversion from the powerful lure of street gangs. Eager to get a better feel for what it takes to navigate around the dangers of Compton, I asked the Hamm family for permission to spend 24 hours with their son. I also asked Compton High for permission to attend school with Kitam.
On Oct. 26 I arrived with my overnight bag at the Hamm's apartment in Compton. They live in a neighborhood where the rule of thumb is "Don't go out after dark." Since entering high school, Kitam Jr. has lost nine friends to gang violence, including several athletes. For these reasons, his parents don't let him go anywhere after football practice.
That night I ate dinner with the family, interviewed them extensively and stayed up until midnight with Hamm Jr. Then I slept on a cot at the foot of his bed. Just before sun up I woke to the sound of a car alarm in the alley beneath us and police sirens on an adjacent street. But Kitam didn't stir until 6:15 when his iPhone started vibrating.
Moments later he stood in front of his closet, carefully choosing what to wear. Most kids take for granted what to wear each day. Not Kitam. Not in Compton. The wrong colors can get you killed. He chose a plaid shirt and jeans and then ironed them in the kitchen while a monitor mounted to the wall flashed images from security cameras all around the exterior of his apartment. His father drove us to school because it's not safe to stand at the bus stop in Kitam's neighborhood.
Over 2,300 students attend Compton High: 79 percent are Hispanic and 20 percent are African-American. I didn't exactly blend in. But I learned a lot about Kitam by shadowing him throughout the day. The thing that kept coming to mind is discipline. A lifetime of rigid rules enforced by his parents had taught him the importance of never letting his guard down.
"I know one decision can change your life," he told me.
That afternoon, I gave Kitam a hug and said goodbye to him at the front gate to Compton High. There my colleague Armen Keteyian picked me up and took me to the home of Dannie Farber's parents. While Keteyian interviewed them about the night their son was gunned down, I couldn't help thinking about Hamm and how fortunate he is to have parents who protect him and show him the right way.