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Hamm froze. He quickly remembered lessons his father had drilled into him: Don't act hard. Remain calm. Give the right answer.
"Nowhere," Hamm told the armed man. "I ain't from nowhere," code for I'm not in a gang.
That answer saved his life. The gangster stared Hamm down, then tucked his gun in his waistband and moved on. Hamm collapsed on the bus-stop bench, knowing he had truly just dodged a bullet.
Hamm starts his day by confronting a question most teenage boys scarcely consider when getting ready for school: What should I wear? The answer is complicated when your street is a border between rival street gangs. Colors, particularly of shirts and baseball caps, signify affiliation and invite peril.
"I don't wear red because I might get accused of being a Blood," Hamm says. "And I don't wear blue because the Bloods might think I'm a Crip." On this day he chooses a plaid shirt and dark jeans.
It's almost 7:30 when Kitam Jr. slings his book bag over his shoulder, says goodbye to his mother and follows his dad to the car. Kitam Sr. drives his son to school every day. On this morning, with Leo Sayer singing Oh Girl on the radio, the two Hamms discuss tackling techniques during the 10-minute commute to school. Kitam Jr. says he'd be able to hit even harder if he were heavier. "Size matters, don't get me wrong," his father says. "But if you're small and you're strong, you can still rock a person."
Kitam and his father have always had a special bond. Kitam Sr. has tried to teach his son right and wrong, how to excel in sports and how to survive on the streets. When Kitam Jr. was 12, his father started taking him to a neighborhood basketball court to play with older kids, forcing him to find ways to get his shot off against taller and stronger players. One day a man showed up in a hooded sweatshirt. Kitam Sr. suspected he had a gun. Moments later the man brandished a pistol and pointed it at one of the players. "Stay behind me," Kitam Sr. told his son. Then he put his hands up and stepped toward the armed man. "Please don't kill this guy in front of my son," he pleaded. "My son don't need to see this." After a tense pause, the man left and Kitam Sr. took Kitam Jr. home.
"If you want to know how bad and dirty it is, all you have to do is pay attention to where we live and how many guys are ending up dead," says Kitam Sr. "The gangs don't care about kids or how old or young you are. You have to stay away and not get caught up by being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
In another era Compton High was the home of baseball great Duke Snider and former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Both were in the class of '44. Back then the school's racial composition reflected that of the city—almost exclusively white. Today, of Compton High's 2,400 students, 79% are Latino and 20% are African-American. The current Compton High was once a community college, and the 55-acre campus is now surrounded by a 10-foot-high security fence.
Inside the gates is an environment that is safe. It's a place where Hamm has no enemies and where lots of people look out for him. People like 45-year-old Anthony Johnson, one of numerous uniformed security guards on campus. Short and powerfully built, Johnson also doubles as Hamm's running backs coach. Hamm spots Johnson and stops to say hello. After a brief exchange, Johnson imparts some advice. "Be a stand-up young man in life," says Johnson. "Say what you mean. And work hard."