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December 05, 2011
A top student and football star in South Central L.A., Kitam Hamm is one of a growing number of high school athletes who face life-and-death decisions every day as they try to survive in gang-infested communities
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December 05, 2011

Straight Outta Compton

A top student and football star in South Central L.A., Kitam Hamm is one of a growing number of high school athletes who face life-and-death decisions every day as they try to survive in gang-infested communities

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The iPhone beside Kitam Hamm's bed vibrates at 6:15 on a recent morning, stirring him awake. A car alarm pulses in the alley and police sirens scream past, noises so familiar that they go unnoticed. Squinting, Hamm flips on the light. Letters from college football recruiters—all neatly taped to the wall next to his bed—come into focus: Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, UCLA, Columbia and seven more. They are the first thing the 18-year-old Hamm sees every morning, a daily reminder that he's one step closer to making it out of Compton, Calif.

In a neighborhood with at least three rival gangs, Hamm's every move is orchestrated, right down to what he wears and which route he takes to school. Hamm's 12-unit apartment complex is surrounded by a black iron fence and has a single secured entrance. It sits in a neighborhood where the streets are lined with billboards, walls with graffiti and small businesses secured by bars and gates. For Hamm, dropping his guard can be the difference between life and death.

Hamm's parents, Donyetta and Kitam Sr., were 21 and already had three daughters when Kitam Jr. was born. By then Kitam Sr., once affiliated with the Bloods, had cut his gang ties, and Donyetta had seen her brother, who had been a Crip, sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role in a murder at a liquor store. These experiences galvanized the Hamms, both now 39, to do everything possible to protect their son from the influences of the street.

"We live in Blood territory, and there have been a lot of murders here," says Donyetta. "We don't let Kitam go anywhere without permission. He comes home from football practice, and we eat together as a family every night. Then he does homework. He's not allowed out after dark. He has a very structured life."

That structure has enabled Hamm to excel on the football field and in the classroom. A 5'9", 170-pound running back and safety at Compton High, Hamm has a sprinter's speed and bench-presses 315 pounds. Despite missing four games with an ankle injury, Hamm rushed for 602 yards, scored 11 touchdowns and had 31 solo tackles for the 3--7 Tarbabes. Hamm is on pace to graduate with a 3.8 GPA, ranks 44th in a senior class of 514 and plans to take prelaw courses in college.

Protecting a child from gang violence isn't easy in Compton, a city of 96,000 that was called the murder capital of the U.S. in the 1990s. Compton is currently home to 34 active street gangs—often several on the same block—and more than 1,000 gang members.

"I started talking to Kitam about gangs in elementary school because that's when you get introduced to them," says Kitam Sr., who started running with the Bloods when he was 13. "Having a father in the home makes a big difference. A lot of kids here don't have dads, and a gang becomes their only family. I told Kitam early on that before I allow a gang to take you out, I'll take you out first. The only gang Kitam belongs to is the Hamm family."

The latest FBI figures show that gang activity in the U.S. is growing at an alarming rate, with more than one million active gang members, up from 800,000 in 2005. In Los Angeles the situation is particularly dire, with scores of gangs vying for territory and influence in close proximity to one another. With so many gang members around, it can be almost impossible for high school athletes to avoid them and their influence.

"The presence of large numbers of gang members in high schools creates pressures for many nongang members, including athletes," says Scott Decker, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State and co-author of a soon-to-be-released study funded by the U.S. Justice Department about gang members in college athletics. "Students in Los Angeles schools face increased pressure to join gangs, and find their lives affected by gangs. Athletes are often targets [to recruit as members] because of the visibility and prestige they can bring to gangs."

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