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Seeing gang problem in Compton was an eye-opening experience

The presence of gang members on college sports teams is a topic my colleague Armen Keteyian and I started looking into last spring. After getting an exclusive look at a forthcoming study on the subject, we talked to many experts, but our story didn't come into focus until mid-September when we spent a weekend in Compton, Calif., the birthplace of the Bloods and Crips and one of the leading hot spots for college football and basketball recruiting.

Our first stop was the Los Angeles County Sheriff's substation there, where we met up with Sgt. Brandon Dean, head of the gang unit in Compton. The city's 10-square-mile footprint is home to 34 street gangs and more than 1,000 documented gang members. Dean, 34, agreed to give us a firsthand look. It was a ride I'll never forget.

Virtually every street was marked by gang graffiti. Names like "Fruit Town Piru," "CV3," and "Local13" were spray-painted on fences, walls, sidewalks and buildings. In numerous neighborhoods, opposite sides of the same street were occupied by rival gangs. "In this particular block right here," Dean said as he drove us through the intersection of Bliss and Aranbe, "there are about four different gangs."

We spent 90 minutes with Dean. One of the last places he took us was a fast food joint called Louisiana Chicken. In 2009 a gang member walked into the restaurant and gunned down one of the city's top high school football stars, Dannie Farber. "Athletes in Compton are not immune from the violence in any way, shape or form," Dean told us.

The idea that top athletes don't get a free pass and may even be targeted by gangs was an eye-opener. It sheds light on one reason why student-athletes in places like Compton associate with gangs. For protection. Others join for prestige. But Dean told us that in many instances, gangs become a substitute family for teenage boys who don't have fathers and end up spending idle time on the street.

All of this was on my mind when I stepped onto the football field at Compton High later that afternoon. Keteyian and I had gone there to watch Compton play crosstown rival Dominguez High. With pad and pen in hand and nearly two hours to kill before kickoff, I went looking for people to interview. That's when I encountered Kitam Hamm, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound running back and safety. His helmet was tucked under his arm and he was talking to friends on the track near the end zone when I introduced myself.

"Are you being recruited by colleges?" I asked.

"Yes."

"Which ones?"

"Harvard, Stanford, Columbia."

That got my attention. Ivy League schools don't recruit athletes unless they are serious students. Hamm told me his GPA was around 3.8.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked.

"A lawyer."

"Why?"

"I like defending people."

These were not typical answers. Neither was his tone. He was humble and polite, soft-spoken, yet serious.

"Why don't you gang bang?" I asked.

"My dad would kill me," he said. "My dad said before he'd let a gang take me he'd take me out himself."

"Will your dad be at the game tonight?"

"My dad is at every game."

Sgt. Dean said that famlies without fathers were rampant in Compton. And here I was talking to a young man who credited his father with keeping him out of street gangs. I made a mental note -- find the father.

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.

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