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Kitam Hamm is using football to get out of gang-infested Compton

This story appears in the Dec. 5, 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.

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."

In their study Decker and co-author Geoff Alpert, a criminal justice professor at South Carolina, conclude that universities don't properly check the backgrounds of their recruits. The study, which was conducted among 120 BCS conference schools and 10 other universities with Division I basketball programs, found that nearly 70% of campus police chiefs and athletic directors who responded believed gang members were participating in athletics at either their schools or another institution.

To further explore the issue of gangs and sports, SI partnered with CBS News and went to Compton, the birthplace of the Bloods and the Crips and a recruiting hot spot for college football and basketball players. On a recent drive through the city's streets, Sgt. Brandon Dean, a supervisor in the L.A. County Sheriff's office assigned to the gang unit in Compton, pointed out that many popular perceptions about gangs date back to the 1980s and '90s and no longer fit the reality. The days of two powerful gangs carving up territory and marking it with colors are long gone.

"Today in Southern California there are hundreds of Crip gangs and hundreds of Blood gangs," said Dean. "Not all Blood gangs and all Crip gangs get along. You have shootings that occur between a Crip gang and another Crip gang." In addition to this fragmentation, Dean said, there has been a large influx of Latino gangs, some of which have ties to drug cartels.

With so many smaller gangs operating in such a congested area, it's common to have multiple rival gangs occupying opposite sides of the same street or different stretches of the same block. "Everything is intermingled," Dean said. It's a situation that makes any young male vulnerable to being mistaken as a member of a rival gang.

"A lot of kids in this neighborhood are gifted athletes," said Dean as he drove past a cul-de-sac where graffiti from three gangs marked walls and fences, and teens hung out drinking and smoking in the middle of the afternoon. "Unfortunately, some get involved in a gang and commit crimes. Others get involved in the sense that they are mistaken as gang members and ultimately get shot and killed as a result."

*****

It's all part of the new world of gangs, in which the long-held tradition of leaving athletes alone no longer applies. In the last four years Hamm has seen nine friends, including several athletes, die as a result of gang violence. Hamm's experience is common in Compton.

"My deepest fear is my environment," says Alphonso Marsh, a senior cornerback and Division I recruit at Compton's Dominguez High, which is trying to use its football program to steer players away from gangs. "I lost my godbrother. He was killed in 2009 by some boys on the street. He was 17."

The 2009 shooting of wide receiver Dannie Farber, one of the top high school players in the Los Angeles area, underscores the danger that athletes can face every day. During a routine visit to a Compton fast-food restaurant, Farber was approached by a gang member who asked him, "Where you from, cuz?" When Farber stood up and replied, "What?" the gang member shot him four times in a senseless killing that reverberated throughout the city.

Two years later Kitam Hamm faced an eerily similar situation. One afternoon last spring as he stepped off a city bus across the street from his family's apartment, two young men approached. One had a gun.

"Where you from, Blood?" the one with the gun asked, gang-speak for What gang are you in?

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."

Hamm listens, especially in light of what has happened to Johnson's 23-year-old son, Brandon. In July, Brandon Johnson and two other men were arrested in connection with the killing of an 18-year-old in nearby Long Beach. Hamm had looked up to Brandon, who was one of the nation's top running backs for crosstown rival Dominguez High in 2006 and went on to play two seasons at the University of Washington. Today he sits in jail awaiting trial, having pleaded not guilty to murder.

"I try to avoid all [potentially bad] situations," Hamm says, making his way to his first class, physics and anatomy. "Around here one mistake can change your life forever."

That's something Hamm's parents have told him time and again. They also tell him don't waste time -- keep busy. He thinks of that when he arrives at class and discovers that the janitor didn't remove the chairs from the tabletops after mopping the floor. Alone in the classroom, Hamm takes down all 35 chairs and arranges them neatly under tables. He finishes just as the other students file in and a substitute teacher gives them the period to study independently. A din of chatter quickly rises as a few kids break out snack food from their backpacks and youngsters cluster into three or four groups. Hamm sits off by himself, pulls out an essay due in another class and works on it for the entire period.

During third period Hamm is summoned to the guidance office. When he arrives, his guidance counselor, Araya Hiyabu, is holding an envelope. "This came today," he says, handing it to Hamm.

It's a package from Norries Wilson, football coach at Columbia. Though Kitam has heard before from the Ivy League school, Hiyabu stresses that this is a request that needs immediate attention. "They want an official transcript," Hiyabu says, adding that Hamm should make sure Compton head coach Brian Collins reviews the letter.

Hamm isn't afraid to tell college admissions officers about his roots. But he can't help thinking that they might not understand. His parents met when they were 15. As part of being affiliated with the Bloods, Kitam Sr. was selling drugs. Donyetta soon got pregnant with their first child, and at 16 was on welfare. That's when she put her foot down and told Kitam Sr. to end his involvement with gangs and crime.

By his own account, Kitam Sr. listened. "Donyetta changed my thinking," he says. "All my friends were going to jail. So it wasn't hard for me to walk away. But my dad used drugs and I didn't have the proper structure to teach me how to provide for my children. I just decided I wanted my kids to grow up and be part of a solution and not part of a problem."

By the time Kitam Jr. was born, his father had been working for three years unloading trucks at a warehouse. "That's how he provided for his family for years," says Donyetta. "He had to butt heads with a lot of gang members. He had numerous fights. But he was determined to be with me and our children. It's amazing he made it. We fought to be where we are today."

Today the Hamms are a model family. Their three daughters were solid students at Compton High, and two are now attending Fremont College in Los Angeles. Both Kitam Sr. and Donyetta work full time -- he as an in-home health aide and she as the manager of the apartment complex where they live. Her compensation consists of free rent, which enables them to squeak by on a combined annual income of $21,000. They qualify for food stamps but refuse them. "My pride won't let me stand in that line," Donyetta says.

If Kitam Sr. and Donyetta both took second jobs, they'd earn more. But then they wouldn't be there for Kitam. "Our job right now is keeping Kitam safe," Donyetta says. "I don't want Kitam to be a statistic. I don't want to be the mother who puts on a shirt with my son's picture on it, and throws roses at his grave."

As he leaves his English class, Kitam knows he's got to figure out how to get across in his college admissions statement that he is a product of remarkable parents.

*****

Lunch hour at Compton High easily could be mistaken for an outdoor party. Hundreds of students avoid the cafeteria, choosing instead to hang out in the sunny courtyard in the center of the campus. That's where Hamm ends up. But he's there just long enough to recruit a couple of friends to follow him to a meeting in a classroom just off the courtyard. It's being conducted by Traco Rachal from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When Hamm enters the room, Rachal, a former linebacker in the CFL who attended nearby Carson High, is reading from the Bible and speaking to 40 students. "Being tempted is not a sin," Rachal tells the students. "It's how you respond to temptation that matters."

The same guys who attended the Bible study class are in the football locker room with Hamm two hours later, suiting up. Football practice occupies the biggest chunk of Hamm's school day. That's by design. The time between school letting out and nightfall is when boys in Compton get into trouble. Football provides an alternative.

At 3 p.m. Hamm starts by getting his ankles taped. Both are sprained badly enough that his coach suggests he sit out. But Hamm declines. With just two games remaining in his high school career, he wants to take advantage of every opportunity. Even on the practice field.

Hamm spends much of the practice like a coach, encouraging the jayvee players, before scrimmaging with the varsity. It's 6:57 and dark by the time Hamm limps out of the locker room, spots his father parked curbside and sinks into the front seat of the car. At home Donyetta has the family's apartment immaculately clean, and the aroma of Mexican food is wafting from the oven.

There is no dining table in the Hamm home. Instead, the family members eat dinner on their laps in front of the television. Plates in hand, Kitam, his parents and one of his sisters and her two-year-old daughter take their places on the sofa.

Suddenly Kitam gets a text message. It's from Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Greg Camarillo. The two have been friends since Greg's brother Jeff taught and coached Kitam in seventh and eighth grade. That was around the same time that Greg started his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers. Together the Camarillo brothers decided to launch Charging Forward, a program that encourages and rewards student-athletes who excel in academics. They based the program in Compton.

The Camarillos aren't from Compton, but their father, Albert, a renowned history professor at Stanford, was born and raised there. At his father's urging, Jeff began his teaching career in Compton and -- inspired in part by Greg -- came up with the idea for Charging Forward.

Hamm was one of the first boys to join Charging Forward. He immediately became one of Greg and Jeff's favorites. "In 11 years I've spent in education, I have rarely encountered a kid like Kitam," Jeff says.

Although Jeff has since moved back to Palo Alto to become the vice principal at East Palo Alto Academy, and Greg has been traded to Minnesota, they keep in close contact with Hamm, sending him football equipment, getting him tickets to NFL games in San Diego and encouraging him to keep his grades up. These days they are trying to help him through the recruiting process.

For the next hour Hamm sits on his bed, doing homework on his laptop and texting back and forth with Camarillo. The opportunity to keep up a dialogue with an NFL player who excelled scholastically helps makes it easy for Hamm to stay in at night.

"U think ur better at O or D?" Camarillo texts.

"I'm good on both. If I had to pick, probably defense."

"I sent u a package today. U should get it in about 3 days."

When Hamm signs off, he's inspired to write his college admission essay. First he puts in his earbuds and scrolls through his iTunes to his favorite song, Bless the Broken Road, by Rascal Flatts. He cranks up the volume and starts mouthing the words: I set out on a narrow way many years ago, hoping I would find true love along the broken road.... This much I know is true, that God blessed the broken road.

With his parents in the next room, Hamm begins writing on a notepad. He opens with what it felt like when he first discovered a decade ago that his mother had Hodgkin's lymphoma. The words come easily.

When I was 7 years old I found out what cancer was. Being so young I really didn't know how to handle the situation. Only thing I can remember is every time the subject came up people got quiet and tears started to fall.

He's interrupted when his bedroom door opens and Donyetta pokes her head in. "Can I see your personal statement?" she says.

Hesitant, he hands her his pad, afraid she might not like it. Donyetta has always kept quiet about her cancer, not wanting others to view her as weak. (The disease was in remission but came back 10 months ago. Donyetta is undergoing chemotherapy.)

"O.K.," she says after reading the essay. Then the two say good night.

Hamm, who surprised his mother on his 18th birthday by getting her name tattooed on his chest, turns to a visitor and says, "She asks why I don't tell her I love her. I'm just not an emotional person. But I love her. I want to be strong for her. My dad is scared he's going to lose her. If he loses her, I think he'll lose his mind."

It is a few minutes past midnight. Hamm is exhausted, physically and mentally. He sets the alarm on his iPhone for 6:15, turns out the light, clasps his hands, looks up and says a prayer before going to sleep: "God, please keep me safe."

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