At the end of 10-hour shifts, his right fist would be so clenched around the handle of a meat hook that he'd have to pry it back open. Dennis Tinnon was 20, and he worried that if he stayed at the beef processing plant, he'd have the gnarled hands of a 90-year-old by the time he was 25. He'd lose his touch, his feel for a basketball -- but maybe those things wouldn't matter anymore.
It wasn't as if any colleges were calling him early in 2009. He could barely bring himself to show his face around his old teammates and coaches at Green Bay East High, where he'd averaged 18 points and 15 rebounds as a senior in 2006-07. This was the sort of job someone who'd done time in jail, was still chasing a high school diploma and needed to start saving money for the birth of his daughter, could get in Packerland: at an outfit called American Foods, staring down an endless procession of doomed cattle. They arrived alive, were killed and strung up on a rack, then dismembered with chain saws and sliced into progressively smaller pieces, which traveled down the line to Tinnon. He'd hook those pieces off the conveyor belt, present them to a skinning machine, and stomp a foot pedal that triggered its whirring blades, which sucked the skin off the meat. Then unhook the meat, throw it back on the conveyor belt, repeat, repeat. He was a 6-foot-7 drone with guts on his apron and blood on the underside of his rubber boots, numbing himself against dead dreams of double-doubles.
At least Tinnon was assuming some responsibility for the first time in his life. He was manning up and supporting his pregnant girlfriend, Robin Hall, by working the second shift, getting paid $400 every Friday, and putting some of it away for the baby. If co-workers hadn't asked him, "Do you play basketball?" so often, the situation might have been easier to bear. "I was out of hope about basketball," he says. "All I kept thinking was, 'I'm going to be working here for the rest of my life.'"
Three years have passed, and the name Dennis Tinnon has moved from a slaughterhouse punch card to the NCAA's rebounding leaderboard. As a junior in his first season at Marshall, he's averaging 10.9 rebounds per game, which ranks 10th in Division I, along with 9.9 points. He was a junior-college recruiting coup for coach Tom Herrion, whose Thundering Herd are off to a 13-4 start. They sit in first place in Conference USA, at 4-0, in part because his new power forward has been nearly as prolific an offensive rebounder as Kenneth Faried, the poster child of underexposed glass cleaners, was last year at Morehead State before being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. Tinnon's goal is now to lead the nation in rebounding, but at 20 he was resigned to the thought that he would never grab a college board.
At first, Derick Denny wasn't trying to be a savior. He was just looking for a ringer. It was the spring following his freshman season at Kansas City Kansas Community College, in April 2009, and the former standout guard at Seymour High near Green Bay was headed home. Denny is a member of Oneida Indian Nation and a scoring star on the Native American hoops scene, and he planned to play in a local tournament that permitted one nonnative on each entrant's roster. His team's usual big man was unavailable, so Denny tracked down a number for Tinnon, who was rumored to be back in town. They knew each other from dominating pickup games at Green Bay's Howard YMCA, and Tinnon didn't require much convincing over the phone. He was eager to play.
When Denny picked up Tinnon at Robin's grandparents' place, Denny was concerned about his old running mate, who looked world-weary and factory-worn. Denny told him, "You better be as good as you used to be." Tinnon did not disappoint. The game came back to him quickly, and he played so well, dominating the glass and throwing down numerous dunks on Denny assists, that their team took second place. Afterward, Denny raised the obvious question: "Why aren't you playing anywhere?"
He told Tinnon that he was certain he could excel at the highest level of junior college, in Kansas' Jayhawk League, and urged him to come down to KCKCC to audition for the coaching staff. Tinnon was hesitant to make that leap, because he'd already committed to a different plan. Robin was the rock and the brains of their relationship; she'd put his life back on track, was expecting their child in July, and planned to resume a pre-med program at UW-Milwaukee in the winter. He was going to keep the factory job so they had money to live. But they both knew that Denny's offer represented Tinnon's final, real basketball opportunity, and wondered if it was some kind of divine intervention.
The recurrent theme in the story of Dennis Tinnon, from ages 14-19, is that of squandered opportunity. In 2003, his mother, Celeste Eastwood, moved from Milwaukee's North Side to Green Bay with her five children: Dennis; his fraternal twin brother, David; their little brother Devin; older sister Tylesha; and younger sister Tierra. Eastwood thought it would be a "wonderful place" where the kids could grow up. It was safer, at least, but there was more scrutiny on wayward youths. Dennis' father, whom Eastwood would divorce in 2004, wasn't in the picture, and her long work hours often meant the kids were left unsupervised.
Young Dennis was a gangly, 6-3, perma-smiling problem child who amassed enough truancies and petty juvenile infractions to get himself kicked out of East High as a freshman and put in an alternative school, where he couldn't play basketball. He was allowed back into East as a sophomore, and by March he was on the honor roll and the varsity hoops team, showing real signs of promise. "He had grown to 6-5 by then," says coach Rick Rosinski, "and we were expecting big things out of him as a junior."
Given his size and athleticism, had Tinnon delivered big things as a junior, it's reasonable to think he would've attracted recruiters, latched on with an AAU team for more exposure the following summer, and received some D-I scholarship offers. What he did, instead, was get caught stealing football tickets from East High's athletic office in the fall of his junior year. Tinnon had his advocates at East, namely his first-year language arts teacher, Amy Kallioinen, who'd taken him under her wing, plead with him to realize his potential, and battled to keep him in school -- but he was hit with a misdemeanor theft charge for the ticket incident, kicked out of East again, and missed the entire hoops season. "He was this goofy kid with a good heart, who made a lot of poor choices," Kallioinen says. "When teachers would commiserate after school, he'd be an easy topic for me to cry about. I wanted so much better for him."
She and Rosinski accompanied Tinnon to court dates, where they were the only ones there to vouch for him. When Tinnon failed to complete community service obligations from the case, and was sentenced to three weekends in an Appleton jail at the start of his senior year, it was Rosinski who dropped him off there on Fridays and picked him up on Sundays. "That was just heart-wrenching," Rosinski says, "because I knew he was a good kid, who was just liable to follow the wrong people."
Kallioinen tutored Tinnon as a senior so he could regain eligibility, and despite his long layoff, he became an honorable mention All-State player for Rosinski, and was named their conference's top defender. At the end of the school year, Kallioinen presented Tinnon with a scrapbook of his news clippings, and Rosinski helped arrange for him to head to Williston State, a junior college in North Dakota. At the time, it was Tinnon's only available option. His inconsistent enrollment at East had left him a semester short of graduating, and Williston said it would put him in a GED program while he trained with its team.
Tinnon made it to Williston, which to him seemed like a strange, almost deserted place, in the fall of 2007. But due to another act of self-sabotage, he never made it to an official practice, much less a game. While in a state of extreme boredom that October, he let a friend talk him into going to Wal-Mart and buying BB guns. They used a stop sign for target practice, and one of Tinnon's shots allegedly missed the sign and struck a pedestrian in the face. He was charged with reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, and that was the beginning of the end of his time at Williston. He did not like it there, and the coaches were no longer very fond of him, so there was a swift parting of ways.
When Tinnon returned to Green Bay, he had a message from his probation officer, who had been informed of the charge in North Dakota. It was a violation of Tinnon's probation from the ticket incident, and he'd have to do another weekend in Appleton jail. He chose to duck the warrant until April 2008, when Robin, whom he'd recently started dating, finally convinced Tinnon to turn himself in, so he could get on with his life. A judge, displeased with Tinnon's evasion, sentenced him to four months. In an 18-month span, Tinnon had gone from county inmate, to basketball All-State, to county inmate again. He needed to bottom out before he could wise up.
In a letter to Kallioinen from jail, Tinnon wrote:
Not everyone who goes to jail is rehabilitated, but in Tinnon's timeline, there is a clear before-and-after delineation. Every step following his release in July 2008 has been positive. He took a full-time, second-shift job (albeit one skinning meat) and spent mornings working on his diploma, graduating from East in January 2009. And Robin believed in him enough that when the Kansas City Kansas Community College opportunity presented itself, she told him to seize it. "She sacrificed her own plan," Tinnon says, "and told me to chase my dream, because it was so close."
Denny took Tinnon down to audition that summer, and Bill Sloan, the assistant coach at KCKCC, said it took him all of five minutes to be convinced. Tinnon accepted a scholarship, Robin gave birth to Denyah on July 7, married Tinnon on July 31, and they were all living together in a Kansas City apartment by mid-August. Tinnon suddenly had so much depending on him, that he could not risk failing. He played with such purpose that he and Denny were KCKCC's co-MVPs in '09-10, and then as a sophomore, Tinnon exploded, averaging 23.4 points and 13.4 rebounds, and establishing himself, in Sloan's words, "as the best player in our program's history."
Herrion first saw Tinnon at Jerry Mullen's juco showcase camp in Tulsa, Okla., in the summer of 2010. The Marshall coach was entering his first season, desperately needed low-post help, and had received a tip on Tinnon from a friend in Kansas City. "I didn't have high expectations," Herrion said, "but when I watched Dennis' first game, he was so lights-out -- he chased down every ball -- that I called my assistants and told them, 'This is the guy we've got to have.'" Herrion led the recruitment, and the Herd eventually signed Tinnon and one of his showcase teammates, Robert Goff, who now make up Marshall's starting frontcourt. Goff was welcome to the idea of reuniting with Tinnon in college, he says, "because he was an animal at that camp. He barely let me get any rebounds."
At Marshall, Tinnon, Robin and Denyah -- who's old enough to yell "Go Herd!" at games -- live in an apartment 15 minutes away from campus, decorated with their family photos and mementos from KCKCC. His mother, who missed most of his high school games, now checks in regularly from Milwaukee with her own scouting reports on upcoming opponents. Tinnon has been scoring with high efficiency (shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 83.7 percent from the line) and filling box scores with crooked rebounding numbers (15 against Syracuse, 19 against UAB). Scouts are starting to take notice of him as either a dark horse second-rounder or high-level European prospect, and Tinnon is playing with great urgency, because his college career is in danger of being cut short.
Tinnon had no idea at the time, but his enrollment at Williston State in 2007 -- despite the fact he never played, or was even a high school graduate -- started his NCAA "clock," which stipulates that a player has five years to complete his four seasons of eligibility. When Tinnon was being recruited out of KCKCC, some schools backed off once they realized that without a waiver from the NCAA, his clock would expire at the end of this season. Marshall deemed Tinnon worth the risk, and plans to appeal for another year, but has yet to submit its final waiver request to the NCAA. "It's taken me so long to get to this level," says Tinnon, "and it's scary to think that when the season ends, our life could have to change again. We're just sitting here waiting, knowing that this could be it."
Tinnon's clock started when he was a different person. He had nothing to play for at Williston, and he accomplished nothing; he has everything to play for at Marshall, and he is thriving. When he pulls down a rebound and pins it to his chest, right there, underneath his jersey, are tattoos of the names Robin and Denyah. "It's been my dream," he says, "to be a big part of my daughter's life; to get drafted and have a basketball career so I can take care of her, and give her everything that I never had."
Some pro team, whether it be this year or next, here or abroad, should be willing to pay Tinnon for his relentless glasswork. If not, he has fallback options, with an associate degree and a bachelor's in progress, and he says he'd even go back to his fresh-out-of-jail job at the meat-processing plant to support his family if everything else fell apart. Not that he'd let that happen. When he clenches his fist, he can still feel the misery of that meat hook in his hand, and remind himself to keep a fierce grip on his last chance.