Run-in with law leads ex-athlete Above and Beyond to help others
But the journey wasn't a smooth one for the point guard who helped lead Milwaukee Vincent High School to consecutive Wisconsin Division 1 boys basketball championships in 2000 and 2001. The struggles of inner city life left indelible impressions.
One of the best basketball players Tatum said he ever saw was shot and killed inside his Milwaukee home at age 17. That house was two homes behind Tatum's family residence near 31st Street and Hampton Avenue on the city's north side.
After graduation from high school in 2001, Tatum was charged with second-degree reckless endangerment for shooting a gun in the air to scatter and scare a group of men in retaliation for shots fired into the Tatum family home. He spent seven months in a community correctional center, enrolled and played basketball at a community college for two years before heading west.
When he returned to Milwaukee in 2007 after getting his degree in sociology, Tatum said he was motivated to act after seeing former athletes he knew who lacked academic aspirations or never finished their degrees.
“I started seeing those guys and the life for them that could've changed (with education), and they just kind of stayed in that vicious cycle of staying in poverty — they were never able to get out,” said Tatum, who is married with two children.
“I wanted to help kids who had the opportunity and talent — to get them to see basketball, football or whatever it is — that sport one day is going to end. And it may end as soon as you're done with college. You don't know. But I want you to start preparing yourself for what you're going to do afterward. How are you going to spend the next 40, 50 years of your life?”
Tatum created Above and Beyond the Playground, a non-profit program that will target underserved high school student-athletes — ideally freshmen and sophomores — who aspire to play a college sport. Two of Tatum's goals are encouraging participants to complete their college degrees and pondering life beyond the court or football field.
Potential candidates could be struggling with academics, but are strong athletes, or others might have unstable family situations. “Or it could be a kid who's a really good player and really good student, but has a bad attitude,” said Tatum of the prospective participants, who are required to make a one-year commitment and follow program guidelines. Developing social skills is a priority, in addition to helping students become comfortable interacting and talking to strangers.
“We just want to help kids who want to get to college and want to continue to play sports, obtain that dream and that vision like I once had.”
Tatum anticipates expanding the coed program to other schools, and incorporating a middle school component as the program grows. Athletes from any sport have the opportunity to participate.
A summer program with 30 students began this month at Vincent, including math, literacy and conditioning elements, and seven students are registered for the full program when classes begin this fall. A student must be recommended to the program by a coach, teacher or administrator, and will get the opportunity to work with a mentor, tutor and athletic trainer.
Tatum, who has raised more than $5,000 for the program, offset costs with lunch donations by area restaurants, and recruited qualified friends to assist with instruction. Tatum and Vincent girls basketball coach James Wright provide athletic training. Tatum said Above and Beyond the Playground needs to raise $100,000 to commence operations, and $350,000 is the target goal for the program to run according to plan for one year.
Jeremy Shelley, who will be a junior this fall at Vincent, is one of the program participants. Shelley, 16, has competed in varsity track for two seasons, and said he'd like to earn a scholarship to run track and field at the collegiate level. He's interested in pursuing a degree in mass media or communications, and has a passion for photography.
Shelley's mother, Shameika Semons, has always stressed the importance of academics, and Jeremy is thrilled with the mentorship that Above and Beyond the Playground will provide.
“It's always been my mom; I never really had a father,” Shelley said. “It's good when you have people like Mr. Tatum to be not only a brother, but also, a type of father figure to us. Deonte and the other coaches, they want us to use sports as a tool for college scholarship when finances are not there. Getting a scholarship for track or basketball is what I'm looking at.”
Tom Diener, a veteran coach who spent 16 years at Vincent, became emotional when discussing the strides Tatum has made. “He's really a special person,” Diener said. “He has empathy for kids in tough situations because he's been there.
“Him and I, we butted heads. I tried to reel him in and tried to teach him self-discipline, but in the end the basketball piece was the thing we both loved, so we were able to come together. Let them make mistakes, accept those mistakes and we'll work through those mistakes. When you're working with kids in difficult situations, you have to have the wisdom and understanding that it's not necessarily the kid, it's the situation they're in.”
One of Tatum's biggest supporters is former Vincent principal Gloria Erkins, who now works as a student achievement supervisor in Milwaukee Public Schools' central office. Erkins was a sounding board when Tatum designed Above and Beyond the Playground, and said Tatum always has been concerned about other people, even as a teenager. “He wanted to be on the same level, and was always reaching back trying to pull them up,” she said.
Erkins is a strong believer that when students are involved in extracurricular activities, their grades will improve. “You talk about poverty, and sometimes we have to find ways out of that, and the extracurricular activities are ways out,” she said.
Nurturing the link between home and community is critical, and she said Tatum is making an effort to forge those bonds.
Once Tatum was done with college, he worked hard to show athletic pursuits could enrich life in many ways. “He wanted people to know that it's beyond sports — what your qualities are and what you are as a man,” Erkins said. “You don't need to separate them, you use them, make an awareness and build who you are.”
Above: Deonte Tatum works with students at Vincent High School in Milwaukee. (Photos by Dave Kallmann)