Jeff Benedict: Straight Outta Compton: Sports Illustrated writer shares story behind the story

Published: Thursday, Dec. 1 2011 10:05 a.m. MST

Fortunately, I have an editor with vision. He gave me the green light. The Hamms said yes. And I got permission from the Compton principal to essentially be a student for a day.

On Oct. 26 I arrived with my overnight bag at the Hamms' 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 Kitam while he did homework, listening to music, and texted back and forth with NFL wide receiver Greg Camarillo. 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 put a young man in peril. He chose a plaid shirt and jeans; 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.

Kitam Hamm Sr. may be one of the best fathers I've ever come across. He 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; 20 percent are African-American; the remainder is Polynesian. Going to school with Kitam was an experience I'll never forget. It was probably more educational — and certainly more interesting — than my entire four years in high school.

But the highlight of this project was getting to know an American family that inspired me. Kitam Hamm Sr. and his wife Donyetta have built a marriage based on love and raised four terrific children. And they've done it in an environment where all the odds are stacked against them. I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to bring their story to light.

Jeff Benedict is a best-selling author and a columnist for SI.com. He is the author of "POISONED: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."He can be reached at jeff@jeffbenedict.com.

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