As Theo Tucker crosses the campus at Morse High School in track pants and a backward-facing ball cap, female students greet him with hugs or quiet stares, and male students offer fist bumps and chin nods.
The 21-year-old responds in kind, returning the hugs and fist bumps as he passes, waving occasionally, and once admonishing a young man to remove the red bandanna he has tied around his head. The kid laughs and takes off the bandanna. Apparently, two years after his own graduation, Tucker still has some pull around here.
Five minutes later, we’re sitting on the bleachers overlooking the football field on this colder-than-expected day. A physical education class of mostly reluctant runners makes its way around the track. Of all the places in San Diego he could have chosen for our conversation, this is where Tucker, a former defensive end/tight end for the Morse Tigers says he feels most at home.
“I have a history of just taking my mind off things at [this] school,” he says of this choice for our meeting location.
He grew up six blocks from here, in the neighborhood of Skyline. Most of the Pop Warner teams he played on as a child held their games here. And although construction of the school’s track and field forced the football team to play all their games away from home during Tucker’s senior year, he spent more time here than anywhere else during the most promising period in his life so far.
At the beginning of the year, September 2010, Tucker had football scholarship offers from a handful of Division 2 schools around the country, mostly on the East Coast, one for a full-ride. He played “both sides of the ball” (offense and defense) as well as special teams and was what he now calls “a primary factor” on the team. That season, he had three sacks in the first three games and a touchdown in the fourth. The fourth of five boys in his family, he was on his way to becoming the first of his siblings to graduate from high school and go to college. His year was looking good. Until...
“I lost every last [scholarship] due to one night,” he says mysteriously.
Rather than explaining further, he folds his arms across his chest and stares out across the field. I sense it’s too early in our conversation to probe, so I ask instead about his family.
“I don’t know if you can tell by the look on my face,” he says, turning briefly to look at me, “but I really don’t want to talk about my family.”
But immediately after this statement, he turns back to the field and launches into a series of stories about his childhood and family life in Skyline, where he, his brothers, and his mother lived with his grandfather.
“My family wasn’t what you call a family. I was always the one that was pushed to the side. I was the one that was abused. I was the one that was left alone,” he says, punctuating the statement with a laugh.
While the P.E. stragglers make their final lap around the newly renovated track, Tucker paints a sad picture of himself walking home alone, sometimes for hours if his football practice or games were held in other neighborhoods. He tells the story about when his mother told him she hated him and another of being jumped by his brother’s friends.
At 6´2˝ and 230 pounds, Tucker likely intimidates out on the field, but up close, he smiles often and speaks frankly. Even during the most emotionally charged moments of the stories he tells, he laughs. Not a full-out belly laugh, but the sort of incongruous chuckle that draws my eyes again and again to the crisscross of surface level cuts on the inside of his left wrist.
“I think about it sometimes, and I actually should have grown up to be some type of psycho or bad child,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but I always believe in smiling. Smiling and just believing that everything will be all right. I don’t know if that was a lesson from my grandfather or if I’m just really good at hiding things.”
He pauses for a moment and appears to contemplate the kids on the track.
“Don’t get me wrong, I did have some type of adults, you know, who just thought I was amazing. But I was a kid,” he says. “No adult wants to get that close to a kid, because that’s not your kid. I wanted to spend more time with them, because they would make me feel like I was somebody.”
It was through sports that Tucker found a way of connecting to family — both biological and otherwise.
“I had to fight for my attention from my family,” he says, “and playing sports is what gave me their attention.”
From the age of six, he played football and basketball, and later added volleyball and track to his list. Along the way, on various teams, many of his closest friendships were formed on courts and fields. But, today, it’s when he speaks of the adults involved that he offers unrestrained adoration. “Teachers and coaches became family to me,” he says, “especially high-school coaches. I stay in contact with all of them. Even though some of them are not at district schools, I stay in contact with them. I see them as family.”
I meet the kingpin of those teachers and supporters on the day after Thanksgiving. Her name is Heidi Selman, and she’s an academic coach for the football and basketball programs at Morse. When speaking of Selman, Tucker refers to her as his godmother, but when speaking to her, he calls her “Mom.”
“I can’t remember the last time he called me anything else,” Selman says from across the large dining-room table in her Spring Valley home. The room’s sliding-glass door overlooks what Selman calls her “million-dollar view on a Spring Valley budget.”