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.
Theo Tucker bikes, swims, and runs to find his sporting identity again
Lesley and Theo talk about sports, training, triathlons, and rehabilitation.
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.”
Although it’s past noon, Tucker sleeps on a sofa in the nearby living room.
Selman met Tucker in his freshman year but had heard of him before that.
“The [football] coach would tell a story about him and another player,” she says. “All eighth-grade year, they wanted to come to practice, they wanted to come to practice, and the coach said, ‘You can’t practice until you graduate.’ So, the day they graduated from eighth grade, they basically left their graduation ceremony and ran to the football field in their suits and everything so they could practice that day.”
Later, during the summer bridge program for incoming freshmen, Tucker brought attention to himself by defying a teacher who wouldn’t let him leave the classroom by jumping out a window in order to make it to football practice.
“I think I first got to really talk to him when we took the freshmen team to Magic Mountain for a day. We were all on the bus,” she says. “One of the last seats was by me, so he got stuck sitting by me. But he just talked the whole time about football and Pop Warner, and he didn’t seem to care.”
After practices, Selman and other coaches would drive players home if they needed a ride. Tucker lived on Selman’s way home, so he often rode with her. By the time his grandfather passed away around Christmas of freshman year, they were already close, and he claimed her as his godmother.
“I think he first introduced me as his godmother at his grandfather’s funeral,” she says. “Me and a lot of coaches went to the funeral, and we’ve all kind of taken him under our wings since then.”
Over the next four years, Selman continued getting to know (and bonding with) Tucker, serving often as his confidant and sometimes playing a parental role.
“I remember we got into a big argument one summer because I told him he needed to do summer school to make up some Ds, and he was just dead-set against it because he wanted a break and wanted to do probably something sports-related instead.”
It was her job to help him succeed academically, but Selman also kept up with what Tucker did on the field. He wasn’t the superstar of the team, she says, but he was right up there at the top. “They’d run a mile before practice,” Selman recalls, “and usually you have your wide receivers and your running backs out in front of everybody, and then you’d have your bigger but stronger guys, like your tight ends, safeties, linebackers, and then your linemen, barely walking. Theo should have been somewhere in the middle of the pack, but he would almost lap out ahead of the guys that were running the four-by-four for our track team. He just had that combination of power and speed.”
And then everything changed
Back at the field, Tucker eventually winds his way around to telling me about “the thing that happened.”
It was late at night, in the week prior to the fifth game of the season against traditional power Helix High School. Tucker heard a sound in his family home. When he went to investigate, he noticed that the living-room window was wide open and the blinds were torn off. At first he didn’t see anyone, but he could sense someone was there. And although some part of him knew better, he entered the living room to check it out.
In retelling the story to me, he laughs at himself in retrospect and mimics shouting “Don’t do it” at the movie screen the way we all do when the person on screen is about to do something stupid. “But something told me just go ahead and investigate. I’m, like, Turn around. Investigate. Turn around. Investigate.”
Tucker took two steps in and was body slammed. All he knew was that his attacker wore a hoodie, maybe a mask, because he can’t remember seeing a face. The struggle was intense, and Tucker tried to strangle the intruder. At one point, the man in the hoodie got away and leapt out the open window.
Tucker ran out the front door and “The Match,” as he calls it, went from the living room out to the driveway. And that’s all he remembers. He would later discover that the attacker had stabbed him four times: once on the right side of his face near his jaw bone; once in the back; once in his chest, which punctured and collapsed a lung; and in his left thigh, which severed the femoral artery.
Selman found out about the incident within hours.
“I always have the news on when I wake up in the morning, and they were already covering the story of a stabbing on Skyline. It was still probably 5:30 or earlier in the morning,” she says. “I knew the area exactly where they were talking about, and I knew it was right by his house.”
When she received a call from Tucker’s girlfriend just before 6:00 that morning, she knew the news story had something to do with him. “It was really, really, really, bad,” she says. “They basically found him in a pool of blood in his driveway.”
It got worse: Tucker learned that the attacker was his brother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and who had, two weeks prior, been jailed for attempting to stab their grandmother. While in jail, he was warned by uncles not to return to the house, but on his release, he did just that. Tucker numbers rather than names his brother.
“It was Brother Number Three, the one right above me,” he says. “Me and him, we just never connected at all. We used to argue, and ’til this day, it hurts me. I ask myself sometimes what could I have done different to at least make us get along growing up.”
Following the incident, Tucker spent a week in the hospital and underwent five or six surgeries to repair his lung, his leg, and his face.
Selman drove his girlfriend to the hospital every day after school.
Tucker lost approximately 60 pounds over the next month. (“You know how hard it is to go on a bland diet as a young high school kid?” he laughs.) But he got back out on the football field as soon as he was able.
“The only thing he cared about was getting back to playing football,” Selman says. “The whole time he was in the hospital, he was doing stuff before he was supposed to, getting up, walking around, way before they were saying he should. But he pushes himself like that. He always has. He beat the odds, but we had hoped for more.”
As much as he wanted to resume his old life, however, Tucker wasn’t the same. He did play in the last four games of that season, but he had a newfound fear of sprinting because of the pain in his lungs and his leg. Aside from the pain, he was also more vulnerable in collisions on the field.
“I did get hurt one game,” he says. “I caught a pass, and I ran up the field. [One guy’s] arm hit me in the painful area of my face, one hit me in my leg where I had surgery, and then the last dude hit me exactly where my lungs were hurting. It was an awkward situation, and I got hit in all three places. And I didn’t get up.”
His scholarship offers, he says, began to fall away as he lost his momentum and recruiters lost their confidence in him.
Today, Tucker has almost one year’s worth of college credits under his belt — some from Mesa and some from City College. But when his family lost the house he grew up in and he was left to make his own way in the world, he ended up dropping out for a semester. For a few months, he and his girlfriend rented a room in a family home in Skyline, but the family moved away right around the time he and his girlfriend broke up, and now he’s on the couch at Selman’s.
He hasn’t been on the football field in two years.
“The thing that happened with his brother in the middle of football season of his senior year kind of put a damper on [his future plans],” Selman says. “I mean, we hoped for more, but with everything he’d been through, [Theo] beat the odds just by graduating and surviving it all.”
These days, even if he were in school, he says he wouldn’t have time for football. He’s working 60–70 hours a week, half doing day-to-evening hours at Charlotte Russe in the Chula Vista Mall, and the other half doing the graveyard shift at a downtown McDonald’s.
That, plus up to four hours of travel time per day. To get to work from Selman’s, he has to walk a mile to the bus stop where he takes the 856 to the Lemon Grove trolley stop and then rides the trolley to 12th and Imperial. If he’s going to Charlotte Russe, he then hops on the Blue Line to the H Street stop in Chula Vista, from where he can either walk or take the 705 bus to the mall. It’s as much as two hours each way.
“He’s overwhelmed,” Selman says. “He’s on his own. He was working three jobs. He’s working two right now. And he’s just trying to get on his feet for the most part.”
The Scottish bird and the muscle-y guy
In the spring of 2013, Heidi Selman received a call from her longtime friend, Lesley Paterson, the petite but hard-core two-time winner (2011 and 2012) of the XTerra World Championship Triathlon (she came in second in 2013). Selman, once an avid cyclist, has known the now-big-time triathlete since 2003, when Paterson married Selman’s cycling coach, Simon Marshall. The “Scottish lassie and f-bomb dropper” (Paterson’s own description) called Selman seeking referrals for disadvantaged young adults who might be interested in participating in her first Braveheart Bootcamp, a weeklong triathlon camp for beginners.
Selman thought immediately of Tucker because he’s “the type who likes to do things that people wouldn’t expect him to do,” and because she knew he’d follow through.
“It was just to give him a new experience, and I knew it would be something positive for him,” she says. “And I knew that he’d be meeting some quality people and making some connections that could help him.”
What Tucker remembers from the initial conversation he had with Selman about the camp was that it was run by a professional athlete. Besides that, only one other thing stood out. “She’s, like, ‘It’s cycling, running, and swimming stuff,’” he says. “And I’m, like, ‘I don’t swim.’”
But he applied anyway.
It was in that application packet that Scotland-born-and-raised Paterson got her first impression of Tucker.
“We asked them to send in a picture with their application, and his picture was of him in the gym, holding the camera up in a sort of pose,” she tells me in the living room of her Point Loma condo. “And I thought, This guy’s super cocky and arrogant. This might be interesting. You know, this little white Scottish bird coaching this big guy who’s all muscle-y. I wondered if he would respect me.”
A few weeks later, on July 22nd, he showed up for his first day of camp.
“On the very first day we met, he called me ‘Coach’ right off the bat,” she says. “From that point on, it was all about trying to impress me.”
Tucker admits that his first thought on meeting Paterson was, “I will burn her in a foot race.”
On that first day, in July 2013, Paterson and her crew (many of whom are her coaching clients through her Braveheart fitness coaching for triathletes) passed out swag bags filled with everything they’d need to start participating in triathlons. Her sponsors helped her provide the campers with bikes, wet suits, running shoes, nutrition bars, waterproof MP3 players, action cameras, sunglasses, running visors, goggles, cycling kits, and, in Tucker’s words, “water bottles out the butt. She was, like, ‘One thing you will become best friends with if you continue this career is water. Water is your life.’”
Tucker was hyped about the $5000 worth of gear Paterson provided, but he was also moved by the personal touches.
“One of the funniest things, which was kind of cool and made me see this lady is a family person, she actually put her mom’s shortbread cookies [in the bag],” he says.
The week consisted of basic instruction (how to use a wetsuit and adjust the gears on the bike), training (running drills, an open-water swim, swim-to-bike transition practice) all over San Diego, dinner and lunch, and daily guest speakers discussing nutrition and goal setting. They trained on bikes around Fiesta Island, in the pool at the Coggan Family Aquatic Complex in La Jolla, did hill repeats in East County, and boot-camp strength workouts on the grass at Ventura Cove.
“That one week felt like a year,” Tucker says.
Paterson was impressed with Tucker, but it wasn’t his football-player muscles or his speed so much as his willingness to push himself that made him stand out to her.
“[On day two] we were doing these hill repeats, and it’s probably a 21 percent grade climb. It’s brutal. To just get up it, you’re dying,” she says. “He pushed so hard, like I’ve never seen anyone push.”
Paterson’s initial idea for starting the Braveheart Bootcamp was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could go out and do a camp for some kids or some young adults that are in those challenging times of their lives that they’re trying to discover themselves, and help them in some way?”
She wanted to bring the sport to under-priveleged youth who normally couldn’t afford to take part in what she says is a “privileged sport, such a luxurious sport for middle classes and upper classes that have money.”
A study initiated by the USA Triathlon in 2009 and entitled “The Mind of the Triathlete” found that not only is the average annual income of triathletes $126,000, but that 88.2 percent are white, and the average age is 38. Only 7 percent are under 25, and 0.5 percent are black.
Within three or four months, she was able to secure gear from her sponsors, raise approximately $5000 through San Diego’s triathlon community (on top of $5000 of her own money), and elicit the help of clients and friends who would serve as speakers, helpers, and mentors during camp week.
For the final day of the camp, Paterson arranged a mini triathlon at Glorietta Bay. It included approximate distances of a quarter-mile swim, a nine-mile bike ride, and a three-mile run. It was the first time Tucker had ever swum unassisted in open water, and Paterson assigned one of her coaching clients to be his swimming buddy.
“She had to really stay with him,” Paterson says. “He had to swim on his back, he had to really take his time, and he kind of got in a bit of a panic during the swim. He’s so unfamiliar with that sense of being out of his depth like that. It’s, like, Oh, shit, I’m supposed to be the athlete. Why can I not master this?”
Selman came to watch the mini triathlon and remembers it the same way.
“It was weird seeing him not excel at something, because when it comes to the sports he’s used to, he’s always at the top. It was hard for him,” she says.
The transportation system is shit
A week hardly seems long enough to hope for much more than a finish for beginning triathletes, especially those who start it stating, “I don’t swim.” And when I bring this up to Paterson, she agrees that a week is not ideal. “The goal was really to find out about the lives of the campers and how we can help facilitate you in your growth,” she says.
Early on in the camp, she realized that transportation is a huge obstacle not only for participation in the sport but also participation in out-of-the way internships and other opportunities.
To that end, she’s now on the hunt for a car or rental-car sponsor so that the next time she holds the camp (she’s planning to do it every 18 months or so), she can offer some of the participants as much as a year’s worth of access to transportation.
Another obstacle Patterson says showed up in some of the participants is their own frustrating patterns of behavior.
“You know, when someone calls you, you call them back,” she says. “And Theo was the best of them, but he still has moments.”
She gives an example of a recent post-camp trip to visit Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen TV show. The camp participants had known about it for weeks, and Tucker knew when and where to be to catch the van up to Los Angeles. But an hour or so before the group was scheduled to leave, Tucker called and asked if someone would come get him. Paterson found the experience frustrating.
“You’re just, like, ‘Theo, buddy, come on. We gave you all the information. Why didn’t you just follow through?’”
Wow. That’s Theo Tucker
Tucker’s story doesn’t have the kind of big, triumphant Hollywood ending that we all hope for. In October, he participated in the Mission Bay Triathlon, a sprint-distance race that included a ½K swim (again with a swimming buddy in the water beside him), a 15K bike ride, and a 5K run.
“It was beautiful,” he says. “I mean, it hurt. While I was running, my calves were on fire, and I thought I was done. I just stopped. But out of the blue, six people who didn’t even know who I was and didn’t even know each other were, like, ‘Come on. You got this. Please don’t quit. We’ll jog with you. I’m, like, ‘Wow. Who’s paying you? Where are the cameras?’”
He has also signed up for spring semester classes at City College, working toward a degree in physiotherapy. But he’s still struggling with the idea of how he’ll be able to manage school, bills, two jobs, and a practice schedule should the opportunity to play football arise again.
When I ask if he fears the idea that his glory days are behind him, he hesitates for a moment before he says, “Yes, I do. I like to hear those oohs and those aahhs. I mean, I’m not out there raising my hands and showing off or anything, but my thing is, I’m looking at you looking at me.”
He pauses, and for a moment I think he’s going to go on to explain how and why he fears it. But instead, he says, “Everything dies eventually. There’s going to be a time when — who knows? — two years from now, when I can walk up to Morse and everything about my history, everything that I’ve ever done is gone, and no one ever knows.”
Before we part ways, I take a chance and ask Tucker about the crisscross of cuts on his wrist. He tries to pass them off as the result of an incident with a cat. Twice. But then he relents, says, “Yeah, they’re not from a cat” and tells me the story of his newly estranged together-since-freshman-year girlfriend that he just couldn’t seem to make happy.
No, not everything has gone Tucker’s way. But the triathlon camp did give him new ideas to mull over. “I won’t say football is [over] for me, but I can’t play football forever,” he says reluctantly. “But you can kind of be a triathlete forever. There are some people out there that are pretty high in age, but they’re still kicking like they’re my age.”
For now, he keeps up with the biking a couple of times a week, swims at the MLK pool once or twice every two weeks, and runs hard for at least a mile every day. He keeps his eyes downcast as he confesses that it’s not the several hours a day that he needs to stay in on-the-field shape or to participate in another triathlon, and I’m reminded of something Paterson said: “He’s so desperate to find his sporting identity again. It’s such a huge thing that he lost.”
And at the same time, sitting next to him, able to see his scars up close, and to hear his laughter in person, it’s impossible for me not to be swept up in his optimism.
“I’m trying to set new goals,” he says, “and basically perform to make people say, ‘Wow. That’s Theo Tucker.’”
As for happy endings, Selman says, “He’s too strong-willed not to have it happen. We’ll just have to see what it is.”