Whatley, a 21-year-old District native, knows something about choices: Growing up in Northeast’s Rosedale neighborhood, he chose football over drugs. Now, as he prepares to finish school and fully enter adulthood, he has chosen writing over football. He will return to Nashville later this month with dreams of Broadway instead of the gridiron.
“Trying to Be Grown,” a collection of poems Whatley published this year, tells a coming-of-age story that only hints at his youth in public housing, his brother’s killing in 1992 and, soon after, his father’s death in prison.
He writes in one poem:
Life has never been easy
I’ve always been tough
I’ve learned that enough
Will never be enough.
Another contains his credo: “I’d rather die young a leader than follow another into destruction.”
Today, Whatley says he prefers to focus on his maturation than dwell on his early childhood. “The poems are how I felt during my transition,” he says. “Now I’m becoming more comfortable with my own talents, and I know where I want to go in life.”
The balance of his life is as unscripted as the rest of his play.
Whatley was 2 when his brother Donte Octavious Reed, 19, was shot dead. A year later, his father — in prison awaiting an appeal of a bank-robbery conviction — died of complications from AIDS. His neighborhood was frequently visited by violence, and he recalls attending his first funeral for a slain friend when he was in the sixth grade.
“Buddy got killed. Scoobie, when I was in high school, was killed. A guy I played football with got shot with a shotgun, with his brother in the car,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of death.”
As a 9-year-old, he took refuge at the Rosedale Recreation Center.
“He used sports as a vehicle to get out and find his place in life,” said his former youth football coach, John F. Cotton, who runs a nonprofit organization that sponsors youth sports teams in Rosedale and elsewhere in the city.
The coach seized on the former player’s success during a rally against crime this month, when he took the podium on the Rosedale field, waved the poetry book and briefly told Whatley’s story.
“I see a young man who has emerged from here strong,” Cotton said in an interview later. “Too many end up locked up or dead. The biggest challenge around here is survival.”
Whatley says his love of sports helped him withstand the temptations of the drug trade. He recalls proudly marching three blocks in his cleats to the field on Gales Street NE. His reputation as an athlete, he says, earned him respect and protection.
“Everyone knew that the ones that played football meant something to the neighborhood,” he says. “The neighborhood cherished me.”