Behind the armed guards stationed at the entrances to the Naval Academy and inside the granite walls of Bancroft Hall, freshman slotback Karlos Whittaker finally feels secure.
"I've seen a lot of bad things," said Whittaker, 19. "There are just some things in my life I've been through that I don't want to think about ever again."
Whittaker's older brother died in a car accident in 2000 when his mother fell asleep at the wheel of their van. Three high school teammates were murdered in a span of 13 months during his junior and senior years.
But through it all, he focused on sports and academics, which brought him to one of the nation's most prestigious academic institutions, where his career on the football field is beginning to blossom.
Growing up in North Chicago, Whittaker said there was a liquor store "pretty much on every corner" and so many gunshots outside his family's three-bedroom home at night that he became immune to the noise.
"Every night I would pray for my family's safety," said Corlis Mosley, Whittaker's mom, who recently retired after serving 21 years with the Army Reserve. "All this bad stuff was happening around us and I just prayed my kids made the right choice."
Even getting to the practice field was an accomplishment at a school equipped with metal detectors and staffed by a police officer and detective, according to Mike Grenda, the dean and football coach.
"You take any inner-city stereotype, and that's what it is here," Grenda said. "It's a difficult situation. I absolutely worry about my kids every night."
Whittaker's life revolved around football, and he wanted to follow in the footsteps of North Chicago High School alum and friend Michael Turner, who is entering his second season with the San Diego Chargers.
"Even when he was 8 years old, you could see he loved playing sports and he had a natural talent," said his stepfather, Edward Mosley, a former communications chief for the National Guard in Alabama and Illinois. "Sports was a big part of his life."
Whittaker said sports might have even saved his life.
In March 2000, Corlis Mosley took her sons Chevan and Neal and daughter LaKisha to visit their grandparents in Alabama. Because he was playing in the championship game of a neighborhood basketball league, Whittaker didn't make the trip. On Mosley's drive home, she fell asleep at the wheel, and the van veered off the road and flipped. Chevan Flott, 21, was killed.
"After that happened, I just wasn't focused and felt lost since we were so close," Whittaker said. "I used sports to help me focus. I've just been blessed to be where I am. It wasn't luck."
Whittaker never left the field his final three seasons at North Chicago. The honor roll student played slotback in an option offense that was similar to that of Navy. He also played outside linebacker, place kicker, punter and kick returner, guiding his team to three district titles.
He faced more tragedy the summer after his sophomore year of high school. His teammates David Mackins and Jarreau Patterson were each shot in the head after a fistfight in an apartment, their bodies dumped in the trunk of Mackins's car. Whittaker had been with them a week before, sharing a meal and hanging out at the mall. Thirteen months later, another teammate, Durell Gales, was shot in the head by a man dating Gales's sister.
"I never thought the last time I saw them it was going to be the last time I talked with them," Whittaker said. "It hurts when you have people who are close to you die. I can't explain it. I don't like talking about it."
Still, Whittaker kept his attention on the field and his dream of playing college football.
North Chicago assistant coach Adam Chavez persuaded Navy assistant Jeff Monken to take a look at Whittaker.
"The first time I met him when we brought him in for a visit he came across as a neat kid who wanted to work hard," Navy Coach Paul Johnson said. "We can always use good athletes, and after watching him on tape, we thought he was a perfect fit for what we can do for him and what he can get out of coming to the Naval Academy."
Whittaker spent last year at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I. He has made a smooth transition to life as a Midshipman and is expected to get playing time when Navy faces Maryland on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Whittaker is also looking forward to seeing LaKisha, who is attending Hampton University and expects to see Whittaker on Saturday for the first time since he arrived in Annapolis.
"After our family has gone through so much, to see Karlos make it this far really motivated me," LaKisha said. "He showed me that if you work hard, you can make it."