Michael Victor Whatley Jr., soon to begin his senior year at Tennessee State University, has written an autobiographical book of poetry and the first act of “The Good Die Young,” a play he hopes to someday direct and produce.
The play is about choices. His protagonist, Jay S., is a rapper divided by faith and music, motivated by revenge over lost love, and depicted on the playbill cover holding a gun to his head.
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.”
He loved drama as well as football. He was in his first play in the second grade, two years before his first game with the Rosedale Tigers. But the sport was an especially powerful distraction from troubles in his neighborhood and at home. His mother, he says, was locked up a few times while he was a child, and he often stayed with a grandmother and aunt.
“Football kept me on track,” says Whatley, recalling that his grades dropped when he wasn’t playing. After he was sidelined by an injury in high school, he was caught throwing dice by a police officer who hauled him into a station and called his aunt. His grandmother pulled him out of Eastern Senior High School and shipped him to DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville for the 11th grade.
He made the honor roll, started a poetry club and played for the football team’s junior varsity. Then an ankle injury during a pickup basketball game ended his high school football career and his chance to play for a national powerhouse and a coach renowned for sending players to college and professional football.
There would be no college football scholarship.
A college recruiter sold him on Tennessee State — its football team had the same name, the Tigers, as his Rosedale squad; it had a good theater program; and it was far enough from the District that he couldn’t come home for the weekend. “I was trying to put myself in a different environment,” Whatley says.
He enrolled as a speech communication major, moving to Nashville without ever visiting the campus first. College football lingered in his imagination, but then the school offered him a theater scholarship as a sophomore.
He knew football was over.
“It felt good,” he says of the decision. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
That has allowed him to throw his energies into his passion. Whatley has been in at least five plays, including Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Ruined,” about women trapped in war in the Congo.
“I think what Michael brings to his work is a celebration of who he is,” said Lawrence James, a theater professor at Tennessee State who directed him in “Ruined.”
“He acts it out. He sings it out. He writes it out,” James said. “He has a larger vision of life. He’s always imagining something. ... There’s a muse in him from somewhere.”
Whatley returns to the District infrequently, but his mother recently insisted, purchasing him a plane ticket home. The Rosedale “Rec” was one of his first visits, and he spent an evening on the bleachers with Cotton, watching young players hard at practice.
Chris Alston was there, too. He was the one the neighborhood kids idolized when Whatley was one of them; he could throw a football the length of the field, the legend now goes.
A bullet fired into his neck outside a D.C. nightclub in 2003 put Alston, now 25, in a wheelchair for life. Paralyzed from the waist down, he helps the Rosedale staff coach children and offers them advice: “Be better than me.”
Whatley once admired Alston. Now, Alston looks up to Whatley.
“He did good,” Alston said. “It don’t matter that it’s not in football.”
They shook hands.
Whatley reflected: Death “numbs you a little bit. . . . I’m glad to be alive and able to do something, and to encourage people to do as I did and go the other way.”