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Stuckey comes home ... with a message

Torri Stuckey during his playing days Northwestern University.  |  Phocourtesy NU Athletics

Torri Stuckey during his playing days at Northwestern University. | Photo courtesy of NU Athletics

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Updated: May 9, 2013 6:09AM



Randy Walker had a temper.

The late Northwestern football coach was known for blowups on the field, off the field, during practice and pretty much anywhere else.

Walker, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006, provided Robbins native Torri Stuckey with his Welcome to Northwestern moment his freshman year.

Stuckey, a star running back/safety out of Eisenhower High School, played at NU as a true freshman — a rarity in college football.

The Wildcats were practicing for their Big Ten opener against Wisconsin and Stuckey was running a route from his safety position — apparently not fast enough for Walker.

The coach called out Stuckey and pulled the freshman off the practice field, getting into Stuckey’s face and asking him the same question over and over with Stuckey answering “Yeah, coach!” each time.

A teammate told Stuckey, “You have to answer ‘yes’ not ‘yeah.’ ”

Stuckey wasn’t in Robbins anymore.

“You feel this constant pull of how they want to change you and you’re not sure who you are anymore,” said Stuckey, a 2000 Eisenhower graduate. “You fight not to change. I didn’t want to go against the grain, (but) there was a false sense of blackness.”

That moment helped define Stuckey’s perception of where he came from versus where other students — notably middle class African-American students — came from and how they saw themselves once they got to the Evanston campus and beyond.

It also triggered something in Stuckey that festered and sometimes remained dormant until he was 22 and out of Northwestern, with his football career over and a job at a homeless shelter.

And now those ruminations are in a book, “Impoverished State of Mind: Thinking Outside da Block.” It is Stuckey’s second book and it took him six years to write.

Stuckey is using the book to launch workshops with students in Community High School District 218, and the 30-year-old Stuckey is working with Shepard High School Associate Principal Gregory Walder in putting together workshops at the district’s four high schools: Shepard, Richards, Eisenhower and Delta-Summit, an alternative school in Robbins.

Walder said Stuckey, an Oak Forest resident, helped social workers at each school pick 30 students for four one-hour workshops he is conducting from now through the end of the school year.

Walder said the students are freshmen through juniors. The students represent a cross-section of the student population that could benefit from reading the book.

But maybe the biggest idea Stuckey has is a proposal he sent to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Stuckey’s proposal is an eight-week summer program that will use his book for life lessons. In February, Emanuel announced an increase in funding for programs for at-risk Chicago Public School students. Stuckey has yet to hear back from the mayor’s office.

“Most African-Americans are impoverished and you start to believe that all blacks are poor and that becomes your idea of ‘blackness,’” Stuckey said. “But the middle class (African-American) have a different outlook.”

How it came about

In 2004, Stuckey was a 22-year-old out of NU with a communications degree when he started working at an emergency homeless shelter for youth: Belford House, at 39th and Indiana on the city’s South Side.

His football career was over. He had a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys, but a roster spot didn’t stick. So Stuckey went home.

“I felt like I had accomplished everything — and nothing,” he said. “I wanted an NFL career and it just didn’t happen.”

He worked at the shelter for three years, helping kids who were trying to get off the streets. But Stuckey found that some of those “kids” had either just turned 21 or were close to turning 22.

The youth and Stuckey may have been close in age, but they were light years apart.

“Northwestern exposed me to culture and people of all walks of life,” Stuckey said. “But (the youths’) view was constricted. Some had never been Downtown or out of state. I wanted to tear down those walls of poverty.”

Stuckey saw that the shelter’s youth viewed anyone who was African-American as being poor, because that was the type of environment they saw every day.

Even Stuckey saw it in the public housing project where he grew up in Robbins. Stuckey grew up with two siblings, his mother and grandmother. Stuckey said his father was addicted to crack cocaine and didn’t live with the family.

“My mom hid that and then I started to resent my dad and my environment,” Stuckey said. “There was a lot of pressure to join gangs and there were a lot of drive-by shootings there in the 1990s. You always had to be ready to hit the ground.

“It made me want to get out.”

Eisenhower football coach Travis Moore grew up across the street from Stuckey and the two remain good friends.

But Moore didn’t think Stuckey would pick NU. College football coaches had talked to Stuckey and Moore about taking both of them in a “package deal.” Moore thought they would play ball together.

“I think the reaction was more shocking, initially, because of Torri’s background and people didn’t know if he would fit in,” said Moore, who played college football at Northern Illinois. “They were confused with the decision, especially with all the offers he had on the table.”

The NU experience

Stuckey really knew what it was like to be a minority when he hit the NU campus on the lakefront. And he saw what he was doing to himself subconsciously.

“I get to NU and now you have more affluent African-Americans, and I subconsciously associated poverty with being black because of the environment I grew up in,” he said. “I was alienated. I went back to the South Side and Robbins as much as I could.”

Stuckey went back and forth from north to south for the first two years of college. But when he went back to Robbins, his old friends said he “talked funny” and that he didn’t talk “street” enough, because he had been around a different socio-economic class of people in Evanston. And when he went back to NU, people also commented on his speech patters.

Stuckey felt like he couldn’t win.

“He got ridiculed a lot,” Moore said of how people in their Robbins neighborhood reacted.

“At times, people directed jokes toward Torri, but I think it was more envy,” Moore said. “The irony is that Torri was from a (housing) project attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Some were envious and some were just making some humor of it. There were not many people, at that time, from our location who went away to school — especially to universities of that prestige. It was easy to get jealous.”

Moving the message

Jesse Gonzales is a senior at Eisenhower and has a scholarship to play football at Minnesota State-Mankato, in a town of about 40,000 people in the southern part of the state.

Gonzalez, a Merrionette Park resident, read parts of Stuckey’s book and could relate.

“I’m going to be a minority in college and I could draw the connection,” Gonzales said. “I liked reading about his college experiences, and what he did through high school and making the varsity and all the struggles he went through.”

Stuckey has had speaking engagements at Mount Carmel High School, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a workshop in Indianapolis.

But it hasn’t just been people from low-income backgrounds who have been moved by Stuckey’s story. Stuckey said an Albanian man went to his UW-Platteville speech and told Stuckey afterward that coming from another country put constraints on him, too, and saw his life as a parallel to Stuckey’s.

“The workshops are the best because we only have 30 kids and it’s more interactive,” Stuckey said.

One teenager at an Indianapolis workshop read a passage of Stuckey’s book to her father, who was in prison for drugs. The passage dealt with how Stuckey felt about his father’s drug struggles. Reading from the book was the only way the girl could convey her feelings to her dad.

Walder, who was Stuckey’s varsity football coach at Eisenhower, is thrilled with Stuckey’s involvement with the district, which is also having a big literacy push. It seems easier to get kids to read if it’s Stuckey’s book that they have to read.

“The great thing is, no matter the adversity or disability, if you’re in a single-parent home or if you live in a rich area, you can put a spin on any of those topics,” Walder said. “It’s not just about the poverty level. Every individual who has different barriers can read this book and there are messages that can help everyone.”

“Impoverished State of Mind” isn’t the only piece that Stuckey has had published. When he was 23 he wrote a play called, “When the Music Stops.”

Stuckey’s books can be purchased online at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com; and at Azizi Books, 258 Lincoln Mall Drive, Matteson.



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