Sports and poetry: Promising life cut short in $10 holdup

Senseless, says principal at Poly, where teen was academic, team standout

May 29, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Ian Cohen, principal at Polytechnic Institute, doesn't know what to tell his students about the shooting death of recent graduate Rio-Jarell Tatum, a star athlete and honors student.

"This makes no sense," Cohen said. "He did everything anyone would have wanted him to do."

At 19, Tatum had already accomplished so much. He had captained two high school sports teams, was a member of the National Honor Society and had just finished his freshman year at Pennsylvania State University on a full scholarship. He even wrote poetry.

Tatum, the city's 102nd homicide victim of the year, was shot and killed Sunday night during a robbery that netted his killers $10. He and a friend were on their way to a North Eutaw Street nightspot that has been criticized by police for attracting violence.

Police said last night that they had no suspects.

Tatum and his companion had parked a block from the club, the Tunnel, and were getting out of the car when they were approached by two men about 10:30 p.m., police said. Tatum was shot in the left side; the bullet pierced his heart.

It is not the first violence near the Tunnel. Last year, several people were shot or stabbed in the vicinity of the nightspot. In April, one of the club's bouncers was shot and a patron was stabbed.

Police officials are seeking to have the club's liquor license revoked.

Club owners could not be reached for comment.

The death has shattered Tatum's family and friends, and his coaches at Poly, where the teen-ager, who graduated in 2001, had excelled in nearly every aspect of student life.

Yesterday, the school and Tatum's summer league baseball team each held a moment of silence in his honor.

"He was ideal," said his mother, Roxanne Servance. "He was the kind of son any mother or father would want."

Though Tatum had career goals that included working in business or computers, he desired to do more with his life, to set an example.

"He wanted to become a hero," said his godfather, Dean Scott.

Varsity captain

Tatum grew up in a two-story house in the 1300 block of Windemere Ave., just a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. He attended Roland Park Elementary and Middle schools, and at Poly, he made the varsity baseball and soccer teams as a freshman and became captain of both.

Tatum graduated with a 3.97 grade point average while taking a rigorous course load, his family said. And his classmates elected him prom king his senior year.

In his prom photograph, Tatum appeared comfortable with himself, his right arm resting on pedestal, both hands clasped together, a large smile spreading across his face.

In another picture, taken at the beach, he posed like a body-builder for his mother, showing off bulging chest and arm muscles.

Mark Schlenoff, Poly's athletic director and former varsity baseball coach, remembered watching Tatum pitch for the junior varsity as a freshman and then promoting him to varsity, a rarity at the school.

By the end of the season, Tatum was providing crucial relief.

During one game, Tatum was pitching erratically and Schlenoff went to the mound to console his young pitcher.

"You nervous?" Schlenoff asked.

"Yes, sir," Tatum responded. But Tatum was able to calm down and finish the game, Schlenoff said.

Tatum became an integral part of the team, playing second base and pitching, where he used a fastball and looping curveball to become the team's No. 2 hurler.

"He was an impact player," Schlenoff said.

Tatum's soccer coach, Robert G. Wood, agreed that the teen-ager was a tough competitor, playing sweeper, an important defensive position.

"I would definitely have him on a team I coached any day of the week," Wood said. "He just worked hard, he was very personable, he was a team-oriented kid."

At Penn State, Tatum tried out for the baseball team but was the last man cut, Goodwin said. While the Nittany Lions coach liked Tatum's arm and quick feet, he felt that the player's hitting wasn't good enough to handle Big Ten pitching.

So, Tatum had been honing his swing, practicing on a batting tee and sometimes taking cuts at imaginary pitches, hoping to win a spot on the Penn State roster.

One day in March, Goodwin called Tatum to see how he was doing. When Tatum picked up the phone he was out of breath.

"He was just working on his swing in his room," Goodwin said.

Enjoyed writing

Tatum also loved to write and frequently was introspective.

"The shoes I wear are the same size as many others," he once wrote in an essay. "However, not many others are capable of sliding their foot in and walking where I've walked."

When his godfather's sister died, Tatum offered words of comfort to his godfather in a poem that turned out to be sadly prophetic:

Cherish all the times that God has graciously given for you two to share

We know what's happening now but the future is what we're unaware

So focus on the present and live your life to the fullest of its extent

Never question the Lord's doings just always respect his intent.

Sun staff writer Johnathon Briggs contributed to this article.

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