Tracy Batsell gets no money for her efforts. The self-proclaimed "mother on a mission" started four years ago because she wanted her own son, North Community High School basketball stand-out Rickey Batsell, to translate his athletic abilities into academic success. In the process she noticed many of her son's friends, also talented athletes, didn't seem to have a plan to capitalize on their on-court skills past high school.
"What they knew is they could play ball," Tracy Batsell said. "They understood they could go to college, they just didn't know necessarily how to navigate the system."
Batsell developed her own style of tutoring, meticulous scheduling, strict oversight and motherly encouragement. In 2005, she got a federal grant through her neighborhood association and the program grew to 300 students. Then as funding priorities shifted to early childhood programs, Batsell's grant dried up. But Batsell, herself, keeps going. She's fulfilled when her kids, as she calls them, return home talking like college students.
"When they came home, they talked about going to class, they talked about their GPAs, they talked about playing basketball," she said. "These are student athletes. That's what you want to hear when you're sending people away to college."
Batsell's son, Rickey is one of those now back after his first semester at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff where he studies industrial technology and plays on the basketball team. He said he has two coaches--the university's and his mother.
"I get a call three times a week making sure all my assignments are turned in and she calls my coach and lets him know that if I'm missing something I don't need to be in practice," he said.
It's not just her own son that receives this kind of attention. She frequently checks in on Jake Webb, who just finished his first semester at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Webb hopes to one day run his own real estate business in Minneapolis. He remembers his entire North High basketball team going to study sessions Batsell organized early Saturday mornings.
"That's supposed to be the days we sleep late," Webb said. "No, no, no....we have to be at North, 7:30, ready to study for our ACTs. It helped me a lot. I scored very well on my ACTs. I got into a pretty good school. It was all worth it now."
Batsell still prompts the students to say "yes, sir" and "no, sir" respectfully when they answer questions. They all have long term professional ambitions ranging from police officer to NASA scientist. The young people in her charge soak up Batsell's endless enthusiasm, but know not to cross her for fear of the consequences.
I grew up so much this summer because of what happened. It made me a different person for the betterJake Webb
All of Batsell's efforts to steer kids in the right direction reached a crossroads last summer. Rickey Batsell remembers the June night when his friend, Brian Cole, was killed. The pair had sought shelter from a summer downpour after the annual Juneteenth celebration in north Minneapolis. Rickey heard gunshots from a passing car. Then he realized his friend had been shot.
"We was just sitting under a tree, not paying attention to what was going on. Then...about five, ten minutes later, he was gone."
Police say Cole was not the shooter's intended target--that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cole was one of Tracy Batsell's students. Many of the other teens gathered at her house and she remembers the air being thick with grief and rage. Tension escalated and talk turned to retribution. Suddenly everything Tracy Batsell built teetered precariously.
"I had about 10, 15 young people at my house and I totally understood," Batsell remembered. "I wanted to jump in the car with them and go find somebody. But literally, that was the moment they chose to do the right thing."
Instead of answering violence with more violence, the young men turned the tragedy into inspiration. Jake Webb was already accepted at Tuskegee. His friend's death, he said, became a reason to stay there.
"He's supposed to be playing ball right now," Webb said. "He's supposed to be in school. (Since) he's not, he's living through all of us. It motivates me in a way that I probably would have never been motivated. I grew up so much this summer because of what happened. It made me a different person for the better."
A new, large tattoo covers Webb's upper arm. It incorporates a cross and a basketball and the words, "it's all in God's hands." He designed it himself after Cole died.
More than 20 of the athletes--some of the city's best players--will come together for a reunion basketball game at North High School this weekend to raise money for a college scholarship established Brian Cole's name.
(Brian Cole Scholarship Fund City County Federal Credit Union 302 South 6th St. Minneapolis, MN 55414 attn: Vanessa Cortez)