Hometown Report

Why college graduation years later means so much to two Sacramento-area products

Willie Tatum takes part in the diploma and hooding ceremony at University of the Pacific in Stockton on May 12. Tatum, a former Burbank High sports standout, received a degree in recreation.
Willie Tatum takes part in the diploma and hooding ceremony at University of the Pacific in Stockton on May 12. Tatum, a former Burbank High sports standout, received a degree in recreation. University of the Pacific

It's never too late to collect a college diploma.

There is no age limit to learn, to achieve and to make that walk with a cap and gown. For two Sacramento products, dreams came true earlier this month.

At University of the Pacific in Stockton on May 12, Willie Tatum of Burbank High School basketball, baseball and academic fame embraced his diploma. He walked across a stage he was not able to 27 years earlier with a degree in recreation.

On the same day in Manhattan, Kan., Reggie Walker of Grant football roots earned his diploma in social science.

In both venues, scores of family members chronicled the moment with photos. And there were tears.

Tatum played baseball and basketball at UOP after graduating from Burbank as one of the school's great multi-sport athletes. His name is listed on the school gym's wall of fame. He played baseball and basketball at UOP.

Tatum's Burbank basketball coach was delighted to hear of his achievement.

"It is a wonderful thing that he continued the educational journey," said John Copeland from Florida, where he is retired. "He continues to be an inspiration for so many young people in Sacramento. Yes, I am very proud of this young man."

Tatum, 51, missed his commencement in 1991 because he was in the midst of an eight-year run in the Boston Red Sox's minor-league system. He promised his family he would walk the stage one day.

What added to the urgency and emotion is he is battling stage-4 cancer: ventricular intrinsic sarcoma.

Tatum played basketball in the same UOP venue as the commencement, though he used a baseball term to describe his joy. "It feels like a home run, arms raised and all."

As for cancer, he is optimistic, adding, "I have a lot to live for."

Walker, 31, was urged by his parents and his Kansas State football coach, Bill Snyder, to graduate. Snyder sometimes would only need to mutter, "Just finish it."

He finished. No end zone dance needed here, but plenty of grins.

Walker became the first in his family to graduate from college. He set out to finish his degree in 2015 after being released by the Denver Broncos in training camp, needing 28 credit hours.

"I do need to do this," Walker said he told himself in an interview with kstatesports.com

Walker made 163 tackles as a linebacker at Kansas State and had a seven-year NFL career, including four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

His message to others?

"My biggest thing would be to really know why you're playing football in the first place, because football really is just a tool to get you to where you really want to be. School, it's a great tool as well."

Tatum and Walker represent examples of overcoming obstacles. They serve as motivation to students at their high schools, where a graduation can be a life-altering event.

"It’s awesome to see someone do what we preach," Grant athletic director and assistant football coach Carl Reed said of Walker's example. "The NFL is never a guarantee, but a degree is great, and Reggie has always talked about getting his. He left the league early by choice and finished school. Just beautiful."

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