LOS ANGELES – Christian Catlin crawled out of bed to the sound of birds chirping. The sun peeked through the window as he brushed his teeth and buttoned his pants. His dad told the 7-year-old how to get to his second-grade class on time before the morning bell rang.
Christian nervously listened to his dad and walked toward the bus stop. His footsteps grew heavier the closer he got. The weight of notebooks on his back felt heavy. He felt an emotion, too – sitting on the city bus with strangers.
Christian waited at the bus stop with his dad, looking for a yellow school bus. Instead, a long blue and green bus met him. As the double doors flew open, the gust from the wind nearly knocked him over. Christian leaned forward to peek inside, then stepped in.
He found comfort in the bus driver’s smile and, luckily, found an open seat close to the double doors.
After a long school day of playing basketball at recess and classroom activities, Christian didn’t go home. Instead, he sat beside a stranger on the city bus and waited for the double doors to open.
His stop was the homeless shelter.
“Looking back on my life,” Christian said. “I have been through a lot as a kid and it’s crazy to me because many adults can’t get through some of the challenges I faced.”
“I have respect for my younger self for not making the situation more stressful for my dad,” he added.
His story embodies the strains a young child has faced and the roller coaster of emotions it takes to overcome a rocky upbringing.
Whether living in a homeless shelter, in an apartment with his father or with his best friend’s family, Christian Catlin remained true to himself.
He stayed persistent.
Now 22, Christian stands 5 feet, 8 inches tall. The 22-year-old keeps his natural hair confined under his white-and-gold Dr. Dre Beats headphones his teammate Caleb Williams gave him.
He zoomed to a table at the USC Village on his white electric scooter.
The USC running back is pursuing a master’s in entrepreneurship and innovation.
Attending USC was a dream for Christian. He is now living his reality. Christian had rough turns in his path but always found a way to stay persistent.
Christian lived in a biracial household until he was 5: his mom was Filipino, and his dad -- Black. The one-bedroom Park Haven apartment in Fairfield, California, included Christian, his mother, father and grandmother.
Christian adjusted his posture in the brown chair to visualize his first home environment through the lens of his younger self. He pictured a big yard in front of the apartment where he played tag with other kids.
On school days, Christian remembers the aroma of breakfast leaving the stove and entering the bedroom of the room. His dad used a spatula to place scrambled eggs next to bread slices on a white plate.
After he used the soft folded bread to scoop the eggs, Christian tasted the absorbed syrup on the scrambled eggs.
“That was my favorite breakfast,” Christian said. “I was so happy when he made it and I don’t really remember what else I ate, aside from cereal.”
The one memory that stuck with Christian was hearing loud arguing leave his parents’ lips from his bedroom. The small apartment magnified their heated discussion and piqued the 5-year-old’s interest. He thought, “Why were they so mad?”
Christian walked into the living room and saw his dad arguing with his mom. His mom’s fragile body broke down as tears fell, one by one, onto the wooden floor.
Confused, angry, anxious, a ball of little arms and legs, Christian started yelling at his dad.
His father left, at least for a while. His mom, hurting, sought nonetheless to wrap her arms around a boy who could barely sing his ABCs.
Describing the moment now, Christian paused. He realized he had blocked out the memory for years.
“After that day, we started living in a homeless shelter,” Christian said. “I never processed what happened and it stayed in the back of my head because I needed a parent during that time.”
Christian lived in the homeless shelter from 7 to 9 years old with his dad, Samuel Catlin.
He can still recall his second-grade memory:
“We got to the homeless shelter and stayed, he said. “Then, we never left.”
The shelter in Solano County was located just a few miles from the apartment Christian had lived in with both parents –less than a five-minute drive away.
“It was really scary being around strangers like that and seeing them in their habitats,” Samuel, who works now at Tesla as a production assistant, said of the shelter. “You had alcoholics, drug addicts, people living on the streets.”
From Christian’s memory, the shelter had two buildings: – a kitchen, a room where everyone slept, – and showers. Outside of one of the buildings, Christian would play basketball and tag with other kids.
Early in the mornings, the staff would wake up Christian, Samuel, – and the others. Once the adults were awake, they had to leave for the majority of the day to try to find a job.
“I would play Club Penguin or Disney.com while my dad would apply for jobs,” Christian – who went to school – said.
Christian would ask if his dad got work every day, hoping to hear, “Yes.” But, recalling those years, Christian feels bad for asking so often.
“He [Samuel] would say, ‘No, but [I’m] trying to find a job,’ Christian said. “Looking back on it, he was probably thinking, – ‘I have a son and we are in this situation.’”
Of course, job-hunting could not be 24/7. Instead, Samuel and Christian would go together to the library. Or, Samuel said, to the mall or park to “kill time.”
On weekdays, when Christian had school, Samuel recalls waking up early for welfare training and to get Christian to school on time.
“We had to go our separate ways,” Samuel said. “During that time, it was really, really scary when Christian had to get onto his bus and go to school because a lot can happen.”
He would tell Christian to sit next to the bus driver to ease Samuel’s worries.
When the sky grew dark, and the neighborhood lights flicked on, the shelter had vans ready for them to go to local churches to eat and sleep there. Every time the van was parked by the church, Christian remembers looking at the cross on top of the church.
The church would feed everyone twice a day. Breakfast and dinner.
The church served portions buffet style. Despite some variety, Christian was obsessed with oatmeal and Raisin Bran. Christian and his dad would sit around the tables and talk to Samuel’s friends.
Once it was time to sleep, Christian and Samuel would sleep side-by-side on a foldable mattress on the cold marble floor. The room was filled with other people sleeping on beds next to Christian and Samuel.
The church also gave blankets to everyone in the chilly, spacious room.
Christian had a blanket of his own.
“It was a tan blanket with red and black designs and a bear on it,” Christian said.
Thinking back about the years spent in the shelter, Samuel mentioned the movie “The Pursuit of Happiness.”
“That’s me and Christian,” Samuel said. “The movie showed how we didn’t have a place to go until we went to the shelter.”
Samuel would encourage Christian by reminding him that their living environment was temporary.
“I told him to stay strong, – God is watching over us,” Samuel would say, “– and that it’s going to get better.”
But this wouldn’t be the last time Christian had to find a place to rest his eyes and eat warm home-cooked meals.
When 16-year-old Christian was in high school, he lived in an apartment with his dad, Samuel. They lived in Vacaville, California, near Will C. Wood High School.
Christian and Samuel lived in the Vacaville apartment for a few years until the apartment cost increased.
His dad was evicted again.
Christian didn’t want to transfer to a new high school and learn a new football culture outside of Will C. Wood High School. Then, a week before the eviction, Christian’s best friend, Drew Anderson, mentioned how his siblings had moved out of his [Drew’s] home.
Christian recalls how hesitant he was to ask his best friend, Drew, if he could live with his family. However, Drew remembers the situation differently.
Drew recalls when Christian’s demeanor changed once he learned about the eviction from his apartment.
“I could tell that he wasn’t being himself or even eating much or sleeping,” Anderson said. “After talking to him, I realized what the situation was. I asked him what he thought about moving in with me before I asked my parents.”
Drew and the Andersons made Christian feel like a part of their family. Christian felt the Andersons’ love for him when they welcomed him at the door.
“They didn’t treat me any differently,” Christian said. “I was supposed to be there for three months. Instead, I stayed for about two and a half years.”
Christian spent every holiday with the Andersons. There was never any hesitation in calling Drew’s cousins his biological cousins and vice versa. Even now, about five years later, Christian goes to his best friend’s house to spend Christmas Eve with them.
“To me and my family, he is another family member. He is one of my brothers, “Anderson said. “To my parents, he is a son.”
Although Christian’s living environment wasn’t steady, his love for football was and still is, a consistent feature of his life.
Although Christian started playing football in the wet grass on warm summer days with his older stepbrother, once he joined a league in middle school, he was scared of two things: getting hit and meeting new people.
He forgot all that after playing football through a league for a couple of weeks.
Now, it was about rushing past defenders and scoring touchdowns.
According to an article in the Daily Republic, a Solano County newspaper in 2020, in 19 games over three seasons. Christian rushed for 666 yards and 6.8 yards per carry, scoring 10 touchdowns while catching 29 passes for 440 yards and five touchdowns during high school.
During Christian’s last high school football game, it made him “start mentally checking out” of the sport.
The Sacramento Dragons played Christian’s varsity team in a playoff game on a “real grass” field. Christian recalls being “blown out” by the 7-5 Dragons.
The final score of the game was brutal: 55-3.
Christian suggested that anything that could have gone wrong did.
His seventh-grade friend, Asa, who he met when he first started playing football with his older stepbrother, got hurt. Those long-ago football fears? Now they’ve come true.
Christian remembers how Asa ran the ball in hopes of scoring a touchdown. Instead, a moment later, Asa was viciously tackled and thrown onto his spine, with the back of his head hitting the stiff grass.
“He got hit and got a concussion from the impact of the hit,” Christian said. “Also, he was taken off of the field in an ambulance.”
He added, “He got up feeling dizzy and asked me to help him walk. When I did, his body dropped and I was yelling for the trainer to help him.”
With all this, there were still about four minutes left in the playoff game.
Afterward, Samuel Catlin couldn’t overlook the moment when Christian told him.
“Dad, I don’t want to play football anymore.”
It was the last football game Christian would play for several years.
Christian had used running track as a training method, as a way to channel his speed on the football field in high school. However, he took track and field more seriously than football at UC Berkeley.
“It’s hard to play both sports in college and it’s even harder to play Division I for football,” Christian said. “I knew I was going Division I by any means necessary even if it meant running track.”
At Berkeley in 2022, Christian helped the Bears win the 4x100 relay race at the Brutus Hamilton Invitational in 40.05 seconds. The year before, at the Pac-12 outdoors, he set a personal best in the 100-meter dash, 10.64.
Four years have passed.
Now at USC, exploring a master’s degree in business, with a focus on entrepreneurship and innovation degree, he saw a flier for – football tryouts.
Christian slightly smiled. It must, he thought to himself, have been a sign.
The next thing he knew, he was on the team.
Christian suits up for every game in cardinal red and gold with red ‘SC” gloves.
Playing time? Not this season.
Does he mind? No.
“We have many great running backs playing this season,” Christian said. “I am learning and trying to put on weight to develop right now.”
John Armistead, graduate student and USC defensive back, said although he has known Christian for three months, he learned from the first time they were in the weight room Christian had an undeniable football mentality.
“He’s made a lot of strides in his numbers in the weight room since the first time we benched, he has gotten stronger, and he has done a good job studying the playbook to learn the running back position,” Armistead said.
The plan is to graduate from USC in December 2023 – after another football season – and to develop a financial education program to help educate minorities and people who live check-to-check to be financially stable.
His second goal is to buy his dad a house.
Christian’s motivation derives from a lesson his dad taught him:
“Pain is only temporary.”