Jermaine Cullum was no ordinary son.
The 16-year Christ the King student didn’t mind doing the cooking, the cleaning and looking after his 6-year old brother Jayden, whom Cullum taught how to walk.
“I didn’t need to do anything because my son was always doing it, and I just appreciate everything he did while he was here,” said his mother Tarcia Patton, a Logan Square resident.
Now Patton is preparing a memorial service for her son. Cullum collapsed while playing in a basketball tournament at Riverside-Brookfield High School May 3. He died three days later at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood when his family decided to remove him from life support.
“He was oxygen-deprived …,” recalled Patton of the tough decision to let her son go. “I asked them [doctors] so many times is there something they can do for him. There was nothing they can do.”
The family, which includes Cullum’s three siblings, decided to donate his heart to Loyola so doctors can detect and understand the rare heart condition that took her son’s life. More stringent screening is needed for student athletes, like an echocardiogram, Patton stressed.
“That’s very important to me that they do that,” she said. “Just because they are getting a physical, jump up and down and run on a treadmill, doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with your heart.”
Patton draws strength from her son’s faith. At 10 years old, Cullum made Reborn Community Church, 4000 W. Wilcox, his church home. His decision to find a church on his own didn’t surprise his mother.
“Jermaine was his own little man,” she recalled, adding that the church and his mentor influenced him greatly. Cullum’s involvement at Reborn eventually led him to mentor other kids.
“He stayed into the church,” Patton said. “He was that spiritual, because he was quoting scriptures to me everyday. He is up there in heaven now and he is gonna be sending scriptures down to everyone.”
His friends and his coaches remembered him as a talented two-sport athlete who excelled in football and basketball. But according to his mentor and fellow church member Michael David Lancaster, Cullum’s main devotion was to his faith.
“Church was the most important thing to him. He loved basketball, but God was more important to him,” Lancaster, 27, said.
Lancaster was not surprised to hear how devoted Cullum was to his mom. His faith, Lancaster added, laid that foundation, demonstrated by lessons learned in bible study which Cullum never missed.
“He had a desire to see his family change; to know God like he knew God. It really shaped how he conducted his life a lot,” Lancaster said.
The two met in summer bible camp in Wisconsin several years ago and quickly became friends. “Creative and artistic” is how Lancaster described his friend, a person who liked performing in church plays and dramas — the two spent hours helping each other learn lines. Cullum’s last production was Peter and the Jailer, where he played the disciple John.
“Both of us liked to act,” Lancaster said. “I am really going to miss not having that kid I could be around with.
More than basketball ability
Emotions were still raw for Cullum’s basketball coach, Michael Farris, who was coaching the tournament game. Cullum had just got in the game and made a layup before he collapsed.
“It was a shock for anybody because I got kids of my own,” said Farris, an Austin resident. “I was praying every minute for him that he would be alright. I’m gonna miss him.”
Farris remembered Cullum as a well-mannered kid who always kept a smile on his face and could make others laugh. Farris knew him since the fifth or sixth grade. He remembered Cullum as a “natural athlete” when he started playing basketball for the Illinois Iceman basketball team that Farris coached.
But CTK head Varsity Basketball Coach Terrance Robertson noticed more than Cullum’s basketball ability. He spied the then-Catalyst Circle Rock eighth-grader when he came to the school’s open gym where prospective CTK students tried out for basketball.
“I knew he was a leader when he was working out,” Robertson said.
Cullum was unfazed by the ribbing from upperclassmen about eighth-graders trying out for basketball, Robertson recalled. But Cullum even showed some of the current players the proper way to run drills, saying that if he played basketball for Christ the King “none of these spots are safe around me,” Robertson recalled.
“I prayed that he do come to Christ the King because we need more players like that who take the initiative,” Robertson said.
Leadership wasn’t his only quality. Cullum, Robertson recalled, was a good student who had a “book bag and arm full of books.” Robertson credited his mom for instilling the importance of education.
“He was always on top of his books. He definitely was a student-athlete first, not an athlete-student.”