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United States Postal Service letter carrier Damien Tate, a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 11
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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Handle with care — and a smile: Ex-wide receiver delivers mail ‘through rain, sleet or snow’

“People are getting medicine in the mail they desperately need, or important bills and packages,” says letter carrier Damien Tate. “I’m a firm believer in making sure people get their stuff in a timely fashion.”

Playing wide receiver isn’t quite the same as working for the U.S. Postal Service.

Postal workers carry packages instead of footballs, everyone dons the same light blue uniform and their fiercest opponents? Probably off-leash dogs.

But Damien Tate — a former varsity high school football player and current football coach for the West Side youth league Windy City Dolphins — brings a tough-as-nails gridiron mentality to his job as a letter carrier working one of nearly 145,000 city routes across the nation.

Among his peers, his reputation is for running his routes — mail routes, that is — faster than just about anyone. The 41-year-old Forest Park man has his typical work day down to a science. Wake up at 6 a.m. Clock in at the post office by 7:15. Go to the postal facility’s “cage” to gather each customer’s mail in under eight seconds. Hit the streets by 9. Finish by 3:30 p.m. Clock out. Repeat.

“My mentality when I come to work is: Get in and get out. Do what you gotta do. Get it done as quickly as you possibly can,” said Tate, who looks the part in his black Nike headband and his Windy City Dolphins T-shirt visible under his USPS vest.

It doesn’t matter to Tate, a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 11, that delivering mail to an estimated 500 to 800 residents and businesses a day in Lincolnwood and Edgebrook isn’t as glamorous as scoring a touchdown. The stakes are higher, he said.

“Some people are getting medicine in the mail they desperately need, or important bills and packages — you just never know,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in making sure people get their stuff in a timely fashion because I know that I’m also in the reverse role and I want my mail, too.”

Just as in football, the elements don’t always cooperate. In late January, he bundled up and traversed snow and ice and endured sub-zero temperatures during his shifts (though deliveries were thankfully suspended for two days during the worst of the Polar Vortex). Seven months later, Tate zipped through his route in near record-breaking heat and humidity.

“Through rain, sleet or snow,” Tate said with a chuckle, recalling the Postal Service’s unofficial motto.

Damien Tate delivers mail on his regular route on the Northwest Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Not that he minds the harsh weather at this point. Tate was born on the Far South Side near 96th Street and Loomis and later moved to the northwest suburb of Palatine, where he went to high school. He later spent most of his early career working for United Airlines at O’Hare airport, including a long stint as a ramp agent. There he hauled luggage and freight — you name it — in all kinds of conditions.

“The weather [at O’Hare] is like in a different vortex, and the wind chill factor was high when you’re out there in this big open space. So I’m used to working in cold weather,” he said.

Veteran or not, being a mail carrier is still physically rigorous. But even when he’s hung up his mailbag for the day, Tate isn’t necessarily done being outside or moving his feet.

This fall, he’s moonlighting as a football coach for 5- to 8-year-old boys at Amundsen Park, a volunteer gig he’s done since 2013 (“seven years, seven championships” he says of his Pop Warner team). He says he is helping the boys learn more than just a sport.

“It’s more than just football, it’s about teaching,” he said. It’s “teaching boys how to get knocked down and how to get back up. ... You got a goal in mind. Everything that you want in your life is always in front of you. You may have obstacles knocking you down ... but you got to keep going towards that goal.

“My goal is just to teach them how to be men.”

Tate also sometimes plays assistant to his fiancee, the owner of Just Cause Dancers, a Forest Park dance studio that teaches young women to dance competitively.

Where does he find the time?

“That’s the million-dollar question everybody asks me. I don’t know,” he says with a smirk. “I may get no sleep.”

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