Dale Dunn strode into Kevin Ondrasek's office at the University of Southern Mississippi with an air of determination. A graduate student with one more year of NCAA eligibility, Dunn told the first-year assistant track coach he had unfinished business.
Ondrasek was intrigued. Dunn was clearly a cut above the other students who had meandered in, looking for walk-on spots. He was an academic All-America sprinter who had attended Coppin State University on a full athletic scholarship.
What the coach didn't know was that it was a wonder Dunn could walk at all.
When Dunn left, Ondrasek entered his name into a search engine and learned he was just months removed from a Baltimore shooting that nearly took his life.
Ondrasek agreed to train Dunn for the forthcoming season. They resolved to take it slow. Still, the results would astonish even the friends who witnessed Dunn's remarkable recovery after a bullet fired during an attempted robbery rattled around his body.
For those who saw Dunn eating and breathing with the help of medical equipment at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, it was hard to imagine that he would ever compete again.
"Our concern that night was, 'Is this young man going to live, and if he was going to live, what kind of quality of life would he have after an incident like this?'" Coppin State athletic director Derrick Ramsey said.
Dunn came to Coppin's West Baltimore campus as a 21-year-old freshman and considered it a "refuge, my haven" after surviving his youth in Spanish Town, an area violent even for Jamaica.
"It wasn't any Beverly Hills," he said dryly. While he attended a prestigious Jamaican school, many of his friends died or ended up in jail.
In hindsight, he let his guard down in Baltimore.
On Oct. 26, 2010, Dunn was on the phone and walking through the athletic fields at Frederick Douglass High School, a cut-through to his house from a grocery store at Mondawmin Mall. He had seen the three attackers coming, but tried not to let his suspicions get the best of him.
"One of them saw me and pointed to my direction, and then all three of them started walking toward me," Dunn recalled. "I didn't want to run. They could have just been lost."
One man grabbed his arms, and the others pulled him down to the ground. One took his wallet and ran off. Another took his phone and also fled. The last one took his watch.
Dunn was a sprinter, but he wasn't running away from this confrontation. With two of the attackers gone, Dunn decided that he could get his watch back. He took the man to the ground.
But the man pulled a gun and pointed it upward at Dunn, who twisted his body to the side just as the robber pulled the trigger.
His first feeling was shock: Did I really just get shot? he wondered. There was a burning sensation, and his right ear was ringing — loudly. Shake it off, he thought.
Then he collapsed, touched his chest and felt the blood on his fingers. He got back up.
If he collapsed again, it would be for the last time, he thought. His mind wandered. Who would find his body? Maybe kids going to school the next morning. He'd be a stereotype: another black man dead on the Baltimore streets.
In his estimation, it took 10 to 15 minutes to make it that next half-mile. There was nobody outside, no cars. He staggered down the street, up six brick steps to the porch of the home he shared with friends, who had the television on loud while watching a football game. He knocked, and knocked, and knocked.
One of Dunn's roommates finally answered. The roommate didn't believe his story until he saw the blood, Dunn recalls. Rather than call 911 and wait for an ambulance, the friend loaded him into a car and drove to the hospital.
At the hospital
Steve Delice took Dunn under his wing at Coppin, where they were both members of the track team. After graduating early from high school in Jamaica at age 15, Dunn had become listless, a "highly educated bum," as he puts it. He played basketball and computer games for two years before being pulled by his father to Staten Island.
There, he struggled to find purpose, working in construction until an uncle pushed him to resume running. At the Empire State Games in 2007, he beat an All-American. Delice took notice and worked to get him to Coppin, where they developed a friendly rivalry.
"I'm going to surpass you in every way, Steve," Dunn would say with a grin. Athletically gifted, exceedingly smart and blessed with a tremendous work ethic, Dunn was making good on the promise.
Now Delice was in the hospital awaiting word on whether Dunn would survive a shooting. It made no sense.
"He's not the type who would go looking for trouble," Delice said. "I couldn't rationalize it in any way, at all."
Ramsey, the athletic director, rushed to the hospital after getting a phone call. He reached out to Dunn's parents and started working with the Jamaican Embassy on arrangements to get his mother to Baltimore.
Ramsey had only read about Shock Trauma, which he regarded as a "place where miraculous things happen."
There, doctors learned that the bullet had traveled through the side of Dunn's chest and under his right arm. It hit his collarbone, bouncing off an artery to his brain and landing close to his spinal cord. Both of his lungs collapsed. His nerves were damaged.
"Three times they had to open me, to jump-start me," Dunn said. "They said I would never walk again."
Delice said it was sobering to see Dunn in the hospital, so weak and helpless. But Delice was also hopeful. That the sprinter had been able to get back to his apartment seemed to bode well.
Dunn, who wasn't supposed to regain consciousness for a month, was alert within a week. While still being fed through a tube, he requested a laptop so that he could keep up with classwork, Ramsey recalled.
He was walking in two weeks. Within three, he was out of the hospital.
Nobody was convicted in the case. Michael Anthony Jones III, 20, was arrested that December in connection with the shooting and, other than a gun violation, later found not guilty of all charges. He has no other criminal record, and his lawyer said the verdict in the Dunn shooting was fair.
Dunn just wanted to put the incident behind him. In January 2011, he started running and lifting weights again.
"In the back of my mind, I wasn't injured," Dunn said. "I do not know how not to run. That's my anger relief, my stress relief."
At the end of the spring semester, Dunn walked the stage and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in management sciences.
Photos from that day show him smiling with friends, his braids peeking out from his graduation cap. Around his neck, he wore the customary blue Coppin State kente stoles and two medallions denoting his academic achievements.
Intent on a master's degree, Dunn began looking at programs across the country. With his stellar grades, there were several scholarship opportunities, and he chose a full ride from Southern Miss, where he would enroll in an accelerated program in business administration.
He wasn't thinking about athletics. "Zero percent," he said. "I had trouble walking upstairs without being winded, so running [competitively] again was far from my mind."
At Southern Miss, Dunn's case presented a challenge for Ondrasek. The Texas native had just agreed to coach the cross country team after a successful running career at Texas A&M, where he was a four-year letter winner and competed on NCAA championship squads.
Ondrasek was concerned about Dunn's physical condition. He did not initially know the extent of Dunn's injuries, and when he found out, Dunn insisted that he not tell other team members.
"He didn't want me to baby him. He wanted to accomplish things," Ondrasek said.
Over several months, Ondrasek pushed him to shift from sprint to distance runs — and plenty of them. He introduced weight training. Eventually, after forgoing the indoor track season, Dunn moved back to the shorter distances at which he'd excelled. At Coppin, he'd placed second in the 800-meter run at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Indoor Championships, anchored the Eagles' 400 relay team and set several school records.
But Ondrasek knew Dunn was capable of performing at an even higher level. He hadn't yet run as he had in Jamaica.
Something remarkable happened during his time in Hattiesburg: Dunncame within a half-second of a personal best.
Dunn couldn't believe it. I'm back, he thought.
But he was more than simply back. At the Conference USA Outdoor Championships in May 2012, he ran the 800 in 1:49.76. Two weeks later, at the NCAA East Regional, he did even better: 1:49.37, a school record.
On his Facebook page, he posted a picture of himself after the race with the words, "Anything is Possible."
"This one is special. This one I had to work for," he wrote.
Dunn hung up his spikes when he got home that night. He hasn't worn them since. "I left the sport I love at my best," he said recently. Ondrasek called it "the most gratifying experience" of his coaching career.
Dunn graduated with a Master of Business Administration degree from Southern Miss, and the 26-year-old now lives in New Jersey, where he's hoping to work up the corporate ladder at Target.
In hindsight, Dunn said, the shooting was a speed bump.
"I don't want to be remembered as the guy who got shot," he explained.
"It's not my definitive moment or my legacy," he said. "I want to show that an African-American male can succeed."
Born: Spanish Town, Jamaica
Education: Coppin State University, University of Southern Mississippi
Resides: East Orange, New Jersey
Occupation: Sales team leader, TargetCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun