Just after midnight on Jan. 1, 2018, Larry Aaron III, a Marshall University football player and Oakland Mills High School graduate, was paralyzed from the waist down after a stray bullet struck him in the back during a party in Severn.
Nearly two months later, on Feb. 22, Aaron died of complications from the injuries. He was 19.
This is Aaron’s story, in three chapters, told through his eyes as well as those on whom he left a lasting impression.
Trips through Aaron’s backyard to Oakland Mills to watch games and see former coaches had become fairly common.
For the soft-spoken Aaron, the school was practically a second home. So in many ways, his return visit in late December 2017 — shortly after completing his redshirt freshman season at Marshall — was just part of the routine.
Only this time, as he peered across the tables at the group of junior varsity basketball players gathered for study hall in the media center, he had a different agenda.
“Larry took it upon himself to pop in and speak to all the kids … about how he had some academic struggles in high school and it almost cost him, and how that piece of it was just as important as what you do on the court. And, if you know Larry, that’s not something he would normally do,” Oakland Mills varsity boys basketball coach Jon Browne said. “But I think, though, that right there was a sign of the man he had become. He had crossed that bridge, if you will, and in some ways maybe he saw a little bit of himself in those kids.”
That visit was about giving back. As he put it during a February 2018 interview, he once was the one sitting on the other side of that table.
“Honestly, looking back, if it wasn’t for my coaches — coach [Tom] Browne football and coach [Jon] Browne basketball — I wouldn’t have been in college. Outside of my family, I owe everything to them, both athletically and academically,” Aaron said. “I remember a whole bunch of conversations with football Browne my sophomore year, back during a point where I wasn’t actually going to play football anymore … and him talking to me about my potential with my size and how athletic I was and what was possible if I pushed myself.
“And I remember it started with buckling down and getting my grades up, getting that together. They kept me in check and, looking back, it’s exactly what I needed.”
Aaron was at Oakland Mills almost every day for one reason or another over the final weeks of December 2017. He attended a handful of boys basketball games, including the Scorpions’ holiday tournament Dec. 27 and 28.
The rest of his free time on winter break, as was typically the case, was spent with his girlfriend, Ashanti Blount — who Aaron had been dating since his junior year of high school — or hanging around old friends such as Shawn Harris, who he had known since kindergarten.
New Year’s Eve was no different.
Word of a party in Severn spread through Snapchat and Aaron, along with six of his close friends, decided to go. By the time they arrived around 10:30 p.m., the house — host to more than 100 guests over the course of the evening — was already packed.
After spending a few minutes in the living room, their group headed upstairs and hung out there until after the ball dropped in New York at midnight. The crowd thinned, but just past 12:30 a.m., the night took a turn for the worse.
“I had went outside and then when I came back in, these dudes had started arguing,” Aaron said. “Everybody thought they were just going to go outside and start fighting or whatever.”
What started as a verbal disagreement, however, quickly escalated.
“All of a sudden there were gunshots. The first couple ones sounded like BBs almost, not that loud or whatever. But then you could hear the loud ones, like the real bullets,” said Harris, who was seated inside on the steps when the first shot was fired. “My instinct was to immediately run upstairs and I’m thinking everyone was right behind me.”
Aaron never made it to the stairs. He said he never even thought to run. Instead, his instinct was to immediately throw his body in front of his girlfriend standing next to him.
“[My reaction] was just to get in front her and protect her,” Aaron said. “I wasn’t thinking that I could potentially get hit or anything. … Then all of a sudden, I couldn’t feel my legs.”
He fell to the ground, numb. Just as quickly as the ringing of gunshots subsided, they were replaced by frenetic screams of the people chaotically darting around him.
He searched for answers, but found nothing.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “I actually thought I was just in shock at first because I didn’t see [a] bullet wound.”
When he rolled over, though, the gunshot wound in the middle of his back became visible. Lodged between the T6 and T7 vertebrae in his thoracic spinal column, the bullet had immediately paralyzed him from the waist down.
As panic seemed to spread around him, his demeanor was serene.
“When the shooting stopped and I ran downstairs, as soon as I saw him on the ground I started going crazy. Everything starts going through your head … like seriously, that was my brother lying there,” Harris said. “But Larry was really calm, like nothing even happened and that was throwing everybody off.”
“He’s a defender. ... That’s just him. He didn’t play defensive line for no reason.”
The ambulances arrived within minutes and paramedics put Aaron on a stretcher headed for Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Harris, after an emotional call to Aaron’s mother, Melissa, to tell her what happened, insisted on riding along to the hospital.
“I wasn’t there when he was shot, and I remember thinking there was no way I was leaving his side again,” Harris said.
Aaron’s parents weren’t allowed to see him in the emergency room until several hours later. Melissa vividly recalls those first words he said to her — “Mom, I stepped in front of Ashanti.”
“I couldn’t be mad, because that’s the kind of person that he is. He’s a defender. He looked out for us. He looked out for his sisters,” Melissa said. “That’s just him. He didn’t play defensive line for no reason.”
Anne Arundel County police continue to seek leads to find the shooters, offering a reward up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Melissa and her husband, Larry Aaron Jr., could only muster the strength for four phone calls to immediate family.
Yet, within hours, the waiting rooms at the hospital were filled with friends, family and various members of the community. Melissa estimated more than 100 people came that first day and there were dozens more who reached out via text and social media.
“It all was really overwhelming, but we were very grateful that people were there to support us and our son,” she said. “It showed us how many people really liked him and knew him.”
Aaron was alive, but the prognosis was grim. News came that doctors were unable to operate.
“Because he still had his upper strength, with the way the bullet was sitting on a nerve, they were worried that removing it might lead to him being paralyzed even further. So they told us they were leaving it in there,” Melissa said. “I think that’s when it all started to sink in.”
Aaron said he let himself be angry for a day or two and then replaced that emotion with determination. With the familiar faces streaming through his room day after day, he wore a brave face.
Only those closest to him were privy to the internal struggle behind his steely facade.
“I was up there literally every day and I could tell the moment I walked in what kind of day it was for him by just looking at his face. And, you know, Larry can hide that stuff pretty well from most people,” Harris said. “But yeah, there was definitely a progression. That’s the thing about Larry — he’s always been a fighter, man. … No way he was going to just sit there and feel sorry for himself.”
At the beginning of each week, Aaron was given a checklist. The tasks — aimed at establishing self-sufficiency — ranged from operating a wheelchair to feeding and dressing himself. The ultimate goal, according to Aaron, was going home.
On Jan. 9, he was transferred to the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute. Almost exactly one month later, on Feb. 8, several weeks ahead of the initial schedule, he was released.
“That was a good day. … I had realized pretty quickly there was no point in getting mad no more,” Aaron said. “Setting goals and staying positive was the only thing I could really control.”
Larry Jr. recalls the competitor in his son taking over.
“From the time L was a little boy, once he set his mind to something he would get it done. He wouldn’t focus on anything else but that,” he said. “So when he said he was going to beat this, we believed it.”