Larger than life

Destined for a life of sports: Larry Aaron overcomes adversity to make mark

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.

Chapter 2: A gentle giant

The walls in the basement of Melissa and Larry Aaron Jr.’s Columbia home are covered in old sports photos, the majority chronicling an athletic journey for their son that began before he even reached kindergarten.

“When he was born, it was already [decided] he was playing baseball, he was playing football. … I was one of those dads who made his son play [sports],” Larry Jr. said.

The posed sports cards, dating to when he was 5 and suiting up for the Dragons in the Columbia Youth Baseball Association, offer a glimpse of a baby-faced Aaron. But it’s the accompanying team photos that are the most striking.

In every photo, even the earliest ones, he literally stands out from the crowd.

“Larry was always the biggest on every team … there would be times when it would seem like we would be catching up and then he would shoot up and blow past everybody again,” longtime friend Shawn Harris said.

(Jen Rynda/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Packed into that outsized exterior was a vibrant personality.

“He was a class clown since elementary school … definitely a jokester. He was a gentle giant,” Larry Jr. said.

As for his athletic ability, that was in Aaron’s blood. His father, a 1982 graduate of Howard High School, played football and baseball for the Lions. His mother, a 1986 graduate of Atholton High School, was a track standout who set a school record in the 100-meter dash. As Aaron grew, towering over his peers, that speed he inherited from his mom was apparent.

Harris and Aaron began playing football together in the 7-9 age group for the Howard County Terps, but by middle school Aaron had grown so big that he was no longer able to play alongside his friends.

In his last two years before high school, with no unlimited weight team available, he stopped playing football and chose to focus more on baseball and basketball.

A football player

Larry Aaron
Oakland Mills' Larry Aaron holds the football up after recovering a River Hill fumble during a home game on Oct. 24, 2014. Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group

Every spring, Oakland Mills varsity football coach Tom Browne makes a point of visiting the middle school just down Kilimanjaro Road to meet that year’s graduating eighth-grade class. As he has learned, building a program requires generating interest before high school begins.

During his visit in the spring of 2012, Tom Browne stumbled upon Aaron.

“I remember walking into the cafeteria and seeing this giant kid and thinking, ‘Is he a student here or does he work here?’ … I wasn’t really sure. I soon found out that was Larry Aaron,” he said. “My first impression of him was, ‘Man, this is awesome. Here is a kid that is bigger than anybody in our program right now and he’s in middle school.’ ”

A few months later, Aaron made the varsity squad and was an immediate contributor on the offensive line at left tackle.

But that initial season also had more than its share of stumbling blocks.

Oakland Mills lost every game in 2012 and Aaron, late in the season against Mount Hebron, suffered a serious right knee injury that threatened to end his football career before it really started.

“We were bad my freshman year … like really bad. And I didn’t even play defense that first year, so once I had knee surgery, I really thought I was just going to be done with football,” Aaron said.

The doctors were similarly pessimistic about Aaron’s future in football, and in athletics in general. He had more than a full year of recovery ahead of him after surgery, costing him his freshman seasons of basketball and baseball, along with his sophomore football season.

“[The doctor] said he would probably have a limp for the rest of his life, and forget about a scholarship going anywhere. No university was going to invest that much money on a knee as bad as L’s knee was,” Larry Jr. said. “Me, Melissa and L were in the doctor’s office crying. In my mind, I’m saying to myself, ‘There is no way this boy is not playing no sports. … If he could walk, he was going to play.’ ”

Aaron did return to play sports after a lengthy recovery. He also needed a hefty brace, but it rarely slowed him down. He tried out and made the varsity basketball team as a sophomore, and during that 2013-14 season, he came off the bench for a Scorpions team that finished second in Howard County.

Despite the positive strides physically, with his knee growing strong enough to play baseball the spring of his sophomore year, Aaron maintained he was done with football.

“We were about to put Oakland Mills [football] back on the map. … No way we were letting Larry miss that.”

Shawn Harris

Harris said he and the rest of their close group of friends nagged him every day to reconsider.

“We needed him, but more than anything, I think we just all wanted him out there with us,” Harris said. “For me, that’s my blood without blood. My brother. We hadn’t played football on the same team together since before middle school and this was our chance. We were about to put Oakland Mills [football] back on the map. … No way we were letting Larry miss that.”

Tom Browne said he took advantage of every opportunity to plant the bug as well.

“I’ve done this long enough that I knew,” he said. “He might love basketball, but he’s a football player, whether he knew it or not.”

Aaron eventually relented and rejoined the football team in the fall of 2014. Before long, he had developed into one of the county’s premier linemen on both sides of the ball and Oakland Mills put together its best season in more than a decade.

Aaron was a first-team all-county selection, but more importantly, Harris’ intuition was correct. Together, they helped lead the Scorpions to a 9-2 record and their first playoff berth in 11 years.

Oakland Mills players
Oakland Mills basketball players, including Larry Aaron III, far left, cheer after a free throw in the fourth quarter during the boys Class 2A state basketball semifinal game against Oakdale at University of Maryland, College Park on Friday, March 13, 2015. Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group

That success on the football field carried right over to the basketball court that winter, with Aaron and football first-team all-county teammates Harris and Tre Hopkins serving as key pieces on a Scorpions team that went 24-3 and secured the program’s first state championship since 1990.

Aaron was regularly one of the first players off the bench that season as a junior, but his contributions as a teammate were arguably just as important.

“Larry understood the importance of the camaraderie. … That group was as thick as thieves, as we like to say, and it really was a great locker room, and I’ve said it before in terms of Larry’s significance and role in that,” said Jon Browne, Oakland Mills varsity boys basketball coach. “He was the ring leader of nonsense, and [I mean that] in a very positive light.

“We had a lot of fun that year.”

Larry Aaron III, left, and Daniel Kiely
Oakland Mills teammates Larry Aaron, left, and Daniel Kiely challenge Middletown's Jacob Hamilton for a rebound, with Oakland Mills' Tre'Von Hopkins on the floor, during the 2A West regional championship game at Oakland Mills on Friday, March 4, 2016. Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group

Aaron went on to play varsity baseball as a junior and varsity basketball again as a senior, but it became apparent the sport he had the best chance to play in college was football.

As a senior on the football field, Aaron again was named first-team all-county as a two-way lineman. His efforts helped Oakland Mills to an 8-3 record and a second consecutive playoff berth.

For all the big plays Aaron made during his high school career, including scoring the game-winning touchdown on a strip-fumble against Reservoir as a senior, Tom Browne said it was something Aaron did off of the field that sticks with him to this day.

After a “devastating” loss to Walkersville in the first round of the 2015 playoffs — Aaron’s final high school game — Tom Browne received a text from his senior lineman that read: “Thank you for the experience to play for Oakland Mills again … if it wasn’t for you, then I would of never touched the field again. So thank you for all the pushing and talks we had, it really means a lot to me!! Love you coach, keep your head held high.”

“I took a screenshot of that and I blew it up and it sits on my desk to this day,” Tom Browne said. “It’s something that kind of brings a smile to my face and says, ‘This is why you do it man, for kids like this.’ ”

A matured man

Larry Aaron III
Larry Aaron (No. 93) makes a tackle against Kent State. Courtesy photo/Marshall University

As Marshall’s defensive tackles coach and main recruiter in Maryland and Virginia, J.C. Price has a plethora of highlight videos coming his way on a daily basis. His job is to take those several minutes of clips and project future success.

In the case of Aaron’s junior recruiting tape in the fall of 2014, Price said the “raw talent and athleticism” immediately jumped off the screen.

“You could see it on film right away. There was a lot of potential. For a player of his size, to be able to move like he did … the upside was tremendous,” Price said.

Price made contact and kept tabs, going out early the following year to see him firsthand. The conversations grew more serious as Aaron’s senior season progressed, with an array of other Division I programs making contact as well.

The problem for most coaches, as they became serious about offering a scholarship, had nothing to do with his play. It was his academics.

“There was one point there where we had coaches coming in on a daily basis. But almost every single one of them, as they found about his grades, said they couldn’t touch him,” Tom Browne said. “It was incredibly discouraging.”

Marshall, however, was in a position — as a program that accepts a handful of “academic nonqualifiers” each year — to offer Aaron a second chance. In accordance with Conference USA regulations, he could join the team, work out, attend class and receive athletic assistance for a year while he tried to improve his academics to the qualifying standards laid out in Proposition 48.

On Feb. 3, 2016, during a ceremony in the Oakland Mills media center, Aaron officially made his decision to become a member of the Thundering Herd football program. That July, he arrived on campus and was introduced to fellow “props” Jaquan Yulee and Tyler King.

Signing day
Oakland Mills varsity football coach Tom Browne, far left, watches Larry Aaron III sign his letter of intent to play football at Marshall University, alongside his parents, Melissa Aaron and Larry Aaron Jr. Brent Kennedy/Baltimore Sun Media Group
Larry Aaron III and his family on signing day
Larry Aaron III, wearing ball cap, gets a photo with his parents, Melissa Aaron and Larry Aaron Jr., and sister Meleah Aaron, Oakland Mills Class of 2021, on signing day at Oakland Mills High School. Brent Kennedy/Baltimore Sun Media Group

Almost immediately, Yulee, King, Aaron and Jason Smith — a redshirt sophomore and former prop himself that had hosted Aaron on his initial recruiting visit — became inseparable.

“There was a bond there from day one. It felt like we had known each other all our lives,” Smith said. “I know for me, I had my own ‘big brother’ when I got to school in 2014 that looked out for me. So when those three got on campus, I made sure to do the exact same thing by taking them under my wing and showing them the ropes.”

Unable to participate in any football activities, though, Aaron said spending entire days studying and working out was an initial culture shock.

“I never was that into lifting in high school, so those first couple weeks of college with the constant workouts and stuff … it really killed me,” he said.

But when there were struggles, that’s where having a tight-knit group made all the difference.

“There were moments for all of us, where you start wondering if you can actually do this. … But that’s when you lean on your brothers,” King said. “We weren’t going to allow each other to fail, for real.”

Larry Aaron III with friends at Marshall
Larry Aaron III lying down, Jason Smith in black in the back on top step, Jaquan Yulee to the right. Courtesy photo/Jason Smith

By the end of the following spring, all three had completed the requirements to become eligible, and on July 27, 2017, they officially joined the team. The work, however, was just beginning.

After a year without wearing pads, Aaron, Yulee and King were competing for playing time against returning upperclassmen — including their close friend, Smith — who had already carved out roles for themselves.

Price said as much as Aaron had grown during his first 12 months in the program, the task ahead of him in year two was just as daunting.

“This was by far the hardest he had ever had to work in his life. So there’s naturally going to be an adjustment period each time you add something new to the equation,” Price said. “It was a growth process. But credit to him, he stuck with it, developed an appreciation for the hard work and became a matured man in a lot of ways.”

“He had kind of fast-forwarded his clock and positioned himself to be a huge part of this program.”

J.C. Price, Marshall football defensive tackles coach

Aaron made his college debut in Marshall’s third game of the 2017 season, appearing late in a shutout victory against Kent State and assisting on his first tackle. Slowly, his playing time increased.

When the season finale rolled around — against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl — Aaron was one of the team’s first defensive linemen off the bench.

“By the last two to three games, into our bowl game, Larry was playing as well as anyone we had. That really was incredible when you think about just a couple months earlier, he was really only playing when the game was decided in a so-called mop-up role,” Price said.

Price said it was “extremely uncommon” for a first-year player to become a regular in the rotation in that short amount of time.

“He had kind of fast-forwarded his clock and positioned himself to be a huge part of this program.”

Reach Brent Kennedy at bkennedy@baltsun.com or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports