#93Strong: Oakland Mills community rallies during bold recovery — and after

#93Strong: Oakland Mills community rallies during bold recovery — and after
Larry Aaron III, seated at center, is surrounded by friends and family as he's introduced before a boys basketball game against Hammond at Oakland Mills High School on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. The game was a benefit for Aaron, who was paralyzed on Dec. 31, 2017. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Larger than life

#93Strong: Oakland Mills community rallies during bold recovery — and after

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 3: A soldier

Jaquan Yulee got the call around 9 a.m. on New Year’s Day, learning that his Marshall teammate had been shot. It had been two weeks since Marshall’s 31-28 bowl victory and 13 days since the last time he had seen Aaron.

He immediately got in a car with Tyler King and drove to Maryland. By nightfall, they were in Aaron’s hospital room, taking in a scene that Yulee said still chokes him up.

But, through the pain, there was another emotion Yulee took home with him that evening after the visit — strength.

Shortly after, in a photo posted on Snapchat of Aaron smiling in his green No. 93 Marshall jersey, #93Strong was born.

“We were sitting around talking and I don’t remember how, but ‘93 Strong’ just came out and I was like, ‘You know, that’s perfect.’ He’s a soldier. Almost any other guy who took a shot in the back like that, it would have been over,” Yulee said. “Not Larry. He was still holding strong.”

What started as a social media hashtag soon became a rallying cry. By mid-January, “93 Strong” was being put on bracelets and T-shirts to be sold as part of fundraising efforts for the Aaron family.

Start of the #93Strong hashtag
The #93Strong hashtag, in honor of Larry Aaron III, started with a photo posted on Snapchat that was captured in this tweet on Jan. 2, 2018. Twitter screenshot

Special events were coordinated in both Maryland and West Virginia, including at restaurants and high school games. Of those organized collective efforts, none was larger and more unified than on Feb. 2, when nearly all of Howard County’s boys and girls basketball programs wore the green “93 Strong” shirts during warmups and contributed to the cause by donating the money collected from concessions and shirt sales that evening.

Aaron, who was still under hospital care, made his first public appearance since the shooting that night at the Oakland Mills boys basketball game against Hammond. Right before the host Scorpions were introduced, Aaron wheeled onto the court and sent the unsuspecting capacity crowd into a frenzy.

“Personally, I had no idea [he was coming]. Hammond gets introduced, the lights go out, we lined up our starters … and then the place just goes bananas. And [at that point,] I still have no clue what’s going on,” said Jon Browne, Oakland Mills varsity boys basketball coach. “Then I turned around and there’s Larry in a wheelchair in the gym. It was powerful.”

Aaron sat courtside as Oakland Mills won the game, 68-55, and hung around to chat and pose for pictures afterward.

Weeks later, as he began settling into his new living arrangement with his sister in Carroll County, he said the warm reception that night — along with the hundreds of cards, letters and well wishes he received from individuals across the region while in the hospital — meant more than he could express.

“On those tough days,” he said at the time, “it definitely helps knowing there are so many people in my corner.”

Plans to begin physical and occupational therapy were put on the schedule for early March at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute. A new living space was being constructed for him in the basement of his sister’s home.

Everything, as Melissa said on the afternoon of Feb. 15, was “progressing as well as we could hope for at this point.”

The evening of Feb. 20, Aaron and his 6-year-old niece, Lilyana, had a rap battle, going back and forth for nearly 40 minutes. He went to bed that night and woke up the next morning as usual to get ready for a doctor’s appointment.

A little after 10 a.m., when Aaron’s mother went into his room to help him get ready, he suddenly experienced a downturn.

“Almost any other guy who took a shot in the back like that, it would have been over. Not Larry. He was still holding strong.”

Jaquan Yulee

“I was getting his stuff ready to get him cleaned up and I turned, and I turned again, and he was like kind of seizuring — something that I had never seen before,” Melissa Aaron said. “He was out for a good little while. … I had to call 911 and they took him to the [hospital].”

A CT scan revealed several blood clots — a large one in his leg and others in his lungs. Later that evening, Aaron went into cardiopulmonary arrest after the clots spread to other areas of his body over the ensuing hours.

“I remember hearing ‘Code Blue’ in his room … and he was gone,” Melissa said. “He was out for about an hour before they brought him back.”

As doctors prepped to insert vena cava filters in an effort to catch some of the blood clots, Aaron again went into cardiac arrest. And again, after some time, he was revived.

But, this time, doctors said Aaron’s kidneys were failing and he was brain dead.

“That was one of the hardest things ever, but I know L would not want to be in a state like that. And there was no way I was going to let a machine just keep him alive like that,” said Aaron’s father, Larry Aaron Jr. “We needed L to be at peace. We were tired of him suffering … so we decided to turn the machines off.”

In those final minutes, doctors allowed everyone in the waiting room — family, teammates, friends and coaches — to gather around Aaron’s hospital bed and say their goodbyes together.

“Them last moments that we all took as a family, as brothers, as friends … it was something I will keep with me forever,” Yulee said. “I was right there next to him when they took the machines off of him and we just seen his eyes open one last time, then he was gone. It was heartbreaking, but there was a lot of love in that room.

“Lo touched a lot of people and you could feel that in there when we were with him talking those last breaths.”

An angel

Balloons released for Larry Aaron III
Family of Larry Aaron III stand on the football field to release balloons after a countdown from 9 to 3 during a vigil to celebrate his life at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group

Jon Browne is a self-proclaimed Oakland Mills lifer.

He graduated from the Columbia school in 1990, excelling as a cross country and track athlete during his time there. He returned to the school as a teacher in 1995 and soon after began serving as a coach in the basketball program.

During his tenure, he’s seen and been part of more than his share of success stories both on and off the court. Leading the basketball team to a state title in 2015 sits near the top of the list.

On the flip side, however, he’s also witnessed his share of tragedies.

In December 2016, Kaiyon Stanfield — a member of that same 2015 Oakland Mills state-championship team — was fatally wounded during a shooting in Laurel.

Photos of Larry Aaron III, left, and Kaiyon Stanfield
A photo of Larry Aaron III, left, and fellow former Oakland Mills teammate Kaiyon Stanfield on display in Oakland Mills coach Jon Browne's office at the Columbia school on Thursday, April 5, 2018. In December 2016, Stanfield was fatally wounded during a shooting in Laurel. Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group

Just over a year later, while sitting in his home, he got a similar call about Aaron.

“Losing two players from that team, one of the most special groups I’ve ever coached … it’s an extremely hard pill to swallow,” Jon Browne said. “You coach these kids and they are your kids. They aren’t biologically your kids, but you put so much time and invest so much effort. I see those kids more than I see my own kids during basketball season, so they become part of your life.

“Losing one at that age is unfathomable. Two is … I don’t know, it’s hard to wrap your head around.”

The Oakland Mills community, though, has shown its “true colors” in the most trying of times, Browne said.

As much support as there was after the shooting in Severn, there was even more following the news that Aaron passed away. At a candlelight vigil at Oakland Mills’ stadium Feb. 27, several hundred people filled the home side of the bleachers, as administrators, teammates, family and friends shared stories about how Aaron touched their lives.

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(Jen Rynda/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

These days, approaching the Feb. 22 anniversary of the day Aaron died, his presence lives on through those who were closest to him.

Every Marshall football helmet last season had a “LO” helmet sticker on the back featuring a picture of Aaron. At the football team’s annual HERDSPYs banquet in April, Melissa and Larry Jr. were on hand to accept what will be known going forward as the “Larry Aaron Courage and Commitment Award” — ensuring his name will forever be associated with the program.

More than a dozen individuals, including his parents, got tattoos with variations of “93 Strong” and “DI4L” — do it for Larry. Jason Smith, playing his final year of football at Delaware State, wore the No. 93 in Aaron’s honor last fall.

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Others, like Harris, continue to wear their bracelets.

Jordan Campbell, another of Aaron’s close friends who was both a football and basketball teammate at Oakland Mills, not only has his own tribute tattoo but also keeps Aaron in the forefront of his mind through Twitter. His first tweet every day since last February has read: “Di4L love you brova. #daily”

“It’s something little, but it’s my reminder to make the most of every day,” Campbell said. “It’s motivation. He was doing something real positive with his life and that was taken away from him. The least we can do is try to keep it going.”

King expressed a similar sentiment in terms of honoring his fallen teammate through action.

“More than anything, this whole thing made me realize to take nothing for granted. Because, for real, Lo should still be here with us right now,” King said. “And I do think in a way he is here. … I like to think he’s an angel looking over us now.”

For Melissa and Larry Jr., some days are better than others.

July 27, 2018 — what would have been Aaron’s 20th birthday — was one of the more difficult ones.

Surrounded by loved ones at a cookout at their home, the Aarons ate cake, released balloons and drew comfort from an increasingly familiar revelation. Their son, in his 19 years, had impacted more people and made more lasting impressions than they could have ever hoped for.

“It’s still hard and I don’t think that will ever go away. But we are blessed, happy and proud … to hear the stories that we’ve heard about how respectful L was, how mild-mannered he was, how much people loved him and how much he loved life,” Larry Jr. said. “It makes us feel proud that we did a good job with L, we raised him good.

“That’s something that’s keeping us going.”

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

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