The Long Run
When BRYSHON NELLUM races now, victory is over both time and chance
by BARRY LEBROCK / photographs by ANDREW MACPHERSON / produced by HANNAH HARTE
Every time he passes the spot where it happened, he looks.
Bryshon Nellum will be driving down Vermont by USC, and when he gets to 29th Street, he can’t help himself. He has to look. Seeing it is like a startling flashback, both clear and hazy, like a well-defined silhouette in a muddled, distant memory.
And then there are the nightmares. While he sleeps, the incident plays out over and over. Each time it’s a bit different, but there are constants, like the surf and the sand on an ever-changing beach.
Nellum never needed a bat or a ball, a helmet or pads, high-tops or a jump shot to make his mark in sports. He needed only guidance from a loving mother, instruction from seasoned coaches, his God-given ability and his legs. Oh, those legs. Slender, muscular and flawlessly aligned. When they got going, the motion was smooth and mesmerizing. “Poetic,” according to USC coach Ron Allice.
Allice has seen ’em all, and his credentials are a lifetime spent in track and field. Peering out from under the scuffed bill of a well-worn Trojans cap, his experienced eyes are steady. “There is a fluidity to his movement,” he says of Nellum. “There are track runners, and then there are track athletes. Bryshon was born to run.”
A sports career that depends on sinew, muscle and bone is a fragile thing, though. Challenges from injury are frequent—but frequently surmountable. Still, watch out for the unexpected.
It is said, and wisely so, that in sports there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Numbers can be maneuvered to say just about anything. But part of the beauty of track and field is that numbers are not statistics. They are not ratios. They are not percentages. As raw measurements of time and distance, they stand alone, and they do not lie.
When he was seven, Nellum was blowing away fields full of nine-year-olds. By middle school, he was on the national radar. In high school, his times had tournament organizers checking their clocks for accuracy. In 2007, as a senior at Long Beach Poly, he ran 200 meters in 20.43 seconds, a state record. Michael Johnson’s world record at the time was a mere 1.11 seconds faster. Nellum was a high school kid, closing fast on the best runners on earth.
He became the first athlete in 91 years to win four golds in the California CIF State Track and Field Championships. By the end of his senior year, he was ranked number one in the United States in the 200 and 400 meters. He was selected the Gatorade National Boys Track & Field Athlete of the Year. Awards and accolades poured sweetly over his performances like syrup over a stack of pancakes. Every school in the nation wanted him. Every school with a chance recruited him.
“That meant everything. It was like a dream come true,” says his mother, LeShon Hughes. “Bryshon would be able to go to a college that he chose to go to with the full ride of a scholarship. It was a blessing.”
Nellum chose USC. It was close to home, had a great athletic tradition and had the comfort of a track on which he’d been working out with a club team for months.
Despite a sports tradition that leans to the football crazy, Nellum’s freshman year was anticipated on the track with the lofty expectations of a new stud quarterback. The entire team was emboldened by his very presence. It didn’t matter that his competition was now the elite runner on scholarship at a Division 1 college and no longer the fastest kid an opposing high school could muster.
That freshman promise began and ended on March 1, 2008. Running the third leg of the 4x100 relay in USC’s first home meet of the year, Nellum pulled his hamstring. Year over.
“The trigger was pulled just once, but it fired several jagged pellets at blinding speed, which ripped into Nellum’s legs. Oh, those legs.”
Expectations deferred but definitely not destroyed. Nearly eight months of rehab later, Nellum was convinced he was ready. On October 30, 2008, he walked away from a workout having surmounted his pesky, faceless nemesis. “The pain was gone. That day I had a great practice. I said to myself, I must be back—I just had a great practice and felt no pain.”
A few hours later, a mere hamstring injury was the least of his problems, that’s for sure.
After attending a Halloween party at Leonardo’s Restaurant, about four blocks from campus, Nellum was crossing the street to head back to the athletic dorms. In an instant, the silence of the night was shattered—and so were Nellum’s legs. A man jumped out of a car, approached the track star and fired a shotgun. The trigger was pulled just once, but simultaneously it fired several jagged pellets at blinding speed, which ripped into Nellum’s legs. Oh, those legs.
The gunman jumped back in the car as his accomplice drove away. “My adrenaline was up, and I didn’t know why someone was shooting at me,” Nellum says now without emotion, some 18 months later. “In my mind, I was like, Okay, don’t fall—get up and keep going. Get away and run to safety. I was dragging one leg, limping, hopping and skipping and just trying to get away.”
In a twinkling, the world-class sprinter—the can’t-miss Olympian—was coaxing as many excruciating steps as he could from the suddenly busted and bloody tools of his trade, his all-access pass to stardom torn and tattered like an old pair of jeans.
The next few weeks were a blur—police, doctors, surgeries, agony and a thousand questions.
“I was going through ups and downs. There was a point I thought I was never going to be the same again,” he recalls. “I was in a wheelchair, and every day I’d lie in my bed and go through pain 24/7. Like pins and needles, like all type of stuff wrong with my legs.”
Haunting thoughts of a broken future tortured him in the light, giving way to those soul-stabbing nightmares in the dark. “There would be different ways I’d get shot. Not just in my legs but, like, my arm or somewhere else. Every night I’d have a dream of something bad happening to me. It was crazy. I lost my confidence. I was real bad.”
The main question still to be answered: Why?
“I don’t know where it came from or why I got shot,” he says, shaking his head. “It seemed random. They shot me and yelled, ‘Eff you, something something...’ I don’t recall exactly, but I did hear something after the shot that made it seem like they were aiming for me.”
“I don’t know.”
Jealousy? Resentment? A former opponent?
It appears more purposeful than random. A pair of men who haven’t amounted to much, shooting someone who achieved high school fame in a nearby neighborhood. Men who measure accomplishment in spilled blood, ripping flesh and bone from a local kid with the dreams, determination and talent to be something special.
The men have since been arrested: a pair of 21-year-old alleged gangbangers from the Los Angeles area. They were charged with attempted murder in February 2009.
“When I found out that they caught them, it was kind of positive for me,” Nellum says, “because I didn’t know who shot me. I wanted to see exactly who they were and what their problem was. After I found out who they were, I just tried to put it all behind me.”
So, what was the problem? “I still don’t really know, but at least I know their faces and what they look like.” If he even has a hunch, he’s not saying. “Random” is Nellum’s story, and he’s sticking to it.
And his mother is right there with him.
“The runner, who once upon a time easily won every race he entered, finished 52/100ths of a second behind a teammate. Second place never felt so sweet.”
Who? Why? “I have no idea—no idea,” she says. “I don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t care. I just thank God that he’s alive.”
Coach Allice hears their denial, and understands their position. “That may be the very stance to take so that there isn’t a residual. There is a finality to that, and that may be the best answer.”
It is pretty clear that whatever was behind it, the incident was gang related. Deputy District Attorney Steve Dickman, who is handling the case and preparing for trial, can’t say much. “What I can tell you,” he states firmly, “is the victim is not a gangster.”
John Flores, a gang detective with the LAPD Southwest Division, agrees. “We looked into that, and there was absolutely no evidence to link him to any kind of documentation of being a gang member. Nothing came up that would lead me to believe that.”
Rehabilitation from Nellum’s injury was brutal. A complex program designed by USC strength coach Bryan Bailey included numerous elements of stretching, weight lifting, balance training, daily ice baths and excruciating muscle kneading to minimize the scar tissue.
“His whole world was built around how fast he was,” recalls Bailey. “You take that away, you are tearing his heart out. We helped him find his heart again.”
On a recent crisp, clear, glorious Southern California spring afternoon, far removed from the misery of that fateful October night in 2008, the USC track team took the short ride across town to face rival UCLA. The respective teams will remember May 1, 2010, as the day the Trojans snapped a 33-year drought, beating the Bruins in a dual meet in Westwood for the first time since 1977. Bryshon Nellum, heart pounding and adrenaline pumping in a return to competition, will remember it as a rebirth.
“It actually gave me a boost of energy…it fired me up…as I got out of the blocks, I gradually picked it up. The first 100 meters I was just testing it out, and then as I passed 100 meters, that’s when I was able to put on my speed.”
The day of the meet was also Nellum’s 21st birthday, and being there was a gift money could not buy: his first open-400-meter race since the shooting. The runner, who once upon a time easily won every race he entered, finished 52/100ths of a second behind a teammate. Second place never felt so sweet.
He also ran the first leg of the 4x400-meter relay, which was won by USC.
“It’s been a long journey, and I’ve been through a lot,” he said afterward. “It’s been two years of sitting in the stands watching and cheering my team. It feels better to contribute to this victory that we earned today.”
After a recovery that felt like an 18-month-long parade of baby steps, the meet at UCLA was a major leap. The teammate that beat him is a runner named Joey Hughes, who had been part of Nellum’s 2007 state-champions team at Long Beach Poly. Hughes’ winning time against the Bruins was 45.79 seconds—a half second slower than Nellum’s best, which he had run three years earlier in high school, pre-hamstring and pre-gunshot.
Still, there’s no looking back. The future is in front of him, and although it holds no promises, it does hold promise. And now, as the body heals and competition beckons, even the darkness is becoming his friend.
“These days I dream about running,” he says, “about actually winning a race. I dream about me coming across the finish line first. It’s not specifically any one meet or any one track, but I see myself crossing the finish line first, running an outstanding time and being number one in the nation.”
Carried all the way by those legs. Oh, those legs.
Stylist: Miles Siggins
Grooming: Samuel Paul