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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Conquering a Cruel Twist of Fate

April 12, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

A kid behind a coffee counter takes an order for a tall mocha. He sees a black stick with a silver handle in the customer's hand. The kid thinks it looks cool. "Nice cane," he says.

This kind of thing happens to Marc T. Little all the time.

He will get on a plane, carrying the cane. A passenger or a flight attendant sees Little's limp.

"Ski accident?" they ask.

He smiles and just says no, unless they press him for an answer. They always regret it when they get their answer.

Little is a 32-year-old lawyer. He has a practice in downtown L.A., his own, no big firm.

Entertainment industry clients, mainly. Little likes being a one-man operation. He enjoys the independence.

A number of his neighbors there in Union Bank Plaza run into Little in the halls. They notice that slight hitch in his step.

Some ask about USC, knowing that he went to school there. Some ask about his father, who was probably the best running back the Denver Broncos ever had.

A few wonder what happened to Little's right leg.

He doesn't have one.

*

Random violence. Children shot. Children doing the shooting. Gangbanging. Guns in the news every day. Bill Cosby's son killed. Tupac Shakur cut down. Street crime. Drive-bys. ATM ambushes. Rolex bandits. A 12-year-old girl dead from a bullet. It makes you sick.

Sometimes, so many people get shot, it makes you wonder if anyone survived.

Marc Little did.

He was a college student, summer of '87, four days after he turned 22. He lived in the Cardinal Gardens apartments and was in love with a lovely young woman, Tegra Hearns.

Son of an NFL player, Marc was not a man of means. He wasn't reared by his father, Floyd Little, who lived out West, but in Connecticut by his mother, Antoinette Hart.

One reason he chose USC was to get to know his dad. If they couldn't be a family, maybe they could be friends.

Money was pretty tight.

"I was living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," Marc remembers.

He also remembers walking to a market for a loaf of bread. It was cheap there. It cost a quarter.

A kid was bent over a Volkswagen, adjusting a windshield wiper. He said, "Help me fix this."

"Fix what?" Marc asked.

"Fix this," the kid said, revealing a 12-gauge shotgun.

Time stood still. That's one of Marc's most vivid memories. He didn't see his life pass before his eyes. He just saw it end.

The kid with the shotgun said, "You'd better have $100."

Marc dropped the bag with the bread. He emptied his pockets. He didn't have $100.

"You'd better find it," the kid said.

He struck Marc, not hard enough to knock him down, but Marc went down anyway, praying the kid would take his shotgun and go away.

Instead, the kid cocked it.

Marc saw him aim. The shot hit him in the upper right thigh.

Empty-handed, the gunman got into the VW. Inside was a driver. It was a stolen car. Cops caught the driver 24 hours later. He got two years for his crime. They also caught the shooter. He got 25 to life.

A gang member, he was 18.

Little lost all but one unit of blood. He developed renal failure, making his weight rise from 145 to 212 pounds, then plunge to 88. Doctors amputated the leg.

Lying there, he thought about why he got shot.

"There we were, two kids basically the same age, same generation. Our backgrounds were pretty similar, it turned out. Broken home, single mother, same as me. We both made choices with our lives. Why did he choose a life like that?"

*

After the coffee kid gives back his cane, I tell Little why I've dropped by. I know how he became a lawyer. I know how he got on with his life.

They have a fund-raiser at USC known as Swim With Mike, named for a swimmer paralyzed in an accident. Once a year--it's next Saturday--money is raised for scholarships for the physically challenged. Ron Orr runs it: (213) 740-1306.

Marc Little will be there, prosthetic leg and all. He and Tegra got married. He got his law degree on a Swim With Mike grant. And what about Floyd Little, who owns an auto dealership in Seattle?

Marc says, "Now he's my best friend."

I love a happy ending.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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