Bryshon Nellum was nearing top form when a shotgun blast severely damaged his most valuable assets, his legs.
It was about 2 a.m. on Oct. 31, 2008, and Nellum, a star quarter-miler, was walking to his car after attending a party near USC when, police say, a car pulled up next to him, a gang slogan was yelled out, and he was fired upon.
Nellum says he's still not sure why.
He had been preparing for what he hoped would be a breakout season with the Trojans' track and field team. The year before, he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in his first college race, but he was still less than two years removed from a record-setting career at Long Beach Poly High.
Nellum had no gang affiliation, police say, and they can only guess why he might have been targeted. However, as he prepared to leave the party Nellum told friends he was "about to roll out" — words that might have cost him.
"Someone else could confuse that language for gang stuff," Los Angeles Police Det. John Flores said.
Whatever the reason, Nellum was told by doctors that he would probably never again reach world-class speeds as a runner.
But 19 months later, he is well on his way to proving the doubters wrong.
This month, in his first individual race since the incident, Nellum covered 400 meters in 46.31 seconds, the third-fastest time in the Pacific 10 Conference this year. That performance qualified him for the conference championships Saturday and Sunday in Berkeley.
His time was well off his best of 45.38, run three years ago just after his senior year in high school, but Nellum said, "When I finished that race I was feeling good, I was feeling great, I was happy, I was just cheerful. … I know I'm on the right track."
Travon Reed, 22, of Los Angeles and Horasio Kimbrough, 22, of Inglewood, whom police identified as members of the Fruit Town Brims gang, are awaiting trial in connection with Nellum's shooting. Each was charged in February 2009 with one count of attempted murder.
Police said there's no evidence that Nellum's assailants knew he was a track standout, but Ron Allice, USC's director of track and field, believes otherwise.
"They could've killed him," Allice said. "Instead, they shot him through the legs."
Nellum said he didn't have enemies and didn't know his alleged assailants.
"I've never met or seen those guys," Nellum said. "A lot of people know I run track. Jealousy could be a reason, I really don't know."
He did know this: "I told myself, 'If I can walk again, I will run again.' "
Nellum said his legs were riddled by several pellets, including one in his left leg that couldn't be removed during surgery because it was too close to a nerve.
There was so much damage that the runner who posted the nation's fastest high school times in the 200- and 400-meter races in 2007 couldn't feel his legs and needed help just getting out of bed.
"It was terrifying," said Nellum, who lost 20 pounds from his already svelte 170-pound frame. "I could barely think sometimes."
To lift his spirits, his mother, LeShon Hughes, cooked him big meals such as salmon, rice, broccoli and mashed potatoes or shrimp tacos.
"That's what kept me going," Nellum said. "That's what kept a smile on my face."
Determined to run again, Nellum spent about five hours a day in the weight room, at track practice and in multiple physical therapy sessions. Still, after four months, he was overcome by debilitating pain when he tried to jog around the track.
"It started messing with me mentally," Nellum said. "I was like, 'I'm done with this.' "
But Nellum pushed through those seemingly intolerable days and after 10 months was able to start running again. A turning point came in March, when Allice allowed Nellum to run the first leg of USC's 4x400 relay at the Northridge Invitational.
At the starting line, Nellum said he was more nervous than he'd ever been in his life.
And after: "I felt every bit of that race from my head to my toes," Nellum said.
He also felt something else.
"It gave me the confidence," Nellum said. "I am where I am today because of that race."
Allice wanted Nellum to ease back into competition and didn't think he was ready to run as an individual. In a relay, the coach pointed out, there were three other runners "to help him take care of business."
Then, before the UCLA-USC dual meet this month, Nellum noticed something: His coach had entered him in the 400-meter individual race.
What he didn't know was, "I wasn't going to have him run," Allice said. "I entered him in it to bluff the Bruins."
It was too late.
Nellum's birthday was the same day as the meet, and Allice said he couldn't break his runner's heart.
Still, the coach was white-knuckled as Nellum sprinted around the track.
"Forty-six-point-three seconds," Allice said. "It was like the clouds parted for him."
Nellum knows he still has a long road ahead of him, but after that race he was consumed by jubilation.
"After all of the hard work, pain and suffering," Nellum said, "I was able to pull it off."