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Away from the Past

Updated: Jul 12, 2021


| This is the 130th story of Our Life Logs |

Today, downtown Columbus, Ohio, has become a revamped, artsy district, but when I was born there in 1987, it was a place full of gangs, violence, and drugs. From the time I was little, I thought I was going to overcome the inevitable and never touch that side of life. Straight and narrow.

It turns out that sometimes you can’t escape your background. You can, however, fight to break away from it.


Despite the semi-dangerous environment, I had a decent childhood. I lived with my mom, grandma, and five siblings in a three-bedroom duplex that we sometimes shared with my aunts and cousins. Some of my happiest memories are with my siblings and cousins. I remember on Christmas Eve, we would all put on our pajamas to sleep in the same room, though most of us didn’t sleep. We were so excited for the morning that we would go down as early as possible (like 4 AM) to see the gifts. Even in the darkest times, we always got something under the tree. We didn’t have much, but we did have love, and that was all we needed.

When I wasn’t with my family, I was at the neighborhood recreation center shooting hoops or playing other sports with my friends. It was a great place for me to hang out and stay off the streets, but it didn’t work for everyone. I watched more and more friends fall down bad paths as we got older. By high school, half of the kids I grew up with had dropped out, been put in jail, or murdered.

This wasn’t a surprising fate for kids in the area I grew up in. My own siblings even fell onto dark paths. My sister who I was closest to went to prison. When that happened, it tore me apart. It was in that moment that I realized sometimes nice people make bad decisions. But I didn’t want to be one of those people. I saw my mom struggling so much to provide for us, so I decided that I wouldn’t go down the same path as my siblings. I told her not to worry because I’d find my own way.


And I did, at first. I knew I wanted more out of my life than being in a gang, so I worked really hard to keep my grades up and perform well on my football and basketball teams. College would be impossible without a scholarship, so I did everything I could to get noticed and change the situation I had been born into.

My senior year of high school, playing in the state tournament, 2007.
My senior year of high school, playing in the state tournament, 2007.

I received offers from a few colleges and chose to attend Shawnee State in Portsmouth, Ohio, which felt great while I was still in high school, waiting for my future to sweep me up and put me on my feet. But that's just not how it turned out. Unfortunately, after just about a year and a half, I felt bogged down, not feeling like I was getting much opportunity there. I decided to drop out. But I couldn’t go home. How could I? I was supposed to be different. I was supposed to be the kid that made it out.


I took a couple of years off and stayed in Portsmouth while I was feeling lost. In my eyes, going back to Columbus would mean I was a failure. I couldn’t face that. So, I searched for something to do in Portsmouth.


I was living with other students in a five-bedroom, 100-year-old house. Searching for a way to make money, I ran into a teammate who was driving a shiny new Cadillac. I stared at the polished rims of the car in awe. We were two guys from similar backgrounds from a rough part of our hometowns. He had somehow figured it out. I wanted to get in on the secret.

“How’d you get this, man?”

He leaned forward, motioning me closer.

“Come to my house later and we can talk about how.”

We later met up, and I found out he made enough for a Cadillac by selling drugs. I had spent my youth avoiding falling into the drug-selling, gang lifestyle that seemed to be my destiny, but in that moment, I was desperate. Going home wasn’t an option, and this was a way to make quick money. That day, I gave the guy $100 and matched that $100 and profited $80 after selling my supply. It was such an easy way to make money that I was hooked.

I fell into the black hole of drug dealing.


I knew the risks of dealing drugs. I watched friends back home get jailed for less than what I was doing, but still, I couldn’t stop. The money was too good. I was able to have a life where I didn’t have to worry about money. It was always coming in. For two years, I sold drugs, making more and more money, buying nice things for my family. They were just enjoying the gifts, no questions asked, and I felt good being able to help my struggling family. Finally, my mom wouldn’t have to worry.

I thought to myself, “I don’t have to go back to college. I could do this the rest of my life.” That line of thinking didn’t last long before the immensity of the risks settled in.

As I became more invested in dealing, more of the risks flooded my head. People began to know me as the local dealer and show up at the house. It became more and more risky the longer I dealt. I started having more cash on me than I wanted. I worried that someone would break in or I’d get mugged on the street. I constantly had nightmares about the cops kicking in my door to arrest me. I was on edge every second of the day covering my tracks to not get caught. The thought of going to prison scared me only because I knew it would ruin any chance of a future. What then if I went to prison? Would it all have been worth it for a quick buck? I thought of my friends who all saw me as an inspiration, as the guy who made it out. I was supposed to be that guy, and I had let everyone down. This life made me money, but it was time to leave it behind and get my life back on track.

So there, I stopped. I lost about 60 percent of my friends when I got out of dealing. It made me realize that sometimes people only hang out with you when you have common interests. Being around those people was hard anyway because dealing was their whole life, and I didn’t want that anymore.

I don’t condone this part of my life, but I also don’t regret it because it molded me into the person I am today. I did it to pay my bills and help my family, and it fulfilled those things even though it was wrong.


I sent an email to the basketball coach at the University of Rio Grande that had originally extended me an offer and asked if I could still join. He told me he would give me the chance to play, but I had to earn a scholarship by proving that I could play well. I earned it.

I’m forever thankful that the coach gave me a chance. He was like a father figure to me and kept me on the straight path. He knew my entire story, drugs and all, and wanted to see me overcome my background and succeed. I graduated with my Bachelor’s in Sports Management in 2012 and immediately jumped into a Master’s program to gain coaching experience. I finished in 2014 and continued to help coach at the university.

Celebrating my graduate degree with my family, 2014.
Celebrating my graduate degree with my family, 2014.

Today I’m still coaching basketball and loving it. I’m so glad to have been given a second chance by the coach at Rio Grande. Without him, I don’t think I would have gotten the incredible opportunities I did to boost my career. I hope to one day inspire and help kids in a similar situation to mine through coaching.


I’ve learned a lot from my experiences, mostly how important it is to remain focused no matter what. I lost focus and it almost cost me my future. Just because you’re in a bad environment doesn’t mean you have to stay stuck in it your whole life. Your upbringing doesn’t define your future. There will be temptations to fall into dark habits along the way, but you have to remember that they aren’t worth it. What motivates me is thinking of my family. I don’t want them to visit me in prison, so I’ll never ever go back to that life. Though I came from a rough background, I refused to let that part of my life keep me from pursuing my dreams anymore. I am more than where I came from, and I’m working hard each day until one day I will only be looked at with pride.

Section Break

 This is the story of Shaun Gunnell

Shaun has been the assistant women’s basketball and golf coach at a university in Tiffin, Ohio for about a year now. Coming from a rough part of town, it seemed that Shaun was destined to fall down a dark path, but he was determined to rise above it. When he dropped out of school with a strong desperation to pay his bills at 19, Shaun had a brush with the life that he swore he’d never get into before ridding himself of it once and for all and finding happiness and success through coaching. In his free time, Shaun loves to travel and read. Every year, he travels to Puerto Rico because he loves the area and has befriended many locals. One of his goals is to coach a team in one of the top five national conferences within the next three years. He is forever thankful to the coach at the University of Rio Grande for giving him a chance to rise above his background and cultivate a career.

Shaun, 2015.
Shaun, 2015.

This story first touched our hearts on July 12, 2018.

| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: MJ |

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