Gerard Marrone never expected to get shot in the back. Even less feasible was the idea that he would never walk again. But that’s just what the doctors told this 21-year-old scrapper from Queens — who grew up with boxing gloves on his fists and a taekwondo belt around his waist — when he woke up in the ICU.
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Though more than two decades have passed, Marrone, now a NYC defense attorney, still can vividly conjure how it all went down. His family had just moved to a (theoretically) better neighborhood in Queens. One evening in November, he and his 16-year-old sister went to a nearby house party where they ran into an older guy who, prior to that night, had been harassing her.
“As soon as I walked up, the guy came at me,” Marrone recalls. “We had some words, but nothing threatening — nothing where I would think that I or my sister was in danger. So I turned around to walk away, and I saw him pull the gun out to take a shot at her. And all I did was just stand between him and my sister.”
Marrone went down immediately. He tried to lift himself up from the ground, but two-thirds of his body felt “like lead.” The bullet had struck him in his back on his right side, collapsing his right lung and hitting his T7 vertebrae. He was instantly paralyzed from the chest down.
“I thought I was dying, because I couldn’t breathe,” he says. “But there was no blood. When the cops and the ambulance came, they ripped open my shirt and saw the hole. It was like a little cigarette burn, not like at the movies or anything. That really began a nightmare for me.”
Marrone spent four weeks at Jamaica Hospital in Queens, and then Mount Sinai in Manhattan for two months of rehab. His doctors told him he would never walk again. “I never believed them,” Marrone says. “I always had this rebel spirit, and I never took anything at face value. When they told me that, I thought, ‘Screw you. I’m gonna walk.’”
The process was painful, excruciatingly slow, and featured only the faintest glimmers of hope. Seeing himself walk in his mind’s eye was the first step: Marrone imagined himself strolling on a beach, doing karate, and boxing. He read Bruce Lee books and focused on healing himself spiritually and mentally.
And then, Marrone says, “One day I’m lying in the ICU unit, trying to move my legs together, inward. I’m looking down and I’m like, holy shit — my entire abductor, one side, came back overnight. I was only able to do it a little bit, but it was a flicker. That gave me tremendous hope, because if that could come back, then I knew I could rehab it. I could bust my ass and work out and strengthen it to its full potential.”
That’s just what he did. It took him five months to stand with a walker, and even longer before he was able to take a few halting steps. But within a year, he was back at school, walking with two canes. That might have been enough for some people, but Marrone refused to settle. He remembers thinking, “Let’s see where I can take myself tomorrow. Let’s challenge myself to see what I can do.”
Around this time, mixed martial arts was becoming popular. Watching the sport sparked a desire within Marrone to fight again. Though he could no longer kick, he thought he could relearn how to box. “So I went in front of a heavy bag and just started hitting it,” he says. “It felt amazing to have the gloves on. I felt like a person, like a warrior, again.”
He found a boxing gym on Long Island that was run by Kathy “Wildcat” Collins, a four-time female world champion. “She took me under her wing,” Marrone says. “It was really just back to basics. She taught me how to box left-handed [his right side, previously dominant, had become less strong as as result of his injury], how to move forward, how to throw a punch.”
That began a grueling, years-long process. “It was worse than anything I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “She pushed me, this lady, and she didn’t look at me like I had a disability. She was the trainer I was looking for. I didn’t want someone who would feel bad for me, I wanted someone to challenge me.”
He only fought once in public, in 2007, against a former Golden Gloves fighter at the Long Island Fight for Charity. “It had nothing to do with winning or losing,” Marrone says. “It had to do with getting in there and trying.”
Though he lost the bout, in a 2-1 decision — “Somebody out there thought I won,” he notes — that wasn’t ever the point. “I had fun,” Marrone says with a laugh, with his sly, gravelly Queens accent. “I like to fight, you know?”
Since then, Marrone has mostly hung up his sparring gloves, turning his attentions to his law practice, writing a book, motivational speaking, riding his motorcycle, and acting and modeling. “I need my face,” he jokes.
But the lessons Marrone learned from his decades-long ordeal stay with him to this day. “You gotta dig deep, deep down inside to fight that extra minute, that extra round,” he says. That advice is all the more meaningful for coming from a man who still has a bullet lodged in his body, and whose doctors once believed would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Hunter Slaton is a senior writer for Studio@Gawker.