Everyone but physical therapist Danene Brown had left for lunch on a spring day in 2013 when there came a knock at the door at The Gait Center, a Henrico County rehabilitation facility that specializes in helping people who have trouble walking because of injury, illness or disability.
Brown opened the door and there, on crutches, stood Cor’Rales Dupree, a young man who clearly had recently lost part of a leg. An IV pole stood next to him.
“When can I start?” Dupree asked an astonished Brown.
The short answer was not right then — not so soon after being discharged from the hospital and certainly not while he was still attached to an IV pumping antibiotics into him.
But within weeks, appointments were made and the work began, and it’s never stopped for Dupree, who had just turned 16 when on Thanksgiving Day in 2012 he was shot while protecting his mother and younger brother from his mother’s enraged ex-boyfriend. The severity of two gunshot wounds to his left leg forced surgeons to amputate the leg above the knee.
“Then it’s been him setting goals and crushing them, one by one,” Brown said.
He wanted to walk, he wanted to run, he wanted to return to school, he wanted to finish school, he wanted to prove he could play football again.
“He did them all, and he kept going,” she said.
Another goal will be achieved starting Monday when classes begin at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, where Dupree, the first member of his family to attend college, has received a partial scholarship to play wheelchair basketball. Playing basketball sitting down on a campus 20 miles from the shores of Lake Erie is an unexpected destination for a young man from Richmond who once dreamed of playing in the National Football League, but it’s an opportunity too good to pass up — and passing opportunities is not something Dupree is accustomed to doing.
“From the beginning, he’s said, ‘Whatever you bring on, I’ll do it,’ ” said David Lawrence, founder of The Gait Center through his Lawrence Rehabilitation Specialists, who has worked for decades in a field focusing on the restoration of normal human movement. He described Dupree’s progression over the past four years from amputee to walking — and running — with a prosthetic, from being mentored in his first baby steps as he learned to walk again to becoming a mentor to those following in his path, as “spectacular.”
“From where he came from,” Lawrence said, “it’s nothing but amazing.”
According to testimony at the trial in Chesterfield Circuit Court in September 2013, Michael D. Williams, his former girlfriend and her two children had enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal at a relative’s home in Richmond in November 2012 and had driven back to the woman's apartment in Chesterfield. There, Williams became upset and abusive, apparently over a change in plans about going Christmas shopping. The woman asked Williams to leave; he refused and returned to his car to retrieve a gun.
Cor’Rales Dupree came to his mother’s aid, and at one point, Williams chased Dupree several times around a car before the teen ran inside the family’s apartment and closed the door.
“I told my family to get down,” Dupree recalled.
Williams fired several shots through the door, striking Dupree. Williams barged through the door and continued shooting: wounding Dupree’s younger brother, then 10, his mother, and Dupree again. The mother testified that Williams told the family he was “going to … kill us” as he beat and stomped the wounded boys. Police arrived as Williams pointed his gun at the boys, and an officer fired at the gunman, causing him to flee, though he was quickly apprehended. Chesterfield prosecutor Frank LaRuffa said the officer who shot at Williams may have prevented a massacre.
The jury took less than 30 minutes to convict Williams of attempted murder and aggravated malicious wounding among other charges. He was sentenced to 104 years in prison.
No one was killed in the attack, but Dupree was left facing life without a leg. Before the shooting, he played football and ran track at Thomas Dale High. Now, as he lay in a hospital bed, he couldn’t even walk, but he dealt with his dreadful predicament in a remarkably even-keel manner.
“I was just happy to be alive,” Dupree said in a recent interview. “With the help of doctors and the community lifting up my spirits and keeping faith, that’s what helped me survive. I’ve grown a lot from what happened to me when I lost my leg. I learned that in all bad situations that good can come out of it, if you handle it the right way.”
One of those who helped lift his spirits was Dr. Therèse M Duane, the trauma surgeon on call on Thanksgiving Day 2012 when he was rushed to VCU Medical Center. Over the following months, she performed, by his count, a dozen operations on Dupree, but she also dispensed a lot of wisdom.
“She was always telling me to do the right things,” he said. “She’s a role model for me, and she’s kind of like my mom, too. She treats me like one of her kids.”
Now 20, Dupree still keeps in touch with Duane, who left VCU three years ago and now works in Texas. He called her recently to let her know about his scholarship and that his team likely will play a game at the University of Texas-Arlington, not far from where she lives.
“He sounds exactly the same, which is a very humble, appreciative, respectful young man,” Duane said in a phone interview. “He never blamed his mom, never blamed anybody. He was just so grateful that his mom was OK, that his brother was OK. He took it pretty well when we had to go in there and tell him he had to lose his leg. He’s been so mature throughout all of it.”
Back in the days after Dupree’s surgery, Duane, who describes herself as a “devout Catholic,” used to talk to Dupree about how the shooting and the amputation proved there was “a different plan” for him.
“We talked a lot about how he’s got to open up his heart and realize there’s a different plan for him than the one he thought,” Dupree said. “I think the fact he has a scholarship that he never would have had, that he will get an education, which he really needs, is a classic example … that it will ultimately all work out, and I really think it will for him.”
Fitted with an artificial leg, Dupree had to learn to walk all over again and then run, and operated with a sense of urgency because one of his first goals was to be able to play high school football again. First things first, he returned to school on crutches, and went to work becoming accustomed to walking on a prosthetic leg.
“It’s really hard to get used to because there’s so much you have to watch out for,” he said. “I had an elevator key, but that didn’t mean I didn’t practice going down steps. I used to practice all the time.”
His inspiration was Jacob Rainey, a high school quarterback who lost his leg after a gruesome football injury, but came back to play at Woodberry Forest School after rehabbing at The Gait Center. Rainey was recruited to walk-on at the University of Virginia, though he wound up coaching on the sidelines in Charlottesville.
Dupree actually worked himself into shape — running and throwing and catching the ball — and received medical clearance to play. As it turned out, he didn’t play again, but the point was made: He made the comeback.
Along the way he developed a career goal of working in physical therapy, and to that end he has worked as a wellness coach at the downtown Richmond YMCA and become a regular volunteer at Camp No Limits, a summer camp in Connecticut for children with limb loss and limb differences. There, he has become inspired by “the kids” — “the 12-year-olds have twice as much energy as I do,” he said with a laugh — and by the broadening experience. He discovered sled hockey, his first encounter with an adaptive sport. Though he loved the sport, sled hockey is not big in central Virginia, so he couldn’t find a team when he came home. Ultimately, he found wheelchair basketball. Even though he doesn’t use a wheelchair in daily life, he is eligible to play because of his limb loss. He began on a youth team and eventually graduated to the Richmond Rim Riders, an adult team sponsored by Sportable.
The game was a little fast for him at first.
“It’s a wheelchair with no brakes, and the wheels are slanted so it goes a little faster and turns a lot quicker,” he said. “It’s a lot going on to shoot, dribble and push the wheelchair at the same time.”
Though he’s relatively new to the sport, word of Dupree’s athleticism caught the attention of the Edinboro University team staff, and now he will be a student involved in coursework that he hopes will lead to work in physical therapy and maybe coaching. He will enter Edinboro — which happens to be where Lawrence played basketball almost 40 years ago (and who says he found out about his alma mater’s interest in Dupree from Dupree himself) — as a freshman, though having taken classes at John Tyler Community College and South University he hopes to have enough credits to graduate in less than four years.
He also hopes his play at Edinboro might lead to an opportunity to compete in the Paralympics.
That’s if he can deal with living in a place that receives an average of more than 8 feet of snow a year.
“I like snow,” he said, “but I’ve never experienced that much snow before.”
For all he’s been through, it might seem a tiny blip on the scale of inconveniences.
His first impressions of Edinboro?
“It’s awesome,” he said.
The tables in the exercise room were laden with food: fruit and veggies, chips and salsa, and cupcakes were frosted with red and white icing — the Edinboro colors. The balloons were red and white, too, in honor of the Fighting Scots.
The Gait Center has become a home-away-from-home for Dupree in recent years — a favorite hang-out even when he didn’t have an appointment — that it was only natural to hold his scholarship signing ceremony there. In attendance were his family and friends, including Robin Yoder, an athlete and social worker who lost a leg to cancer, rehabbed at The Gait Center and, through many ups and downs, is back doing triathlons. She said Dupree has sought her out for advice. Recently, he told her about the Edinboro offer. It’s a long way from home, but she told him, “This is your ticket.”
“This is your opportunity,” she told him. “It may not come back around. You have to take a chance when you get one.”
She added, “We are so proud of him. He’s amazing.”
The past year has been particularly difficult for Dupree, who lost his grandmother last December. He lived with her, and she’s the one who often would drive him to school and to therapy appointments before he acquired a car.
“I got a car in October, and my grandmother passed away in December,” he said. “She helped me so much to get where I am. Any time I think about giving up on even something as little as a basketball play, I think about her and that motivates me.”
He also is motivated by the responsibility of being a good role model for his six younger brothers (between his mother and father) by his words and actions. He has started an organization, Protect My Brother, as a way to raise awareness of the issues of gun and domestic violence.
”I want to educate people that these senseless crimes are only hurting mankind,” he said.
He plans to hold community events, such as wheelchair basketball games, and raise money to donate to places such as the trauma unit at VCU Medical Center, where he was treated. He would eventually like to have it registered as an official nonprofit so that he can “reach out to more people and continue striving to make our world a safer place.”
Meantime, he is making his mark one step at a time. The young amputee who couldn’t wait to get started on the almost unimaginable task of learning to walk again and years ago would watch those who went before him for motivation and assurance is now the one others look to for inspiration.
“Every time Cor’Rales Dupree walks through the door,” Lawrence said, “looking like it’s a piece cake — Walking’s nothing! — our new patients sitting there trying to figure out how to make this happen say, ‘I want to be like that kid! I want to walk like he walks!’
“I tell him, ‘Every time you come in here, you’re therapy for everyone else in here.’”