James Nunno’s Improbable Comeback Highlighted by ’09 Big West Deca Title

Courtesy: Frank Stranzl, Cal Poly Media Relations

May 11, 2009   

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — James Nunno had great expectations for his senior season at Cal Poly. The decathlete envisioned a second career Big West title, a 7,000-point performance and a trip to the NCAA Championships.

That 2008 season was supposed to be special. What Nunno didn’t know was that he would have to wait one more year to see his goals come to fruition.

One year later has come and Nunno is now the No. 20-ranked decathlete in the nation at 7,142 points, an NCAA provisional mark. He is the favorite heading into this weekend’s Big West Conference Multi-Event Championships hosted by UC Irvine (LIVE STATS) and is closing in on former teammate Jon Takahashi’s Cal Poly record of 7,307. Nunno will also make his first trip to historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. for the NCAA West Regional to compete in the pole vault on May 29-30.

A fierce competitor and dedicated worker, Nunno was geared up for a huge sendoff in 2008. He had a breakout year in 2007 that ended with his first conference title, a 6,844-point effort in the decathlon that gave the soon-to-be fifth-year senior added motivation for a summer training montage.

The pole vault was Nunno’s top event in the decathlon, but one that he was never perfectly comfortable with. On a warm, sunny day in March, he took off down the runway, planted his pole and drove his knee into the air. When he tried to transition to a vertical position, the pole snapped and struck him in the abdomen.

Hours later, Nunno was in the hospital facing a life-or-death surgery to remove a ruptured spleen.

"I looked at the nurse and said, ‘So I feel like I’ve got two options here: either have the surgery and live or not have the surgery and die,’" Nunno said. "She told me, ‘Well, that’s about right.’ So I opted for surgery."

It was an easy decision, but not one without consequences. Nunno’s senior season, one that held so much promise for a student-athlete who bled Cal Poly green and gold growing up on a ranch 20 miles away in Templeton, Calif., was over.

Doctors at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center underwent exploratory surgery to see if Nunno’s spleen could be repaired, but the damage was too severe. The spleen was removed and Nunno spent the next seven days in the hospital recovering after losing three pints of blood to internal bleeding.

Cal Poly’s director of track and field Terry Crawford and multi-event coach Jack Hoyt were frequent visitors during those seven days. Both had experienced one too many tragedies for a lifetime earlier that season when incoming freshman decathlete Morrey Brown drowned days before beginning classes at Cal Poly.

"Fortunately, I knew James was in the hospital and saw him prior to the surgery so I felt he was in good hands. When I got to the emergency room for Morrey, it was too late," Hoyt said. "That was a horrible experience and still haunts me. Had James not got to the hospital he would have died. It would have been catastrophic."

Brown moved to San Luis Obispo several weeks ahead of time to setup his off-campus apartment with current Mustang Ian Rice and another decathlete training at Cal Poly, Chris Randolph. Nunno only knew Brown briefly, but almost immediately struck up a bond with the aspiring multi-event talent from Kent, Wash.

"After Morrey passed away, I told his parents that I would win the Big West decathlon that year for the both of us," an emotional Nunno said. "It was crushing when several months later I was in the hospital knowing that I couldn’t live up to my promise. I’m just hoping for the opportunity to make it up to Morrey this year."

Nunno lost three pints of blood and was stitched up from waist to upper abdomen. His abdominal muscles were sliced through during surgery and would take time to mend. Over the next two months, Nunno couldn’t run, jump or throw, let alone carry his books to class.

In March 2008, Nunno was in the best shape of his life. Two months later, it was just the opposite.

"It was really difficult to think about because the week before the injury, I was easily the strongest, fastest that I had ever been and by the end of my weeklong stay in the hospital, I had lost between 15-20 pounds of body mass, which was pretty much all muscle," Nunno said. "I looked like death."

With begrudging patience, Nunno continued to wait out his recovery period for fear of suffering a major setback. Better to take it slow than risk another trip to the hospital, he thought.

The patience paid off. Nunno was able to take short, slow jogs after three months. By late summer, he could lift light weights and began pushing his limits with core strength exercises. After six months, Nunno was nearly fully recovered and back to spending countless hours on the track preparing for a sixth year of eligibility that was granted to him by the NCAA.

"Some people told me, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you’re going to come back and do it again after what you’ve been through,’ but it never really crossed my mind not to. I still owe a conference title to Morrey Brown."