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An Army vet and a coma survivor found friendship through science. Now they're graduating college together

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© Gary Middendorf/Chicago Tribune/TNS Terin D'amico (left) helps Dreyvon McCray with his lab coat in the Chemistry Lab at Governors…

By Donna Vickroy, Daily Southtown, Chicago Tribune

Around the time Dreyvon McCray was relearning how to walk and talk and live in a world in which a kid can be beaten into a coma over a cell phone, Terin D'amico was jumping out of airplanes and pondering a life after the military.

In 2016, their paths crossed in the cafeteria at Governors State University.

D'amico, a middle-aged "nontraditional" student, approached a group of other students who were eating lunch and asked if he could join them. They said yes.

You might say the friendship that subsequently formed between McCray and D'amico developed organically.

"We both love science, particularly chemistry," D'amico said.

But there was more to the bond between the 52-year-old father of three and the 25-year-old survivor of a horrific attack that made headlines 11 years ago. They had a kind of rapport, a similar sense of humor and a shared need to help others along the way.

Both men would spend the next few semesters attending class, hanging in the lab and mastering a subject that, D'amico says, "can be very humbling."

They went over lab reports and ate lunch together, D'amico brown-bagging it and McCray pestering him for his pretzel crisps.

"That's when he started calling me his fourth son," McCray said.

On May 19, McCray and D'amico will cross the stage together at graduation. D'amico will help McCray, who uses a walker, negotiate the platform.

It is a bittersweet time for the students because it also means afterward, they'll be parting ways, D'amico heading to Notre Dame University and McCray either staying at GSU or heading into Chicago to attend DePaul University.

"Dreyvon has been my lab partner for the last year and half," D'amico said. "Typically you have different partners in every class but we've hung out together for a long time."

At times over the past school year, they spent more hours with each other on the University Park campus than they did with their own families.

"We spent one entire spring break on the second floor of the F-wing," D'amico said.

Among their proudest moments was when they collaborated on an organic synthesis project, creating a new compound from two others, he said.

They also spent many hours in the GSU tutoring lab, where D'amico worked and McCray often just hung out.

Through it all, both found their calling. McCray switched from math to chemistry, and D'amico, who had dabbled with nursing and the trades, chose the same.

As much as D'amico helped McCray understand formulas and molecular properties, McCray helped D'amico appreciate the value of perseverance.

McCray, whose physical disabilities require him to use a walker, said, "My whole life has been a tough struggle."

Being born three months premature, he said, was the first hurdle he had to overcome, and he did, going onto become an honor student at Longwood Academy in Chicago's Roseland community.

The second challenge came in the summer between his freshman and sophomore year of high school.

On June 29, 2007, while he was waiting for a bus at 103rd and Halsted, McCray said, "I was jumped for my cellphone."

The blow to the head, delivered by a brick, put him in a coma and caused extensive damage. He is still dealing with the residuals of the Traumatic Brain Injury.

Though many months of therapy enabled him to relearn how to walk, talk and eat again, the injuries left him with scoliosis and a shunt in his head.

His physical disabilities limit his career choices because working in a lab can be demanding, he said. "But I plan to become a teacher, a professor."

Despite his trauma, McCray prides himself on his positive attitude, something others, including receptionist Nancy Maurer can attest to.

"He is a ray of sunshine, always smiling, always on the go," Maurer said. "I ask him what he's going to do over the weekend and he always says, 'I'll be studying.'

McCray said having D'amico as a buddy these past few years has helped him academically and spiritually.

"To have Terin as a friend means a lot because older people don't always look at young people as friends," he said.

D'amico has often given him a ride home and has met his family, he said.

"At times he's been like a father figure," McCray said, "but he's also my friend. But he can be very sarcastic," referring to D'amico's propensity for using idioms and witty comebacks.

Friendship, McCray said, "is not about age or race or anything like that. It's about your spirits and personalities getting along with each other."

D'amico echoes the sentiment and the value of it.

"Drey has helped me in so many ways, too," he said. "He always has a positive attitude despite all he's been through. He's got an innocent heart. He reminds me of Fred Rogers (of "Mr. Rogers" fame), who is my hero."

As a nontraditional student, D'amico said, "you hope to make friends in college that will stay with you for a lifetime and I'm sure this will."

D'amico, who grew up in Washington state and joined the Army at age 18, has a younger brother who went straight to college and earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry.

So I'm following in my younger brother's footsteps," he said.

Though D'amico is currently moving with his wife, Sandy, from Country Club Hills to South Bend, Ind., in preparation of the start of his own doctoral classes, he said he expects McCray, who lives in Dolton, to visit him often so he can show him around the lab there.

"I'm going into medicinal chemistry," D'amico said. "The guy I'll be working for over the summer is one of the editors of the journal of medicinal chemistry."

Robin Sweeney, GSU's director of Student Disability Services, said McCray and D'amico have been "a fixture in the Student Success Commons.

"Before they part ways, the friends have one last collaboration - walking across the stage together," she said.

SDS is working with commencement marshals to make sure that McCray has a seat on the end of the aisle with easy access to his walker, she said.

"When his name is called," she added, "D'amico will escort McCray across the stage."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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Offbeat - U.S. Daily News: An Army vet and a coma survivor found friendship through science. Now they're graduating college together
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