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Dalvin Keller: 'If it wasn't for Special Olympics, I would be dead'

LOS ANGELES -- It is not yet noon and already it has been a long day for Dalvin Keller and his Flint, Michigan, volleyball team.

One of the stronger groups in the Special Olympics World Games and determined to medal, its players are bummed after losing their first two games Thursday morning. Adding to the disappointment was the sight of their teammate, John Myers, writhing in pain after injuring his ankle, later diagnosed as a high sprain, in the first game.

Keller himself is gamely limping from a sore knee as he walks through the concourse of UCLA's Pauley Pavilion with his team, which includes Drew Callahan, who had to sit out most of the second game after he sustained a hip pointer diving for a ball.

"He wears a football girdle," Special Olympics Michigan area director Pat Peters says, "but it doesn't help because he's always flying around."

It's a tough, gritty bunch from a tough, gritty city and Keller, 18, shrugs off his discomfort when asked if he's OK. But the sight of his mother, aunt and cousin walking toward him instantly improves his mood, a wide smile spreading across his face as he is enveloped by his mother's embrace.

For her part, India Walker has been a mass of emotion this week after taking an unexpected flight from Michigan to L.A. last Friday night, surprising Dalvin on ESPN's live broadcast of the opening ceremony the following day.

Dalvin thought he was going to be interviewed, but instead was intercepted by his mother in a dead sprint.

"She surprised me," Dalvin says. "She came up right behind me."

At first he ran away before coming back for a hug.

"I asked him, 'Why did you run?'" recalls his mother, who had to take time off from two jobs to make the trip. "And he said, 'Because I didn't believe it was you because you told me you weren't coming.'"

Like many of his teammates, ranging in age from 15-43, this is a rare trip out of Michigan for Dalvin, who took only the second plane flight of his life to get to L.A. Homesickness, says coach Sheila Gafney, has become a common state for her players 10 days into a 13-day excursion.

"For me, it was a rough week, but I can pull through," Dalvin says. "You get the hang of it. They have harder beds here."

One area in which he seems exceedingly comfortable is sharing his story.

Walker says her son would make a good Special Olympics ambassador. "He wants to do something better and positive for his family," she says, "so that's why he likes to do interviews and that kind of stuff, so he can give his family a positive image and let people know, even if he has a disability, he can make it."

Half of the Michigan team, including Dalvin, live in a particularly dangerous section of Flint, and he says matter-of-factly, "If it wasn't for Special Olympics, I would be dead."

Despite a loving and supportive family -- he has a sister, 20, and a brother, 17, whom their mother calls "his brother's keepers" -- the reality of living in an area populated by gangs and violence is as unsettling as Dalvin's words.

"We got on a school bus one day and see a guy's body in a bag," he says of a recent incident. "And one guy got killed at our basketball park right in front of my house. I was like 16 and a guy got killed. My cousin knew him. It's a bad neighborhood. Something has to change."

It's scary, he says, "but if you think about where you live, you're going to see stuff."

He says he does not go out at night and "when you know there's a mean person, don't talk to him because he always has a mean look on his face."

Laurie Potter, a para-educator at Knopf who is with the Michigan team in L.A. and a favorite of Dalvin's along with her husband Dale James Potter, a mental health professional, says even the best intentions can derail people with intellectual disabilities. And Gafney says some of her players "can be easily swayed."

"Sometimes they pick the wrong people because they want to be normal, whatever 'normal' means," Dale Potter says. "Dalvin gets scared, but he buries a lot and you can see the pressure on him."

His mother says she must be constantly vigilant, regardless of Dalvin's generally good judgment.

"I still have to be cautious because he loves his animals and he likes to walk his dogs and I have to be careful of what he does," she says. "But he's just happy and everybody knows him so it's like, 'OK, go on by.' They protect him.

"But it's still a worry. People take advantage of him and I have to intervene. He doesn't like it because he tries to do everything on his own, but I have to go and [monitor] him."

She refers to the recent killing her son talked about, a case involving one of his friends. "It was traumatic because he doesn't understand why," she says. "He knows violence is not the right thing. We talk it out. I told him you have to be careful who your friends are."

Until his mother fought the school district to have her son transferred for ninth grade to Flint's Elmer A. Knopf Learning Center -- a center-based school for students identified as moderately cognitively impaired and autistic -- school was not a place Dalvin had many friends.

"Before he was in regular school, it was too hard," Walker says. "He was trying to fit in and be somebody who he wasn't. He was ashamed of himself because people always made fun of him and called him 'retarded,' 'slow' and all that. So he was always crying and hurt by the way people treated him.

"When he went to [Knopf], he was excited and happy because he could be himself and he didn't have to pretend anymore."

A gifted natural athlete whose favorite sport is basketball, Dalvin also played organized sports for the first time at his new school, where its athletic program is run through Special Olympics.

"When he was in regular school, they would never pick him to participate," Hunter says. "He never got picked to be on any team. ... They just looked at his disability and pushed him to the side and he wasn't going to be able to do it. So now he's here and he's proven everyone who doubted him wrong."

She calls her son "more confident now ... He's not scared to do anything or try anything and he's more loving and understanding."

Dalvin calls his team "my best friends and my brothers," and says Special Olympics "changed my life from being a normal kid from the neighborhood or possibly living on the streets. It changed it to something good in life."

His mom calls him "a superstar," and calls Special Olympics "the best thing that ever happened to him because he's happy.

"That's all a parent really wants, is their kids to be happy," she says. "And his smile brings out everybody's smile."