"He didn't have really very good credentials from high school or his first semester, and he was hurt, too," McDonnell said. "The one thing I did notice was 4.00 grade-point average. He's a big-time student, so I thought, 'Hey, he's not going to hurt.'"
Gunn, born in Bethesda, Md., into a Navy family the day after Christmas in 1982, lived in Virginia, Boston, upstate New York and in Washington, D.C., three times before spending half his life in Idaho Falls.
He ran through air thinned by 4,700-foot elevations and brutal winters on the edge of the Rocky Mountains.
Now he's running through walls for the Razorbacks.
McDonnell gave Gunn a chance.
In return, Gunn gave McDonnell a reason to stay in coaching.
Gunn left Clemson with a broken foot initially misdiagnosed by trainers, a heated final exchange with his coach and confusion about how much farther to pursue the sport.
When Gunn runs his final cross country race for No. 2 Arkansas in the 2004 NCAA Cross Country Championships on Monday at Indiana State, he'll leave a legacy as a classic McDonnell overachiever, the type who keeps the 66-year-old coach feeling young.
He set personal bests all season and has finished in the Razorbacks' top-five three times this year, including two ninth-place finishes at the Chile Pepper and Southeastern Conference Championships, both in Fayetteville.
Gunn's best mile in high school was 4:37. Now he cranks out six straight miles in less than five minutes each over a championship course.
"What happens with a program like ours is you have a guy that in another program would never excel," McDonnell said. "But those guys are coming in saying, 'I'm going to be a part of this team that is going to win and I'm going to be a member of it.'
"They'll step it up 100 percent better than if they're on a losing team. If they're on a losing team and they're not No. 1 or 2, what is there to hurt for? Matt Gunn is a prime example of that. He'll bleed his last drop of blood for the team
"Those are the guys that keep me in coaching."
Gunn was momentarily speechless -- a rarity for a future lawyer -- at the notion he gave something back to the coach who has given him and so many others so much.
"Wow! Things like that coming from such a legend that I look up to and would do anything for is an amazing compliment," said Gunn after soaking it in. "To have him say those things about me ...
"If Coach can look on me like that, then I've accomplished everything I've wanted to regardless of what happens on Monday. If I leave here with that legacy, then I'll be a happy and complete Razorback."
Gunn is just a junior in eligibility, but he's a senior on a pre-law track for admission to one of the schools -Columbia, Georgetown, Notre Dame, UCLA, Southern Cal, William & Mary, Boston College, Fordham, Virginia -he's applied to.
With the goal of being an international lawyer, Gunn is working on an honors thesis he received a research grant for and he's well past 150 pages on his way toward 200.
He works, naturally, as a runner, 15 hours a week at a Fayetteville law firm and runs 75-80 miles weekly in practice.
Gunn knows his running career will come to an end after the 2005 outdoor track season, but he'll be able to look back with satisfaction at surviving what he called the "war of attrition" that is the natural weeding-out process of less-than committed athletes.
"It's an amazing feeling," Gunn said. "I never would have imagined coming this far with running. I've improved every year, and if you'd told me four years ago I'd be sitting here with a chance to contribute to a national championship team, I wouldn't have believed you."
Transfer Of Power
McDonnell brought in a talented trio of front-runners - Josphat Boit, Marc Rodrigues and Shawn Forrest -to stack the roster, but a year after making the postseason team almost by default, Gunn has truly earned his way this year and has a once-improbable shot at becoming an All-American.
"He just wants it," said senior teammate Jason Sandfort. "That guy, he is one of the best competitors. You just can't deny how competitive Matt Gunn is. It's a lot of fun being on a team with Matt because you know he's going to be doing everything he can.
"He's going to be right there spilling his guts for the team."
Not everyone can handle the patience necessary to run with McDonnell's program.
"They say, 'Where's the magic wand? Strike me with it,'" McDonnell said. "Those guys aren't going to make it."
Gunn didn't always know he would make it at Arkansas or anywhere else as an athlete.
Clemson was the only school that showed interest, but Gunn quickly found he and distance running in general were afterthoughts at the sprint school that produced 2004 Olympic 200-meter gold medalist Shawn Crawford.
Sidelined with a broken foot, Gunn would either transfer to a school like Harvard and put running on the backburner or try to maximize his potential.
Gunn inquired at Kentucky, a school building a modest reputation in the middle distance events, but was rebuffed.
Monday, Clemson will not be at the NCAA Championships and Gunn beat Kentucky's top runner by 47 seconds, finishing ninth at the SEC Championships on Oct. 30.
Gunn, who became a fan of the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox while living in Boston as a seventh- and eighth-grader, is on a high right now after two of three Super Bowl wins by the Patriots and Boston's surprising and curse-busting run in October to win the World Series for the first time since 1918.
Like Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who pitched with stitches holding together his left ankle in the postseason, Gunn is ready to lay it all on the line for the Razorbacks.
"Schilling was honestly willing to forfeit the rest of his career to win that title for Boston," Gunn said. "If I was in a similar situation, I wouldn't hesitate. If it came down to finishing nationals with a broken leg to win the team title and never running another step, I wouldn't hesitate.
"These guys have been there for me and I wouldn't hesitate to do something like that for them."
Gunning For A Title
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