It was a routine play in a pivotal late-season football game.
Jaylin Austin maneuvered his way from the slot, took a handoff from quarterback Jacob Huesman and darted around Braden River’s massive offensive line as it blocked toward the Pirates’ sideline.
Teammate and heralded junior running back Raymond Thomas was leading him, ready to spring Austin for a touchdown with a block on Palmetto Tigers defensive back Mike Collins.
Thomas made the block. Austin scored the touchdown. And Braden River clinched the Class 7A-District 11 championship with a 35-0 victory that October night.
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But something else happened in that moment — something that altered Braden River’s backfield dynamic, the cornerstone of the Pirates’ offensive punch.
Raymond Thomas, with 16 total touchdowns and 794 rushing yards, tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Braden River had two regular-season games and possibly a deep playoff ahead. But Thomas would not travel that path with the Pirates. For him, the lonely road to recovery and return for his senior season would take time, self-belief and patience.
“The toughest part is thinking about how you know it’s going to hurt, but you do it anyway to get better,” Thomas said of his nearly 10-month detour between meaningful football activity.
Thomas had been shredding opposing defenses with speed, quick cuts and tenacious running during a breakout season.
There was the 78-yard burst to the end zone on the opening play of the program’s regular-season victory against visiting Venice that maintained an unbeaten regular season. There was the 104-yard season-opening effort on nine carries against Bayshore that set the tone for Braden River’s run to a state semifinal.
“In the two seasons that Raymond’s been here, I think he’s played in 17 or 18 games, scored 36 touchdowns,” Braden River head coach Curt Bradley said at that time. “Raymond was the home-run hitter that can take it 70 or 80 yards.”
Following the program’s first victory against Venice, which gave it control of its playoff fate, the Pirates played host to county rival Palmetto. It was Friday, Oct. 23, and a win meant Braden River would secure a second straight district championship.
Both sides of Pirate Stadium were filled with boisterous fans. Braden River supporters saw their team march down the field on the Pirates’ opening possession; Thomas scored on a 9-yard run.
Then Braden River’s fortunes changed.
Braden River lined up in the shotgun 17 yards away from the end zone. Austin motioned toward Huesman for the sweep behind Thomas’ lead block. As Thomas separated from the initial contact, his leg buckled and he hit the ground.
Most eyes were fixated on Austin getting around the corner and heading into the end zone to give the Pirates a 14-0 lead.
Thomas’ father, Raymond Sr., saw something else.
“When I saw him fall, I was thinking, ‘What happened? Maybe he just tripped or something,’” Raymond Thomas Sr. said. “Then I saw him grabbing his leg. I thought he just bumped his knee or something; it ain’t that bad. I know him. ... But then when I saw him ... calling the guys over, the coaches over — I never saw him do that before since he was a kid at 5 years old. So I knew something was wrong. That was a heartbreaker. That scared the hell out of me. I knew something was wrong.”
Huesman, who was a senior in 2015 and is at Division I Appalachian State now, ran to Thomas to congratulate him on the block, before telling him to get up.
“I’m like, ‘I can’t,’” Thomas recalled. “... That’s when I knew it was serious, because me as a person I never really felt pain and I’d fight through it, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”
With 1:38 left in the first quarter, Braden River’s star tailback remained on the ground. After a delay, Thomas was helped to the sideline.
The Pirates scored twice more in the second quarter to take a 28-0 lead. On the sideline, Braden River athletic trainer Chris Gadah and Dr. Avi Kumar, of Coastal Orthopedics, evaluated Thomas on the field and determined it was a possible torn ACL. Gadah said he was 100 percent certain the next day after watching the game film.
Braden River’s coaches, Huesman, Thomas’ father and Thomas were more optimistic because Thomas spent halftime riding an exercise bike before standing with crutches at the end of the game.
“With an ACL (torn), you can do a lot of things going forwards and backwards,” Gadah said. “But if you’re going to go side-to-side and move laterally, yeah, your ACL is going to give out.”
Since an official medical diagnosis hadn’t been determined, Thomas underwent an MRI the following Wednesday.
Family, some coaches and Huesman, who had formed a close bond with Thomas, learned the bad news.
Thomas addressed the rest of the team on Friday, Oct. 30 as they were preparing to finish the district schedule at Sarasota High. After listening to the emotional speech, Braden River dispatched the Sailors and St. Petersburg Gibbs to wrap up a second straight undefeated regular season.
“The team definitely rallied around the fact that we just lost a huge player,” Huesman said. “To see him go down like that, we wanted to fill that gap to show him that we’re still going to do this. Even though you’re not here, we’re still going to fill that prophecy of ‘let’s take it far.’”
Around campus, questions abounded about whether the Pirates could still go as far as they were expecting to in the playoffs without Thomas.
Huesman’s close friends who didn’t play football asked him weekly.
“You can’t say much other than, ‘Yeah, (Dexter) Hodo is going to be playing back there now,’” Huesman said. “You don’t really know how it’s going to go, especially right after it happened.”
The Pirates, with a new-look backfield, began preparing for a deep playoff push. Thomas readied himself for surgery and a long rehab process.
To our readers
This is the first of a four-part series chronicling Braden River High School running back Raymond Thomas’ recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament over the past 10 months. His surgery and rehab underscore how athletes can come back from an injury that was once career-ending and untreatable.
Coming Monday: A long, slow recovery process begins with surgery.