Raymond Thomas sat in the athletic trainer’s cart, his crutches a few feet away as Braden River High School’s varsity football team prepared for the playoffs.
The dynamic tailback couldn’t participate. He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee a few weeks earlier.
Shouldering more of the load in the running game were senior Dexter Hodo and sophomore DeShaun Fenwick. The duo, in conjunction with the passing game, defense and special teams, carried Braden River to three straight playoff wins and to the program’s first state semifinal appearance, against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas on Dec. 4.
“He wished he could have given his right leg to be out there playing against St. Thomas Aquinas,” Braden River offensive coordinator Eric Sanders said.
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While watching his teammates play provided a difficult mental aspect to his rehabilitation from the torn ACL, Thomas underwent the first physical test on Nov. 12.
On that date, Dr. Johnny Gibbs performed surgery at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center. During the surgery, Gibbs used Thomas’ patellar tendon as the source for a graft to repair the ACL.
It also signaled the first step in a rehab program that would enable Thomas to be ready for the 2016 season, Thomas’ last high school football season as a senior.
“I had to learn how to walk again,” Thomas said. “... It was real difficult, because post-surgery I was on crutches for a month, so my leg was getting smaller and smaller. And I’m seeing it get smaller and smaller, so taking that first step walking on it is hesitant, because I don’t want to mess anything up.”
As a kid, Thomas played football in the streets of Palmetto and on the field with the Palmetto Trojans and the Manatee Bulls in youth football.
While with the Bulls, Thomas collected the youth league’s Heisman Trophy award for his skill. He developed toughness in the neighborhood games.
That toughness was being tested from both a mental and physical side. And it started right after the surgery. Players, coaches, friends and family gathered to see Thomas post-surgery. He then left for home, where he needed bed rest for two weeks.
During that time, Thomas relied on Netflix and Xbox One to pass the time and get his mind off the recent surgery. The video game console meant numerous NBA 2K16 and Madden battles with his cousin and Braden River teammate, Terrell Thomas.
“That was my biggest friend,” Raymond Thomas said.
His return didn’t have a set date. The dates on his calendar were steeped in other milestones.
Braden River athletic trainer Chris Gadah broke Thomas’ rehab into three, eight-week phases with sessions occurring three to four times per week at the school.
The first phase focused on range of motion and strengthening after surgery, so he could regain full extension in the right leg.
Thomas started slowly, building into each exercise that would become a focal point in the first phase: straight-leg raises; ankle pumps; moving his patella and his kneecap for range of motion; quad sets for flexion and relaxation of the quad muscle; and several closed kinetic exercises.
“Those were very critical in the whole rehab process,” Gadah said. “After those first two months, he has this whole range of motion and he can hit the weights, and now you’re gradually getting that quad muscle stronger.”
Meanwhile at home, Thomas needed help from his family, in particular his father, to get out of bed and into the shower.
“I stayed up with him most of the time at night making sure he’s OK,” Raymond Thomas Sr. said.
On a Monday afternoon in January — long after students had departed for home — off-season weight training was taking place for football players.
Thomas, wearing a brace and no longer needing crutches, hopped onto a training table in a separate room at the school. In Week 10 of his rehab, the room had become a second home.
Thomas started by lifting on his toes before moving away from the table and engaging in balance and squat exercises. A light ankle weight was attached and he began catching a 5- to 6-pound medicine ball while doing squats. The last exercise for the session is focused on lunges.
“Emphasizing that strength component on getting that quad muscle and the hamstring muscles back,” Gadah said.
There was so much emphasis on strengthening his quads and his hamstring in the early part of Thomas’ rehab because those muscles act together to produce leg strength for walking or running. The medical term is co-contracting muscles. In practice, it means when the quad flexes as part of a person’s stride, the hamstring relaxes. When the hamstring flexes, the quad relaxes. Since they work together, both must be strengthened equally so they can work in balance.
Gadah also said it was important to continue adding different exercises so the quad muscle didn’t plateau during the rehab.
The gradual increase in weight to the barbells he used while doing squats and the addition of hamstring curls and leg extensions to his rehab routine rebuilt Thomas’ quad and hamstring muscles to the point he could start the third phase of Gadah’s rehab program. Agility and speed drills were added to Thomas’ workload. Both characteristics are essential features in Braden River’s offensive scheme and Thomas’ natural abilities.
The training room was no longer the go-to place for Thomas’ rehab.
Instead, the Pirates’ running back was with teammates in the weight room focusing on leg curls at light weights of 50 and 60 pounds. Performing that minimal weight training continued the strengthening part of his right leg that was damaged with the torn ACL.
In the gym next to the weight room, Gadah set six cones roughly 5 to 10 yards apart. While other students played basketball, Thomas sprinted forward and backward before mixing in lateral shuffles, over/under runs, diagonal sprinting and hitting each cone to turn and jet forward. The lateral shuffles, over/under runs and diagonal sprints are designed to test the knee’s stability and strengthen its ability to withstand football movement typically imposed on the knee by playing the game. The drills can also reveal other issues or prompt a go-slower approach if they cause pain.
“When we started doing the agility and running drills, he was pushing himself a lot harder than when he was doing the regular rehab,” Gadah said. “He was pushing himself, don’t get me wrong, but when you took him out of the training room and put him in that scenario where he’s making cuts and he’s forward, playing his position, he was pushing himself a lot harder.”
And that pushing put Thomas on the cusp of getting back on the field.
About this series
This is the second of a four-part series chronicling Braden River High School running back Raymond Thomas’ recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. We shadowed Thomas through the process to highlight a typical rehab and recovery process from a torn ACL.
Coming Tuesday: The long months of work pay off as Thomas returns to the field.