He wasn’t stuck in bed playing video games or watching Netflix waiting for his leg to strengthen enough to walk.
He wasn’t held upright with crutches, either.
Raymond Thomas was standing, watching and waiting.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his high school football season with two games remaining in the 2015 regular season. Now his rehab was almost over. His getting cleared medically to resume football activities was on the horizon.
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The Braden River High School junior stood among teammates on the patchy grass along the visiting sideline at St. Petersburg Lakewood’s football field for the Pirates’ spring game. Neither a warm, humid night nor his exclusion from the game could sour Thomas’ mood on May 19.
“You don’t want to rush it,” Thomas said.
The Pirates blew away Lakewood behind the power running of DeShaun Fenwick, the explosive running from rising sophomore Knowledge McDaniel and an opportunistic defense. Basically, Braden River picked up right where it left off in the 2015 Class 7A state semifinals.
But one key piece, arguably the team’s most dynamic offensive weapon, wasn’t ready yet.
He soon would be.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot to prove for myself and for others,” Thomas said. “... I just feel like I’ve got to go out there and do what I always do and bring my ‘A’ game.”
After the spring game, Thomas kept strengthening the right knee that was injured roughly seven months earlier. Lifting weights and going through Braden River’s summer workout plan accomplished that. Then, on May 31, came the news the program and Thomas had been waiting for: He was cleared to resume football activities.
He was limited to non-contact activities, though. That final restriction was removed on Aug. 2 when Thomas met with his doctor, satisfying the requirements for returning to play.
“It’s a big relief, because that’s what I was waiting on the whole time,” Thomas said. “Now I finally got it, I can do anything now.”
On the strength of his rehab process, Thomas was rewarded with two college offers. Northern Iowa offered Thomas on May 26, while South Dakota followed on June 30.
“One of the words I use most to describe him to college coaches when they ask about him, I describe him as fearless,” said Braden River offensive coordinator Eric Sanders, who played quarterback at Northern Iowa. “He’s absolutely fearless in any situation on the field and really in any situation in life. Nothing scares him.”
And that was true roughly 10 months after his injury.
Kickoff Classic return
On Aug. 19, Braden River’s offense took the field for its first possession in its annual preseason game. Thomas was in the backfield, getting his first game action since being medically cleared.
Head coach Curt Bradley views the contest like an NFL exhibition game, meaning he doesn’t risk his starters in a game that doesn’t determine a playoff berth or hold regular-season implications. And Thomas is a valuable piece of the 2016 Pirates’ campaign.
“He’s going to have the same big role this year,” Sanders said. “He’s going to be our biggest playmaker, a guy that we can move around in different roles and do a lot of different things to create havoc on the defense.”
Louis Colosimo, an IMG Academy transfer, took the snap, having won the battle to replace quarterback Jacob Huesman, who graduated and is playing at Division I Appalachian State. Colosimo handed off to Thomas, who turned upfield toward a hole created by the offensive line. The hole closed quickly, and Thomas was hit and dropped without gaining a yard.
“It felt great just knowing I can be able to be out there and feeling that contact,” Thomas said after the game.
To the outcome, the play meant nothing. To Thomas and his teammates, it meant everything. It signaled the return of Braden River’s star running back from a torn ACL in October. It ended Thomas’ time as a spectator, watching his teammates reach the Class 7A state semifinals against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas or going through spring practice. It marked the completion of the painstaking rehab.
“He handled it like a man,” Sanders said. “I can’t tell you how proud we are of him, how he’s handled the whole adversity of coming back from an ACL injury and watching his team go onto the final four. Because you can’t imagine how hard that is to watch your teammates go.”
A week later in the regular-season opener, Thomas dismissed any lingering doubt others held when he ran for 163 yards on 10 carries, which included a 67-yard touchdown.
“He’s back,” Braden River head coach Curt Bradley said. “It’s great to see him back. He’s such a special player, but he’s even more a special young man. To see him out there, break loose a couple times and make some moves only he can make, was great to see.”
About this series
This is the third of a four-part series chronicling Braden River High School running back Raymond Thomas’ recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. We shadowed Thomas over many months to highlight a typical rehab and recovery process from a torn ACL.
Coming Wednesday: Local high school athletes with torn ACLs often end up at Coastal Orthopedics for treatment and rehab.