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Column: Athletic dreams denied or realized in an instant

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Mon. April 1, 2013 | John C. Cotey | Email

Almost the instant Kevin Ware came tumbling down Sunday night, his right leg folding like a brochure and the bone pushing through the skin, Vanderbilt quarterback Josh Grady thought of Ronnie Thomas.

Across the internet, fans chimed in that the Louisville guard’s injury was horrific and stomach churning and the most gruesome anyone had ever seen.

Except Grady.

He tweeted that he has seen worse. And others agreed.

In 2010, the then-Armwood High School quarterback threw a screen pass to Thomas, just a freshman but maybe the best college prospect on a team loaded with them.

Thomas caught the ball, juked two defenders and started to head upfield.

Then, it happened.

“Hip to foot,” Thomas told me in October, “my leg just fell asleep.”

Thomas’ leg, like Ware’s, went in directions it’s not supposed to. Ligaments and muscles tore away from the bone, and he lay there on the Orlando Citrus Bowl Field.

Sunday, it was easy for Grady — and many of the Hawks who were there that gray and misty afternoon in Orlando — to flash back.

When a trainer threw a towel over Ware’s leg to shield it from the view of everyone nearby, including Ware, it was reminiscent of Armwood coach Sean Callahan draping himself over Thomas’ mangled limb.

And when Ware’s Cardinal teammates cried and consoled each other, it was easy to recall wide receiver Alvin Bailey screaming for the trainers, crying as he stood over his fallen teammate.

I thought of Thomas, too, when Ware went down.

I was there, at that state title game, shooting video for Friday Night Rewind, a weekly internet football show, and had the misfortune to record the injury.

Like Ware’s, it occurred innocuously. Thomas wasn’t touched. He just crumbled.

I remember the hush of the crowd. And how after I showed the play to those around me who asked to see it, they wished they hadn’t.

I’m not going to argue with Grady or Bailey about which injury was more gruesome. They lived through Thomas’, know what they saw and what they heard and how it felt, as only teammates and brothers can.

It broke their hearts.

Thomas never played again.

He was only a sophomore. He had nerve damage that never healed, and he never had a chance at a college scholarship, to follow a dream he’d had since he was a little boy.

I don’t know if Ware will be all right, but he’ll have the best trainers helping him rehabilitate. And if that doesn’t work, he has a scholarship he can turn into a college degree.

That makes it easy to agree with Grady.

Not long after Ware’s injury — when thinking of opportunities that sometimes slip through the grasp of local athletes — news got out about another former local prep star who will try to place a firm grip around the one just afforded him.

Jose Fernandez, the former Alonso High School star pitcher drafted 14th overall in 2011, was added to the Marlins’ roster and will make his major-league debut Sunday in New York against the Mets.

Because of injuries to other pitchers, the Marlins were left with little choice but to throw Fernandez, the No. 5-rated prospect in all of baseball, into the majors, despite the fact he has never pitched above Class A.

The surprising move was greeted with derision by many skeptical baseball fans, who see this as a too-fast and way-too-desperate move by the beleaguered Marlins, who might be putting one of their top prospects at risk to compensate for the criticism being leveled at them after a dreadful offseason.

They make valid points. Take, for example, David Clyde, the one-time wonder kid who was used up by the attendance-starved Texas Rangers as a teenager.

For those hoping for the best, there’s always former Hillsborough High standout Dwight Gooden.

Fernandez, who came to the United States after fleeing Cuba, is 20 years old with just one season of Class A ball under his belt.

Gooden was 19 when he was promoted by the Mets, with just one season of Class A ball under his belt.

Gooden, of course, went on to make history, and the all-star team, by winning 17 games, then followed that up with one of the greatest seasons in major league history in 1985.

At the age of 20, in two seasons, Gooden had won 41 games — and a Cy Young.

The former Terrier never achieved that level of success again, but was it because he was rushed to the majors too soon? Or just unprepared to handle everything that came with his success?

Either way, the Fernandez move is surprising.

But it’s easy to cheer anyone getting the opportunity he’s always dreamed of.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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