SEFFNER — Ronnie Thomas remembers the pain.
The ache of knowing he will never play football again.
The wrenching in the pit of his stomach as he realized his fate.
He remembers it like it was yesterday, because it was.
“Twitter, Facebook, not a day goes by someone is not writing me asking if I’m going to play football again. People I don’t even know sometimes,” he says, as his eyes drift to the wall decorated with newspaper articles about Armwood High School’s state football championships.
A few seconds pass, and Thomas shakes his head.
“I’m not even exaggerating,’’ he says, forcing a smile. “Every day.”
• • •
Thomas is a senior, the No. 5 he once wore as a can’t-miss wide receiver now just a sticker on the front of Alvin Bailey and Leon McQuay III’s helmets as a way to honor their friend.
He works two jobs at Ambercrombie & Fitch and McDonald’s in the school’s on-the-job training program.
He is trying to find his way in the world without football, though he would rather not.
The jobs are okay; they provide a paycheck and a nice discount on some sharp-looking clothes.
And there’s music.
He sings and McQuay drops the beats as the two collaborate in their free time. He thinks Southern California and its music program might be a good college choice next fall, but it’s hard to look that far ahead when you can’t stop looking back.
“One minute you’re playing football, and the next minute …what happened,’’ he says.
When coach Sean Callahan saw Thomas right before his freshman year, he immediately thought the NFL might be in his future. Bailey says he would have had at least 30-40-50 scholarship offers by now.
“I’m still in disbelief,’’ Thomas says. “I think we all thought we were going to go to college and the NFL. That was the plan.”
• • •
In 2010, Thomas was Armwood’s next big thing. The man. That dude.
He was part of the Big 3, with Bailey and McQuay, arguably the best players in Tampa Bay for their age.
That sophomore season, Thomas led the Hawks with 628 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.
“Ronnie was real good,’’ says McQuay III, one of the country’s most sought-after safeties. “He was fast, could catch everything. He had more colleges calling him than I did.”
Then, on a misty Saturday afternoon at the Orlando Citrus Bowl in the Class 4A state championship game, quarterback Josh Grady dropped back and threw a screen pass to Thomas.
A split second later his world changed forever. “Hip to foot, my leg just fell asleep,” Thomas says.
After catching the ball and juking two defenders, with nothing but green grass in front of him, Thomas stepped on the side of his foot.
His body followed, crashing down over the knee.
He remembers this feeling of drowning; Bailey standing over him, crying and yelling for the trainers; Callahan laying over him and covering his mangled leg so no one else had to see it — “It was bad, it was real bad,” Callahan says — and his parents leaving the stands to come to him.
• • •
This is usually the part of the story where the young football player fights his way back from a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus to make a dramatic return to the field.
But rehab, which was going to require a Herculean effort due to the severity of the injury, did not go well. Maybe Thomas didn’t attack it like he should have, or maybe he should have worn his brace more frequently, or maybe his injury was just so serious that he never had a chance.
As the rehab wore on with limited results, Thomas’ spirit waned. Wearing a special splint, he tried track in the spring, but surrendered after three days, unable to trust his knee. The nerves in his foot still haven’t come back to life. They may never, leaving him unable to lift his foot, unable to run, only gallop.
After a second surgery last spring, he visited his doctor and was told: “I think you should start playing a different sport, like chess.’’
He told Bailey, still shaken by the news. “I feel like I blacked out and didn’t hear anything else he said,” Bailey says. “Chess? At first I was just mad. It was very emotional.”
• • •
Thomas hasn’t lost all hope, but he is hanging on to threads.
This past summer, he tried to talk his dad into flying him out of the country to have stem cell treatments on his foot.
“I heard it’s been working,’’ he says.
Dad said no.
He has been to a few Armwood games, the big ones. He tried to get his mother to go to a game, but she told him it would only make her cry.
When he thinks about suiting up just to be on the sideline, he says he dies a little inside.
He knows he should be out there with them, but he roots on Bailey and McQuay from a distance, without any bitterness. “Man, I am so happy for them,’’ he says.
Asked again if he’s considered another path without football, he mentions music again, but “I really want to try that stem cell,’’ he says.
“I really wanna try it.”
Life without football. Maybe, he jokes, when he’s 35.
“I guess I’m still stuck on Plan A.”
• • •
Monday, the friends huddled for a photo. Together again, senior year, on a football field, their smiles and laughter framed by a perfect blue afternoon.
This is how it was supposed to be.
“I remember one day Oregon was here talking to us, and soon as the coach turned around we looked at each other and were like, ‘Bro, if they offer we’re going!’ ” Bailey says. “There’s no doubt, even though we played the same position, we were going to go to the same school.”
The camera is done clicking, and the boys keep laughing and joking.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.