Sept. 11, 2012
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Chris Thompson didn't need to look at the blue toy car in his backpack to know it was going to be an emotional week.
The senior running back didn't have to think about why he has that toy; why he was so sweetly gifted that blue car 11 months ago. He didn't have to recall how far he has come physically, mentally and emotionally in that time and why he has kept that toy nearby ever since.
Thompson didn't have to think about the toy's symbolism, how it represents an event in his life that he will never be able to push into the furthest recesses of his mind, just out of the realm of easy recall and remembrance.
He didn't have to roll that toy around in his hands, looking at its hood, its roof and its four wheels to know that he's finally about to come full circle.
No, Thompson just had to look at Florida State's schedule. Moments after the Seminoles defeated Savannah State in a rain-shortened game, his attention -- like that of his teammates and coaches -- turned to the 'Noles' conference opener the following Saturday against Wake Forest.
But it was different for Thompson. It was time to step over some invisible line, some transparent threshold he hadn't yet crossed on a long road to recovery from a viscious injury. It was time to focus on an opponent that represents the reason why that toy car is always within reach.
Because the last time he played the Demon Deacons he wasn't just beaten, he was literally broken.
3RD-AND-1 ... AND DONE
Thompson knows what he should have done in the first quarter of FSU's game at Wake Forest last season. He should have followed lead blocks from David Spurlock and Lonnie Pryor and continued on what would have likely been an unimpeded path to a big gain on the ground.
But first and foremost you're taught to move the chains. So when Thompson saw that he could easily pick up a couple of yards on a 3rd-and-1 play by ducking his head and cutting up field, he ignored that little playmaking voice in the back if his head that told him to keep his speed and momentum going to the outside behind his blockers.
"In my mind I'm like, 'OK, I just want to get the first down,'" Thompson said. "But what I should have done was just went outside with those guys, gained about 20, 25 yards or so and I didn't. It wasn't like I [thought] these guys did wrong, it's just now thinking back on it I should have pretty much just trusted them and went outside because they saw the same thing I saw but I decided to do something different."
He gained two yards and earned the first down but it came at a price -- a steep one. Thompson collided with a defender and was bent back in such a way he won't soon forget.
After being carted off the field, it was determined that FSU's starting tailback -- a speedster that had never sustained a major injury despite always being the smallest player on the field -- had sustained fractures to the T-5 and T-6 vertebrae in his back as a result of the tackle.
He mercifully still had movement in his extremities but his season -- and possibly his career -- was over on Oct. 8, 2011.
"It was scary seeing him like that," said sophomore Devonta Freeman, who has been close with Thompson since he enrolled in classes in January of 2011. "To see your brother go down like that is something you don't wanna see."
THE BLUE TOY CAR
Florida State lost that game -- its fourth in six years against the Demon Deacons and third in a row during the 2011 season -- but that didn't matter at the time.
What mattered was Thompson's health. He was transported to a North Carolina hospital where he'd spend the night and not return to Tallahassee on the team plane. The players were disappointed with the loss but they were also shook up about their fallen teammate on a silent trip back home.
"He's the glue," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "He's not only a great player talent-wise, but he's a glue guy in terms of work ethic and character. What he represents, when you think of a Florida State football player, that's what you want to represent."
Fisher went to see Thompson that night to check on his talented player and show his support. He also brought with him a special gift from a special someone.
Ethan Fisher, the youngest son of Jimbo and his wife Candi, had earlier that year been diagnosed with Fanconi anemia. The Fishers in turn two months earlier announced the creation of The Jimbo and Candi Fisher Kidz 1st Fund to raise awareness and money for research to battle a disease that causes bone-marrow failure.
Thompson, the team and the Seminole family had rallied around the Fishers in their time of need. But that day, it was the youngest Fisher that rallied around Thompson, giving his father his blue toy car to give to the running back as a get-well present.
"It really put a smile on my face when Coach Fisher gave it to me," Thompson said. "It meant a lot that [Ethan's] going through what he's going through and to even just think about me like meant a lot to me."
THE JOURNEY BACK
Thompson returned home from that hospital stay in a back brace and watched his team win seven of its last eight games not knowing if he would get to rejoin them for his senior season.
He watched them beat Miami and he watched them beat Florida. He watched them cap off the year with a bowl-game victory over Notre Dame. All the while Thompson's teammates watched him remain upbeat and positive and maintain that same level of team-first support that made him such a popular player in the locker room when he was healthy and competing alongside them.
Thompson had done so much for them from a leadership standpoint and now it was his teammates' turn to do the same.
"Me and Chris, we family," junior safety Lamarcus Joyner said. "I feel like he's my brother on that field and off the field. Chris is a great kid. You see a kid like that who loves this game just as well as yourself you want to make sure you give him that confidence, that drive and that motivation to come back healthy."
Motivation from his peers and coaches, praying with his family and a diligent rehabilitation routine helped Thompson recover remarkably fast.
FSU began spring practices earlier this year with its senior running back limited but in uniform and in the rotation. He wasn't allowed to get hit but he was there -- every snap and every practice just biding his time and growing stronger while continuing to put in the extra work with the strength and conditioning coaches and the athletic trainers.
The pain finally went away in July. Believe it or not, Thompson was going to be ready for fall camp less than a year after sustaining a broken back.
"I really came a long way," Thompson said. "It was pretty tough for me just to get back in shape, just to get back running again with no pain or anything like that. I haven't really been thinking that far back as far as being in that room for that night or so. I am just thankful that I am able to come back feeling good and feeling like myself to be able to play again."
BETTER THAN EVER?
Two games into his final season and Thompson doesn't look like the player he was before the injury. He looks even better.
After rushing for a team-high 845 yards as a sophomore, Thompson appears to have not only regained his speed, wiggle and athleticism but he has also added some extra power and burst to his already stellar overall ability as a ball carrier.
"We were probably more hesitant than he was," Fisher said about turning Thompson loose. "You can read that body language -- how they react, and how they create contact. Once he got going, he was going."
He's only had to carry the ball nine times through two blowout victories but Thompson is averaging 6.3 yards per carry and has shown a new ability to not only run past defenders but to drag them as well.
In the season opener against Murray State he physically carried his tackler a few extra yards to pick up an FSU first down. Against Savannah State he burst around the right side, crossed the goal line for his first touchdown since the injury, got popped while doing so and jumped right back up.
Broken no more. Stronger than before.
"I had to put in extra work to actually get back," Thompson said. "Because once I did start running after my rehab, honestly I felt pretty slow. I didn't feel like himself. Our strength coaches, they kept working with me. Our athletic trainers, we kept rehabbing even after I started feeling good and everything they kept doing stuff to help me strengthen myself throughout off-season workouts and everything.
"I think it helped me get that burst and even a little extra something just putting in that hard work every day during the off-season.
EXORCISING HIS DEMONS
"I can say that it's here again," Thompson said this week. "Just facing them after my injury it's a pretty emotional time for me. Not too much I can really say about it but I honestly have just been thinking about it for a while."
Thompson will start and play against the same team that almost knocked him out for good just 11 months ago when Florida State and Wake Forest jockey for ACC Atlantic Division positioning Saturday at noon.
It will be emotional and symbolic. A real-life feel-good story about an undersized football player with enough determination to not let something as serious as a broken back derail his dreams. Instead of watching his teammates, Thompson will be on the field working with them to exorcise his own demons and the team's own recent ones against Wake Forest.
And the blue toy car will be there, too. Just a short distance away inside a garnet backpack hanging from a hook inside Thompson's locker. A constant reminder about the support, hard work and effort that it took to bounce back from a near-knockout punch.
"Even after this game, I'm still going to think about it at times," Thompson said about the injury, "but it's nothing that is going to slow me down or hinder me or anything like that."