Shooting pain continues to streak down the lower half of Brandon Thomas’ right leg, much like it did in February when the Central Valley football standout began to realize something was awry.
The limb that helped the hard-hitting sophomore linebacker earn first-team All-Greater Spokane League distinction is gone, but the phantom stings and soreness aren’t.
Four months after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer – and weeks after a life-changing amputation, the 16-year-old still wears a smile at his family’s Liberty Lake residence.
Thomas faces 18 more weeks of chemotherapy treatments that have drastically changed the appearance of a once-brawny and athletic teenager whose retro flat-top haircut added zip to his welcoming and beyond-his-years demeanor.
NCAA Division I recruiters were beginning to notice the burgeoning 6-foot, 190-pound talent and his massive upside. He would have been a major defensive cog for CV this fall.
But football – a sport his father, Eastern Washington deputy athletic director Devon Thomas, played at Louisville in the early 2000s – has been the furthest thing from Thomas’ young mind.
He’s happy to be alive. Each day is a blessing.
“At some point you have to go with it,” Thomas said. “If you don’t accept that you have cancer, it’s going to destroy you, and that’s the bottom line.
“I always try to be as positive as possible, even through something as tough as this.”
His mother, Melanie Thomas, an EWU retention and advising specialist, has been eased by her youngest child’s resolve.
“He said, ‘Mom, if I have to lose my leg to live, that’s fine with me.’ ” Melanie said. “To hear that from a kid whose dream has been to play in the NFL since he was in grade school, and dealing with a disease that could be deadly if it reached his lungs … He handled it better than I did.”
Something much worse
Thomas trained with the CV track team earlier this year and was going through a series of sprints when his ankle began to hurt.
Figuring it was nothing more than a sprain, he proceeded to ice and raise the ankle the next few days.
Two weeks had passed, though, and the swelling hadn’t subsided, prompting a visit to a orthopedic doctor.
“We were thinking, ‘OK, maybe at the very worst, it was a fracture,’ ” Devon Thomas said. “If it’s a fracture, he could miss summer football as a worst-case scenario. I went about it so flippantly that I didn’t even go to the doctor with him, because injuries happen.”
After going through a series of tests, X-rays and other doctors, Thomas was hit with a shocking diagnosis: cancer.
The osteosarcoma was located in a difficult spot in his ankle, one that would ultimately affect his mobility long term, even if the doctors were able to remove it without amputation.
Brandon’s heart sunk.
“That was very surprising,” he said. “It was a very sad thing to hear such a negative diagnosis.”
The thought of missing football was an afterthought after being given the same diagnosis as the late Jace Malek, a former West Valley and University of Idaho football player who succumbed to the disease in February 2016.
Malek was diagnosed before his freshman year at Idaho in 2015, when the osteosarcoma started in his hip, ultimately leading to the amputation of his leg.
It became deadly when the cancer spread to his lungs. The survival rate of the disease is roughly 75%, according to studies, but if it reaches the lungs, the patient’s survival rate is around 30%.
“Knowing the history of that disease, and the history of it around town, I was really nervous,” CV coach Ryan Butner said. “I was devastated for Brandon and his family. The family is phenomenal and he is such a great kid.”
Devon Thomas took a call while driving on Interstate 90 when he was given the news of his son’s diagnosis.
“Cancer? I thought I misheard them. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
He immediately began to call everyone he knew associated with cancer treatment and cancer-related fundraisers, firing off calls to such figures as Lydia Duffy, formerly of the American Cancer Society, and Greg Repetti, President of MultiCare Deaconess Hospital.
“I was in complete Dad mode,” Devon said. “I was calling everyone I could, anyone that could help us to know what to expect and what to do.”
After several tests and therapy and meetings with doctors, the thought of salvaging Thomas’ limb was still being discussed, but they ultimately didn’t want to take the risk of the cancer to spread.
With the advancement in prosthetic limbs and cutting the cancer completely out of his body, amputation appeared to be the best option.
Thomas went under the knife on May 29, days before his 16th birthday.
“Obviously, losing your foot hurts a lot,” he said. “It will get easier when I get a prosthetic and get back walking and running.”
A painful process
Devon Thomas is an imposing but often jovial figure.
He was a starting defensive end at Louisville in the early 2000s, and his athletic genes carried over to his oldest son, former EWU basketball player Joshua Thomas, and Brandon.
The pain of seeing his youngest son go through chemotherapy and ensuing amputation had shrunk Dad into a “baby” because of the amount of tears he’s shed.
Devon had trouble coming to grips with the plight of his son, a solid student well-liked and respected by his peers, teachers and coaches.
“I was sad, pissed off,” he said. “And of course we’re concerned about his future. We were so disappointed about what his future could be, and what he’d be facing.
“But you see Brandon, and he’s worried about tomorrow. That’s when I realized how selfish am I that I am mad he’s not going to play in NFL.”
Melanie Thomas, who essentially shadowed her son through the process, often staying the night in hospitals, was also struggling.
“When we were waiting to see if it spread to his lungs, I couldn’t even breathe,” she said. “You wish it happened to you. Watching Brandon stay positive through this, it really changed my attitude. It shook me out of it.”
Thomas’s cancer treatment coincided with the coronavirus-induced shutdown, serendipitously allowing Devon, Melanie and Joshua to be around Brandon at home during the most painful weeks of his life.
The CV student’s chipper disposition has helped everyone cope.
“You can’t think, “Hey, why did this happen to me?’ ” Thomas said. “I mean, I wish I knew the reason it happened it me, but I can’t be negative.”
Outpouring of support
Dozens of white T-shirt-clad teenagers, coaches and family friends marched to Thomas’ home with a police escort the day before his leg was to be amputated, giving their friend and teammate an uplifting send off.
“Brandon! Brandon! Brandon!” they chanted, wearing shirts with a silhouette of Thomas’ flat-top haircut with #BStrong draped below the graphic.
The gesture brought Thomas and his family to tears.
To help offset the additional medical costs outside of the family’s insurance plan, a GoFundMe page was set by a family friend with a goal of $20,000. It has exceeded $26,000.
“Family and community. If I didn’t have that support, I don’t know how I would have handled it,” Thomas said.
That was just the beginning.
Thomas has received dozens of gifts from well-wishers and has spoken to multiple inspirational figures who’ve experienced similar amputations.
Former Montana State and Georgetown College football players Koni Dole and Kody Kasey finished their respective careers with the help of a prosthetic, something Thomas hopes to do once he’s healthy.
When word got out that Thomas’s favorite candy was Jolly Ranchers, he’s now “swimming in them.”
“The support he’s received has been absolutely jaw-dropping,” Devon said. “People I haven’t seen since I was a junior high football player in 1994 sending him stuff.”
Considering the road to recovery Thomas has ahead, every bit of positivity counts. One of the youngest students in his class, he will not attend school in the 2020-21 academic year to focus on getting healthy, and will reclassify as a junior in the 2021-22 school year.
Butner is confident he’ll still be a force in the GSL.
“He was arguably one of the best leaders we had, even as a sophomore. You could see that as he came into the program as a freshman, he had those qualities,” he said. “If he decides to continue playing, I think the guy is going to amaze people, with what he does.”
Melanie Thomas has no doubt.
“Knowing his resolve, I know he’ll still accomplish whatever he wants to athletically.”
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