More powerful than Brandon Thomas’ pad-popping tackles is what’s beneath his helmet.
An unflappable mind has helped the Central Valley linebacker push through the most painful and uncertain stretch of his young life.
When it plays tricks, he works them into his recovery.
Thomas required the amputation of the bottom half of his right leg last summer following a diagnosis of osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. He often looks into a mirror and sees a prosthesis in place of a once-healthy limb that helped him garner first-team All-Greater Spokane League honors as a sophomore.
Mirror therapy has been one of the several avenues Thomas has taken in his return to normalcy. He plans to return to the Bears this fall as a reclassified junior and was on the sideline in crutches this spring.
Thomas’ father, Eastern Washington associate athletic director Devon Thomas, jokes that his son “redshirted” during the 2020-21 school year as he fought – and ultimately beat – the potentially life-threatening disease, a sit-out season typically afforded to college athletes.
Considering the months he was mostly confined to a hospital bed or bedroom after rounds of chemotherapy, all the school he missed and being younger than most of students in his class, Thomas will get an additional year of eligibility.
It will be much different than the last time Thomas played in the fall of 2019, when he was beginning to exhibit the look of a Division I recruit.
Thomas, who is thankful the cancer didn’t spread to his vital organs, had briefly come to peace with never buckling a chinstrap again.
He has since caught a second wind but knows he has a steep climb ahead and slowly getting back into a diligent workout routine.
“It’s very frustrating because I’m not as good or have as much stamina as I’d to like have. I can’t make cuts like I want to,” Thomas said. “But it’s definitely relieving at the same time because it’s been over a year since I have been able to do all this stuff, run or walk.”
Thomas, who learned he had bone cancer after sustaining what he believed to be a track-related injury in January 2020, is easing back into football with weight lifting, cardio and drills to aid his balance.
“Realistically, I want to be able to play this upcoming fall, and I believe I can do it,” Thomas said. “If not, I am definitely going to play as a senior (in 2022) and, if I’m good enough, play in college.”
Devon Thomas gets misty-eyed when thinking of his son’s unsettling path and potential return to the Bears.
When Brandon took his first steps with his prosthetic leg last year, his parents, including mom Melanie , softened with emotion.
“Such a powerful moment,” Devon said. “He went almost a year without standing up on his own.”
The family witnessed Brandon’s constant fatigue, nausea, sleep deprivation, pain, physical changes and occasional doubt.
Because of coronavirus restrictions and his doctor’s orders, Brandon couldn’t be around his peers during his recovery. When he was in the hospital, only two relatives could visit.
Now they’re witnessing his triumphs again.
“Really excited to see where he goes and to tell his story,” Devon said. “We’ve lived it, but seeing it from an outside perspective, I know that’s been inspiring. To see a man go from All-GSL linebacker to cancer survivor, amputee and to keep thriving.”
Balance has been the hardest adjustment athletically in Brandon’s return to football, but he still believes he can be a contributor after he molds his body back into football shape.
So does Central Valley coach Ryan Butner, who isn’t surprised that Thomas has put himself in a position to play again.
“He may not look the same, but he has the same temperament, drive, character and passion,” Butner said. “Just seeing those videos of him training, it shows.”
“It’s going to be challenging for him. But as a sophomore, he was one of the best players in Spokane. He’s ahead of the game as far as that is concerned. He is a student of the game. Regardless of any disability he may have, that will help him.”
Just being on the sidelines in Central Valley’s abbreviated spring football season earlier this month was a major coup for Brandon, who wore his jersey.
“It made me feel like I made it, all the hard work and stuff I’ve been through, I beat (cancer),” Brandon said. “That was the biggest thing. I wasn’t able to see my friends in over a year, so being (with my team) was more symbolism that I made it and that I’m here.”