When you first meet Brandon Thomas, there are several things you can’t help but notice about the 17-year-old junior.
The 10,000-watt smile. The infectious laugh. The oversized personality.
When you first see Brandon Thomas, the outside linebacker for Central Valley, there are several things you can’t help but notice, either.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame. The nose for the football. The uplifting leadership.
What you don’t notice, however, until someone finally points it out to you?
His prosthetic right leg.
While training with the CV track team in early 2020, Thomas felt something wasn’t right with his lower right leg. After treating it for what he thought was a sprain, tests and X-rays eventually revealed a more serious diagnosis: cancer. Specifically, osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer.
The doctors told Brandon, and his parents Devon and Melanie, the best course of treatment would be amputation.
“He said, ‘Mom, if I have to lose my leg to live, that’s fine with me.’ ” Melanie told The Spokesman-Review in June. “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.”
Sixteen months later, Thomas isn’t just surviving – which should not be dismissed by any means – but he’s once again thriving on the football field.
“Melanie and I got some of the worst news a parent can get – that your child has cancer,” Devon said. “The devastating effect that that has, just hearing the words before you experience any of the effects that has is … I don’t wish that on any parent. But as the parent of a 15-year-old, you go, ‘Well, OK, what does that mean?’ ”
Devon recently left Eastern Washington’s athletic department to join Gonzaga as senior associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)/external operations. He continues to be inspired with how Brandon dealt with the diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.
“To watch him fight through all the stuff he had to fight through … he’s such a happy kid,” Devon Thomas said. “To see him struggle with hair, and weight, and the affects of the different chemotherapies on his body. And for him to develop seizures. All these things. All these side effects. And for him to just keep battling has been an amazing thing to watch.
“Generally, it’s the other way around, but truly, Brandon is my hero. I got a chance to watch my son fight through and recognize his own mortality. And now we’re talking about – forget starting, or anything like that – I get to watch him on a football field with his buddies. Proud isn’t the word. I don’t what that word is, but I’m astounded by what he’s accomplished.”
Bears coach Ryan Butner says you can pick any positive word in the dictionary to describe Brandon.
“He adds charisma. He adds leadership, character,” Butner said. “I mean any adjective that describes a great person. I mean, you could get the thesaurus out and pick anything. He has all of it.”
Butner was emotional as he recalled hearing about the initial diagnosis. Former West Valley and University of Idaho football player Jace Malek succumbed to the same disease in February 2016.
“It was hard, especially the specific diagnosis,” Butner said. “Knowing the history in Spokane, what happened. It was scary.”
“(Brandon) has changed the way a lot of us have coached kids,” Butner said. “He’s a special person. He’s brought so much positivity to our staff and to our program.”
“I am an open book,” Brandon Thomas said. “I’m as much as an open book as you can get. I try to be positive and I’m just trying to overcome.”
After the initial diagnosis, one of Thomas’ primary objectives was to get back on the football field. It’s been an arduous process.
Surgery. Chemo. Other treatments. Physical therapy. Emotional therapy. Weight loss. Weight gain. A rehab prosthetic. And eventually, an athletic prosthetic.
“We were hoping he’d get four or five games this year,” Devon Thomas said. Brandon’s drive to play again sped up the process.
No one around him was surprised.
“Because it’s him, no,” Butner said. “From the time he was diagnosed and he knew what was coming down, he said he was going to continue to play. And that’s what he’s doing. So no, it hasn’t surprised me. I will say that I was surprised that how quick he did come back, and how quickly he fit in. I mean, that’s the one thing that probably amazed me the most, but to think that he’s back out here on the field doesn’t surprise me.”
Five weeks into the season, Thomas admits to “being sore.” But it beats the alternative.
“My leg’s getting used to everything, but I feel good,” he said during Wednesday’s practice. “I’m just excited to play, excited to be out here.”
He’s only been on his athletic prosthetic for about six weeks, and his leg is still getting adjusted to it. He said the adjustment from his rehab prosthetic to the athletic one was “a big one,” with the athletic one “more springy.”
“I could run much faster, and it wasn’t holding me back,” he said.
Butner says the effort and energy Thomas showed as an all-league middle linebacker his sophomore year is still on display despite shifting his position. “He just plays 100%,” Butner said.
“I’d say I’m doing worse right now, but I can definitely tell I’m improving,” Thomas said. “It’s weirder, because I was in the middle, so now I’m adjusting to (outside), but I feel like I can definitely do better than I was. Absolutely.”
Thomas still dreams of playing Division I football. Because of his hardship and missing an entire school year, he was reclassified as a junior this year and will have another season to hone his craft.
“It was amazing,” Thomas said of the extension. “I’m gonna be honest. Right now, I’m not as good as I want to be. So knowing that I can have a whole another year to train and get faster, stronger, just be better – it means everything.”
He says he doesn’t think about the leg anymore or have to protect it during the games.
“No. No way,” he said. “I’m just thinking about laying a kid out.
“I hit way, way more now than I did sophomore year, hands down,” he said. “And I’m way more aggressive now than I was sophomore year.”
Bears quarterback Luke Abshire never doubted Thomas would rejoin the team.
“I knew if anyone’s gonna do it, it was gonna be him.”
Looking for silver linings
Thomas’ story is one of success, but it started in doubt.
“The moment I thought ‘amputation,’ I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can play football. I don’t know if this is gonna work for me.’ If I could do this, this thing I love. But you see me now. I trained, I worked as hard as I could and now my leg feels almost normal – feels like a part of me now.”
It didn’t in the beginning. Thomas said he went through considerable pain getting used to using a prosthetic. Once he adjusted to the physical pain, he said the strain of the emotional pain kicked in. But he never lost sight of the goal.
“It was really tough (in the beginning). Just walking on it hurt a lot,” he said. “But as you go farther and farther, you have to train more, you have to know that you have to work harder to be as good.”
Despite Brandon’s successes, Devon Thomas said there were more than enough rough patches to go around and it naturally took some time for Brandon to process the amputation.
“As boisterous as he is, as jovial as he is, as big a personality as he’s got, you watched for a time him shrink inside himself because he was a little bit different than everyone else.”
Devon said it was further testament to his son that a 6-2, 225 “biracial kid growing up in Liberty Lake didn’t feel any different than everyone in the first place.”
“When his brother tells him, ‘Brandon, you’ve always been different whether it’s color, size, or being the fastest big kid, you’ve always been different. Let’s just have this one more thing and when people say different, I’ll say awesome.’ ”
Josh Thomas, Brandon’s big brother, and his then-fiancé Kasey pushed off their wedding a year so Brandon could rehab and stand up as his best man. The ceremony was two weeks ago.
Devon said Brandon isn’t sweating as much of the “small stuff,” anymore, but him experiencing some of the natural teenage angst has been almost comforting.
“He’s still processing the same stuff teenagers have to process,” Devon said. “But he doesn’t suffer fools too much now.
“I think it is freeing for him to recognize what a ‘real’ issue is and what is just the small stuff. I love the fact he now gets to think about girls and other daily things about being a teen.”
“He pushes me and that’s what I love about him the most,” Brandon said of his dad. “He’s there for me when I needed him. And my mom was definitely there when I needed her. She’s my emotional support and my dad’s just how I stay grounded.”
“It’s like that (football) uniform is his super hero costume, so nobody can really see him,” Devon Thomas said.
“At that point, he’s just a football player. When he’s not on the field, he’s Brandon. When he’s on the field, he’s some other ‘CV football player X.’ He sees himself that way and I think that’s the best.”
Thomas is gregarious by nature and was a budding leader on the Bears’ defense even as a sophomore. Now, he’s not only an inspiration to his teammates, but he relishes the opportunity to be a mentor to them.
“I want to be someone to look up to,” he said. “With some of these kids out here, some of them don’t have the best lives or are struggling with certain things and just to help them out and understand, kind of like guide them, you know. I want them to be kind to people, you know, just to have this kind of community, is what I was going for and if I can help that, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Thomas has had a lot of media requests this season to tell his story.
He’s gracious to a fault, but he doesn’t dwell on what he’s overcome on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s not a thing like, oh I think about this all the time, think about, ‘Oh, I’m a cancer survivor.’ That’s not really what comes to mind. It’s more so, ‘Hey I’m friendly. That’s why these people are talking to you.’ I’m friendly.”
“He’s pretty important,” Abshire said. “You know, just the inspiration that he’s been for the program throughout the last two years. What he’s been gone through, it’s just been super inspirational for everyone out here.”
Abshire said during the short spring season players wrote Thomas’ name or number on their wristbands during games to remind themselves he was still their teammate even though he wasn’t physically there.
“It’s pretty awesome having him back,” Abshire said. “Where he was when he started, now to where he’s back – it’s pretty incredible.”
“He’s a vital part of our defense,” fellow linebacker Trevor Gravelle said. “We both started as sophomores and losing him in my junior year, it hurt. But we’ve seen him fight. Seeing him come back, it’s just really inspirational.”
Even though Thomas appears to be “one of the guys” again, Butner hopes his teammates don’t forget what he overcame to get back to that.
“I hope they don’t take it for granted that this guy is something special,” he said. “You know, cancer diagnosis or not, he was a special person when he came into our program, and he still is. He just has a unique story now.”
“I hope the guys see that resiliency in his in his ability to go through hard things and sometimes realize that ‘hey, my aching leg,’ or ‘my sore shoulder,’ whatever they might be going through, really probably doesn’t compare to anything that he’s been through.”