View on YouTubeRaquan Thomas
was glowing. The massive 6-foot-5, 340-pound lineman had a right to feel good about himself on that Oct. 4, 2013 afternoon. He had his best game to date at Simon Gratz (Philadelphia)
and he was hanging out with his friends, talking about the game they had just won and what they were going to do later.
That's when in an instant, Thomas' life almost ended. Any thought of playing football beyond high school was nearly snuffed out in a flash.
A fight broke out over a girl. Shots were fired. Everyone scattered, including Thomas. But he felt something tugging on him, like someone yanked the Earth from underneath him. Thomas recalled the gun shot wound feeling as if he had a cramp in his lower back. Then everything began moving in slow motion. He wound up being rushed to the hospital in the back of a police cruiser, because they couldn't wait for an ambulance to arrive. Every minute was precious.
Thomas was shot five times. One bullet struck him in his lower back, another in his left calf muscle, one in his upper thigh that's still lodged in his leg and two slugs went through his hip.
A year later, it's hard believe that Thomas is even able to walk, let alone play football at a high level. But that's where he is. Making holes on offense with his large frame serving as a bulldozer clearing paths, and creating havoc on defense with his relentless pursuit.
Thomas needed a month's stay in the hospital last October to learn how to walk again.
"It happened so fast, there was no time to think about what happened," Thomas said. "The doctors told me I was real lucky. I was lucky I that I'm still alive, and lucky that I'm not paralyzed for life. The doctors told me that I was lucky to be so big and the body fat around my middle caught the bullet and was enough to slow it down."
Nothing or anyone has been able to stop Thomas this season. The junior two-way player is a leading reason why the Bulldogs went 10-2 overall this season and reached the Philadelphia Public League Class AAAA championship.
But surviving the gunshots wasn't enough. Thomas had to learn the fundamentals of walking again. Standing straight meant immense pain.
"That was the biggest challenge, I couldn't do anything," Thomas said. "You think about things like not being able to play football. That's why I wanted to go through rehab as quickly as I did. I wanted to get back on the field and play again. I only lost 10, 15 pounds from the whole thing. But it made me weak."
Things could have been far, far worse for him. One bullet missed his head by inches. The bullet that landed in his lower back was inches away from his spine.
"This whole thing made me look at things differently," Thomas admitted. "My coaches and family say if someone is going to stand up to me, they're either going to shoot me, or someone with them is going to shoot me. Believe me, I've made a lot of mistakes growing up. I was a knucklehead kid who took things for granted. I used to get into fights. I had to learn to walk away from things. I laid in that hospital bed thinking I never want to go through that again. The gunshots made me realize none of us has too much time. Before I got shot, I can say this, I never thought about a future with football. I can see that now."
Gratz coach Erik Zipay has transformed a dormant program into a winner. The coach is in his 11th season as head coach of the Bulldogs. Two years ago, Gratz began the season 10-0 and players like Thomas continue to help in that progression.
"The day he was shot I was actually driving past Raquan and his group and waved as I passed by. I got the phone call as I was ready to walk into my house that something happened," Zipay said. "You never know. Multiple players called me who where there. I was going nuts. Raquan was always told no one is ever going to want to fight him, because he's too big. To keep him out of trouble, I said 'We're on North Philly and someone is going to shoot you, they're not going to fight you. Walk away.'
"There was a cop car right by where he was shot. They threw Raquan in the back and rushed him right to Temple Hospital. The bullet that hit his leg missed a main artery and if that got hit, he would have died. Because he is so big, he was able to survive the shots."
Zipay and Thomas' family found out later the same day he was shot that he was going to be OK.
Today, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Missouri, Temple and a number of other schools are showing interest in him. He's shaping his grades up.
"Raquan has really grown the last year and he's become a leader," Zipay said. "He's a good kid who sees a future now. Raquan is good enough to one day play on Sundays. He's overpowering against everyone he goes against. Colleges are looking at him as an offensive lineman. Raquan reminds me a lot like Earl Watford (now with the Arizona Cardinals out of Simon Gratz)."
A smile creases Thomas' face. He's been able to turn a very volatile situation into a positive. And he discovered something else, too, on his road to recovery.
"People care about me," Thomas said. "This thing has changed my life. I got lucky. I might never get this lucky again."