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August 23, 2012

After injury, rehab, RB Chris Thompson ready for starting role

The guy looks like the 2010 Chris Thompson, and that's saying something.

He's quick, he's fluid. He plants and cuts sharply. The afterburners look just as fast on red jersey No. 4, and his effort - he skips back to the huddle even while monotony overwhelms a warmup drill - is unwavering.

All of that will be useful for a Florida State running game that struggled to produce last season, ranking 104th nationally. More so, those traits are a testament to the perseverance of the man in that red No. 4 - the battle tested 2012 Chris Thompson.

"He's doing great, not losing a step," sophomore running back James Wilder Jr. said. "He's looking like the one I was watching on the highlight films before I got here. Like full speed, cutting on a dime.

"The old Chris that everyone has been waiting for."

No one has felt the wait like Thompson.

Ten months ago, two vertebrae in Thompson's back were compressed until they cracked, a frightening injury to a body part synonymous with abrupt football careers. Thompson was given no guarantees he'd play again, no assurances he'd see the field as soon as this season.

Initially, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher did not expect to have Thompson in his backfield in 2012, much less make plans have the senior as his starter.

"Nope, no way," Fisher said this week, recalling his thoughts following Thompson's injury at Wake Forest on Oct. 8, 2011. "I was more worried about him as a person because he's such a hard worker, such a great guy. It's an amazing story."

Through tireless rehabilitation, reflection and one more injury hurdle in the spring, Thompson has returned to the starting role where he rushed for a team-best 845 yards and averaged a blistering 6.3 yards per carry two seasons ago.

The 2010 and 2012 version look the same on the field, and that's good news for FSU. But this year's Chris Thompson adds plenty of fortitude.

"It's been a journey man," Thompson said. "This whole year has been a rough year for me, but now I can really say that I'm feeling good - feeling great to be honest with you. It's been a journey but I'm thankful all of it happened because all of it happened for a reason."

Injury brings doubt

Thompson's over-the-top positivity gives doubt little headroom.

Take the story from April, when the recovery from his broken back met another sudden patience tester - a broken right wrist - which combined to saddle him in a blue non-contact jersey through spring drills. As if his philosophy was normal to everyone within earshot, he tells the tale of its benefit - he became more appreciative of his left hand. Later, no hesitation, Thompson describes how standing on the sideline helped him learn to read defenses better.

"I can really see a lot of things better than I could before," Thompson said persuasively.

There was Oct. 9, though, an overnight stay in a Winston-Salem, N.C. hospital bed where doubt surfaced. Thompson doubted whether he would play football again, wondered whether he should try.

Minor football injuries were no stranger - Thompson, the No. 105 ranked player in the Class of 2009, nursed an ankle issue all the way through his senior season at Madison County High. At FSU, he dealt with an unrelated back issue to start the 2011 season. He built a reputation as a gritty, play-through-whatever player since his prep days and it carried to Tallahassee, too.

But this one was much different.

On the first carry of FSU's game against Wake Forest, Thompson ran right, cut back left, lowered his head for another yard and went down quickly, hitting the turf with a season finished and a future in football unknown. The training staff initially thought Thompson had the wind knocked out of him as he struggled to breathe. Thompson couldn't muster anything above a whisper.

"When (head trainer Jake Pfeil) looked in my eyes he really knew there was something wrong with me," Thompson said.

The diagnosis wasn't good - he fractured the T-5 and T-6 vertebrae in the collision, and the immediate outreach told Thompson how serious it was. Fisher ditched the team charter flight after a smarting 35-30 loss to visit Thompson at the hospital. He delivered a gift, a toy car from Fisher's son Ethan. Thompson's mother was ready to drive up that night, but Thompson waved her off because of the taxing 1,050 mile round trip.

"Just laying in that hospital bed that day, I was thinking a whole lot, like should I go through this again?" said Thompson. "Maybe even risk getting re-injured and having go through this whole process. Having back injuries could leave you paralyzed. Should I even come back and give it a chance to play ball?"

A sliver of doubt never left Thompson, but he found inspiration just 24 hours later. The game changer was stepping onto FSU practice fields on Monday.

Wearing his practice jersey and a bulky back brace underneath, the surprise guest smiled and joked through the pain. He was embraced by his teammates.

"I just hugged him," linebacker Vince Williams said.

"Just being on the practice field and looking at those guys, man, it did something to my spirit," Thompson said. "And from there, it was just like I need to do whatever I can do to get back and get rolling with this team again."

Fisher: 'He's the glue'

Thompson's value to Florida State comes on and off the stat sheet.

There's the production The 5-foot-8, 187-pound Thompson flaunted his elite speed as a sophomore in 2010, gashing teams at a 6.3-per-carry clip. Game-breakers became his thing; Thompson scored on runs of 70, 83 and 90 yards, the last standing as the third longest rushing touchdown from scrimmage in school history. He ended the season in style with 25 carries for 147 yards and the Chick-Fil-A Bowl MVP honors in the win over South Carolina. His 845 rushing yards were the most by an FSU back since 2004.

There's the leadership factor This season, Thompson is the lone veteran true tailback at Fisher's disposal. Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman, who led FSU in rushing (579 yards, 8 TD) in Thompson's absence, are sophomores. The fourth tailback, true freshman Mario Pender, who enrolled in January, will redshirt this season while recovering from groin surgery. The uncertainty only make Thompson more treasured as a proven commodity and a tireless worker.

"Chris just does everything right," FSU running backs coach Eddie Gran said. "He's a guy that works on his technique and he tries to get better every day and he's going to make it count. To have a guy like that in your segment room, you've got the younger guys following suit - Devonta Freeman is trying to emulate him, James Wilder is trying to emulate him - when you get that going on in your segment you've got a chance."

"I've coached a lot of good football players the last 19-20 years and he may be the best one overall - intellectual, physical ability, work ethic, doing things the right way - (Thompson) probably as good as I've ever coached," said Madison County High head coach Mike Coe, who was the offensive coordinator during Thompson's time with the Cowboys. That's high praise out of Boot Hill, a Division I-A prospect turnstile 50 miles east of Tallahassee.

"He's the complete package," Coe said. "That's why he starts, because he's so smart. He doesn't make mistakes. He picks up blitzes - I've heard that out of Coach Fisher and Coach Gran's mouth."

Fisher agrees, re-injury concern aside, it's the complete skill set that has Thompson starting for the Seminoles right now.

"Chris is so resilient. He's one of these guys on the team; he's the glue," Fisher said. "Not only a great player talent-wise, but he's a glue guy in work ethic and character and what he represents. When you think about a Florida State football player, that's what you want it to represent. And he's going to work. Whatever he needs to do, Chris does."

Working his way back

The return trip began with the brace, which Thompson wore around his torso at all hours for six weeks. The pain was the worst when he slept. Rehabilitation started in January with early mornings and aching core exercises to get his spine strong enough to play again.

His parents supported Thompson's decision to return, and through all of his efforts, he hung onto one fact his doctor gave him the day of his injury: He has seen two football players who had the same vertebrae fractures that went on to play in the NFL.

Thompson was limited to non-contact work in the spring as his back recovered and his patience was tested again when he broke his wrist, all but eliminating any chance to see contact until fall. That's when his healthy hand appreciation grew and his acumen for reading defenses elevated.

Through all of that, Thompson said the doubt left in July when he finally felt healthy during offseason conditioning.

"I was able to keep up (speed-wise with the younger guys), I'll put it like that," Thompson said with a laugh. "With more reps, I was able to keep it up, keep going and after I didn't have any pain so I was happy about that."

"He was never feeling sorry for himself," Wilder Jr. said. "He was always up, always keeping everybody up, just happy."

The final step

Chris Thompson caved one week before fall camp.

Thompson, the devout optimist, had avoided watching the play that put his career in limbo for more than nine months.

But he watched it, then watched it again. Looped it six times straight. It never changes, of course: Run right, cut back left, lowered head, down quickly.

"I just kept going back looking like 'Man, I should have just (run) outside,'" Thompson said. "But something brought me back inside."

It was second guessing and a stark reminder, but it also brought closure to the toll he had paid all those months to enter camp healthy and ready to go.

"I was looking at it and I was with somebody and they said 'Why do you keep looking at this?'" Thompson recalled. "I was like, 'Man, it happened, I've just got to remember it.'

"That's what keeps me going. I can say I overcame that."

His final hurdle was the one he was most nervous about, the first full contact hit. That arrived on Aug. 16 in the team's first fall scrimmage. He got through it unscathed.

"Now that the first hit is out of the way, that fear is gone. It's just pretty much playing ball now and that's what I love to do," Thompson said after the scrimmage. "It's been time to go, but now I'm even more anxious."

Through 10 months of pain, rehab, patience and perseverance, 10 months of doubt and wonder about playing the game he loves, the anxiety is understandable. Looking as sharp and lightning quick as his old self with the season opener on deck, the 2012 Chris Thompson can't wait much longer to take the field again.

"I think I might be looking more forward to (the first game) than anybody else. I've been out for a while," Thompson said. "I'm ready to play. Honestly, I'm ready to put on the pads and go against somebody else just to be in front of the fans again.

"I'm just ready."



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