Lindenwood rallies around injured teammate

ST. CHARLES, Mo. – The memory gives Malach Radigan
comfort now. There were rumblings early in Lindenwood’s season that some
freshmen were timid to take the field. Life for a few young players
within the Division II football program near St. Louis included a heavy
helping of nerves.

Not for Sterling Thomas. Heck, Radigan
almost forgot the cornerback he calls his “little brother” was a
freshman. Thomas stands at 5-feet-10 and weighs 170 pounds, but he’d
play like a 200-pound pit bull that went without a meal for a week when
provoked.

“He doesn’t care who it is, he’s ready to fight
them,” said Radigan, a senior defensive tackle and a team captain.
“That’s why we call him our LU Soldier.”

Radigan and others
need Thomas to fight again, this time for far more than numbers on a
scoreboard. The big brother misses his friend. He holds hope Thomas
can return somehow, someday.

“In a situation like this,” Radigan says, “it’s definitely out of our control.”

***

There
was shock last Saturday. During Lindenwood’s eventual victory over
Missouri Southern State, Thomas sustained a severe spinal cord injury
when trying to tackle a receiver about midway through the fourth
quarter. He was transported in serious condition to a local hospital. He
has regained movement in his arms and upper body, but still lacks
control of his legs.

The family has requested privacy in this time.

Before
the accident, Thomas had started to make his way at Lindenwood. The
Tulsa (Okla.) Union High School product had earned four tackles through
the Lions’ first nine games, including one against Missouri Southern
State. He’s known for a drive to learn, a trait shown whenever he’d ask
teammates, “Hey, what can I do better?”

Thomas has earned
many labels from those who have shared a field with him: Physically fit,
tough in the mind, someone who’s positive with a warm smile. He began
his college career somewhat reserved while settling, but in recent
months, he grew as a player and as a young man.

That’s why
the Lindenwood community has rallied since Thomas’ injury. The team has
dedicated the final two games of its season to him, starting with a
matchup Saturday against Pittsburg (Kan.) State. Donations are being
accepted for bracelets that read, “S.T. #27 – LU SOLDIER,” and the
school has gone through about 1,800 with more on the way. A Christmas
bell sale for Thomas also is planned. Proceeds will help with the
family’s expenses – a gesture that shows some good can come from
something awful.

“There have been a lot of different
emotions,” Lindenwood coach Patrick Ross said. “There’s obviously a lot
of tears, a lot of sorrow and sadness. But at the same time, there are
things to be thankful for as well. So we’re just doing the best we can
to keep encouraging the Thomas family and encouraging Sterling as well
as the team we have here.”

***

Radigan and
Thomas have a routine at lunch. Their dance begins with Thomas acting
like he’s mad at the veteran player. Radigan will say something
tongue-in-cheek like, “Hey, Sterling, are you going to sit with me?”
and, in time, Thomas will flash a smile before sliding next to his
friend.

Radigan met Thomas at move-in day earlier in the
semester. Radigan is a resident director on campus, so the two crossed
paths when the senior made the rounds meeting freshmen. Thomas kept to
himself at first, but the two eventually became fast friends.

“Within a day, he just opened up,” Radigan says. “I automatically knew that this was one of my favorite freshmen.”

The
response after Thomas’ injury has taught Radigan the power of a shared
goal. This advice from Ross is burned into the senior’s mind: Adversity
doesn’t build a team – it reveals it. Thomas positioned himself next to
Radigan before prayers prior to each game and practice; this week,
Radigan has held Thomas’ No. 27 jersey in his left hand.

Beyond
football, Radigan has seen many walks of life at Lindenwood join as
one this week. About 300 people attended a prayer service Thursday at
Hunter Stadium, where Ross urged the crowd to keep Thomas close
throughout the year.

Adversity doesn’t build a bond. It makes it stronger.

“I
just want whatever he wants,” Radigan said of Thomas. “Looking forward,
if he wants to play football – and he’s on fire for football – then
praise God for doing that. But if he comes back, and he’s like, ‘I want
to step away from the game,’ I can totally understand that. My prayer,
my hope, is a full recovery and just to see that smiling Sterling
again.”

Freshman quarterback Dillon Miller, Thomas’
suitemate, wants to see that smile too. The two have spent many hours
playing video games like NCAA Football and
Call of Duty, both trying to make their way in this
new chapter.

Miller always has viewed this Lindenwood team,
now 6-3, as a tight group. For him, seeing Thomas motionless on the
field was jarring, the future uncertain. The next play could be the last
for anyone.

“You never know when something could happen,”
Miller says. “So take advantage of every opportunity you get, every
chance.”

It’s too early to know what Thomas’ road back will
look like. There are many steps to come, many hours of recovery ahead,
many prayers to be whispered. The hurdles don’t stop Miller from keeping
faith.

“The best picture in my mind,” he says, “is just
seeing him out here on the field with a smile on the face hanging out
with the guys.”

***

There’s always sun after the
storm. Support has humbled Ross. He has received well-wishes for Thomas
from as far as Florida and Washington. This situation is like
being hit in the chest with a bag of bricks: You try to prepare yourself
for the impact, but there’s no way to do so.

“It’s about
knowing we still have an opportunity to play,” said Ross, who’s in his
ninth season at the school. “He doesn’t. So he’s playing football
through us.”

Ross knew early that Thomas would be a good
fit. The football skill was evident, given the player’s background as an
honorable mention all-state selection with one of the top high school
programs in the country. The character traits – factors that enhance a
team for years – popped too.  

“He’s got a great attitude –
always positive, great smile,” Ross says. “Just the kind of kid you try
to build your program around.”

Now comes the waiting. Now comes the wishing. Now comes the belief that a dark moment can produce something bright.

“You’ve
just got to have faith and believe,” Ross says. “I’m very optimistic. I
have a lot of belief – if you believe in something, you can get it
done. I truly think good things will happen at some point. We’ve just
got to stay together and support Sterling and find a way for him to
reach his goals – whatever his goals are.”

They call him their LU Soldier. They are betting on him to win another fight.

Anyone
interested in making a contribution to the Sterling Thomas fund at
Lindenwood University should contact Jane Baum at 636-949-4427 or email
her at jbaum@lindenwood.edu.



You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.