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October 20, 2011
With his back broken and his season over, Chris Thompson was resting in a Winston-Salem, N.C. hospital bed when a visitor stopped by.
That visitor, head coach Jimbo Fisher, ditched the team's charter flight and brought his junior running back something that will drive him through recovery, rehab and a return to the football field: A toy car from Fisher's son Ethan.
"One thing that really affected me more than anything and really been keeping my spirits up was the fact that little Ethan, he had this little toy car he takes with him," said Thompson, who fractured the T-5 and T-6 vertebrae in his back on a two-yard run in the first quarter of FSU's 35-30 loss to Wake Forest on Oct. 8. He spoke to the media for the first time since the injury on Wednesday.
"I don't know if he takes it everywhere he goes but he gave to it Coach Fisher to give to me and to tell me he wanted to get better and everything so I carry that with me everywhere I go," he said.
It was a touching gift from a 6-year-old who's fighting his own health battle with Fanconi Anemia, a rare, life-threatening blood disorder. Thompson was so moved by Ethan's gift, his eyes began to well when talking about it almost two weeks later.
"Just to see the situation they're dealing with with Ethan," Thompson said, choking up a bit as he spoke. "And he may not know exactly what's going on. But it really meant a lot to me."
"Ethan wanted to make sure he had that because he knew that when he was sick, those were the things that made him feel good, he wanted Chris to feel good," Jimbo Fisher said. "That's the part of coaching that I enjoy the most."
Thompson, FSU's 5-foot-8, 190-pound starting tailback who led FSU in carries entering the Wake Forest game, had been nursing an unrelated back injury during fall camp. But as he fought for an extra yard and a first down on that run against Wake Forest, he went to the ground and knew something was immediately wrong.
"This time for some reason I expected the worst," Thompson said.
Thompson had feeling in his extremities, but had trouble breathing and could not speak above a whisper. The trainers initially thought Thompson had the wind knocked out of him, but his odd shortness of breath clued the training staff into the fact that it was something worse.
"When (head trainer Jake Pfeil) looked in my eyes he really knew there was something wrong with me," he said.
After spending the night at the hospital and with his spirits lifted from Fisher's visit and Ethan's toy car, Thompson also received good news from the back specialists in Winston-Salem. They told him about two players who recovered from the same injury and went on to play in the NFL.
Thompson opted to withstand some pain and fly back on Sunday so he could be at FSU's practice on Monday. Wearing his garnet No. 23 jersey and a brace underneath, Thompson was out smiling and joking with his teammates just two days after the scary injury.
"I didn't want to miss one day of practice without being there with those guys," he said. Thompson said that other than sleeping, he will constantly wear a back brace for six weeks and could start rehab in about three months.
"Especially after coming off a loss, just to see me out there that Monday, I knew it was going to get their spirits up and help them work even harder," he said.
"I just hugged him," said linebacker Vince Williams.
Williams told reporters about the exchange between Thompson and the trainers when he was on the ground.
"They were like 'Chris, man, are you OK? And he told them 'Yea, I just wanted to get one more yard,' Williams said. "Like ... what? That's really giving it up for a team and that's the kind of teammate you really want to play with."
Although the injury is serious and a medical redshirt for his junior season is unlikely, Thompson hasn't given up on football. He's squeezed the good out of a tough situation. He's felt the love from his coaches and his teammates. He's been inspired by a boy and his gift, a little toy car that means so much.
"I just have a different outlook on life now, just really appreciating everything more with school, football, just having everybody around me, I'm just really starting to appreciate it now. It's really a life-changing experience for me honestly," Thompson said, the outline of his back brace visible through his No. 23 FSU sweatshirt. "It was really because of little Ethan, that really just picked me up more than anything else did, and I just thank God for being able to walk. I've had two back injuries and I'm just thankful to be up walking and just knowing that after a while I'm going to be fine once again and hopefully be able to play again with these guys."