Bailey keeps 'brother' close

SEFFNER, Fla. -- December 18, 2010, was a day that ESPN 150 prospects and Seffner (Fla.) Armwood teammates Alvin Bailey and Leon McQuay III will never forget.

It's not because of their 17-14 loss to Tallahassee (Fla.) Lincoln High School in the Florida FSHSAA class 4A state championship game, but because the two budding stars watched their best friend and long-time teammate Ronnie Thomas suffer a career-ending knee injury.

Thomas, like Bailey and McQuay, had a stellar sophomore season, accounting for 28 receptions for 628 yards and 10 touchdowns, and was among the trio of Armwood players who would be recruited nationally. But on that dreadful day in December, the promising wide receiver's career abruptly ended.

"I didn't know what was going on," Thomas recalls. "When the injury happened, all I know is I did a front flip. It sounded like I was under water, my hearing and vision were all crazy because of the pain. I really didn't feel it at first because my leg was asleep from the hip to the foot -- but I definitely felt it after."

Bailey, who also plays wide receiver for the Hawks, said watching his friend go down was something he will never forget.

"When I saw him go down, I thought he was just cramping," Bailey said. "I came over there and he wasn't saying anything, he was just pointing at his knee. I was just in shock, I called for the trainers. I didn't know what to do. It just blew my whole game, I didn't know what to think. I was crying on the sidelines. I wasn't focused at all after that."

Thomas suffered a severely torn ACL, PCL and meniscus on the play. Despite the gruesome injury, he held out hope that he would be able to once again play the sport he loved so much.

"I did not think it was the end of my football career," Thomas said. "I had faith at first, but as time progressed I saw that it wasn't getting any better and I would need a second surgery five months after the first surgery. The doctor told me I probably wouldn't be able to play again, and after six months he told me that I better start looking at other sports like golf to play because I wasn't going to be able to play football."

The road to recovery has been a difficult one, both physically and mentally. Thomas has endured several months of therapy and rehab just to be able to walk again. And now he has watched his best friends get recruited by top programs from all over. But Thomas says that, while it is difficult, he wants to see his best friends become successful college players.

"It does make me upset," Thomas said. "Ever since I got injured I've only been to, like, two games, the really big ones. I don't like to see the other guys play and I'm not able to be out there with them. It hurts me deep. Me, Alvin and Leon are all best friends. I'm still with them in spirit. I don't care if I can't play anymore, I'm just glad to see Alvin and Leon doing great things."

Bailey committed to the Gators after Armwood's game Sept. 2. He says that every time he steps on the field, he feels like his best friend is out there with him.

"We are brothers," Bailey said. "People ask who my brothers are and I always include Ronnie as a brother. We've known each other since the sixth grade. When I look at the situation, I don't look at it like he's still hurt. I talk to him as if he's right there with me going through the process. When I'm on the field, Ronnie is right there on the field with me. That's why I wear the No. 5 on my helmet. When I'm on the field I'm doing it for him.

"I just tell him don't let all of this get him down. I'm going to be doing my thing and he will still be doing his thing, even if it's not on the football field."

As for life after football, Thomas carries a 3.0 GPA and would like to attend USC to study music. Through this long and grueling process, he said he has come to terms with the fact he will never play football again, and now he finds himself rooting for his best friends.

"It feels good to see those guys succeed," he said. "If it's not me, the I want those guys to play well and succeed. I want what's best for them."