Thompson: Back injury in past

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Before last week, Chris Thompson had seen the film only a handful of times. Ten months had passed since he'd lowered his head, dived into a tackler and broken his back, and for the majority of that time, he'd tried to forget.

But things were different now. There had been weeks of pain and months of work and that lingering doubt about whether he could ever be the same, and now Thompson was ready to see it again, to watch it through the eyes of a man who'd fought through all of the consequences and emerged on the other side like a running back maneuvering past the chaos at the line of scrimmage to find daylight.

So he clicked play, and the spectacle unfolded on film just as he'd remembered it.

There's the handoff, the first step, the moment when he knows he should have broken outside but for reasons he still can't explain, he reversed course. And then there's the hit and the silence and the fear.

He clicks play again, and the morbid drama is reenacted once more.

And again.

And again.

And again, before a friend poses the obvious question: Why does Thompson keep watching?

• • •

Thompson's first carry during Tuesday's practice was a stretch play. He took the handoff from EJ Manuel, lured the defense outside, cut back upfield and broke free.

Teammates whistled and cheered. It had been a long time since anyone had seen Thompson display that quick first step, move with such fluid grace, run with such reckless abandon.

It was not vintage Chris Thompson. It was something more.

"I feel better than my old self," he said.

There were no pads, no hits, no risks.

This was little more than the second day of practice, a chance to get acclimated and shake off the rust of a long offseason. This was not a true test for Thompson, and yet it felt significant.

His teammates cheered not because Thompson displayed that familiar burst that could help rejuvenate the Seminoles running game this year. They cheered because they remembered the last time they'd seen it.

"We didn't know if he was ever going to play again," defensive tackle Everett Dawkins said. "To see him go out there with that same speed, he hasn't lost a step."

• • •

It could have been worse. Thompson knows this.

The hit in the first quarter of a loss to Wake Forest on Oct. 8 of last year broke the T-5 and T-6 vertebrae in Thompson's back. He was not paralyzed.

There were doubts, of course, about whether he would be able to recover and play football again, but those doubts didn't last. Thompson was tough. He'd overcome a back injury in high school, too. He could recover.

But then the more pressing question began to form in Thompson's mind. He knew he could play again, but should he?

"I tried to stay positive," Thompson said. "But at times, I did think -- maybe I shouldn't play ball anymore."

Thompson was on the sidelines for practices and games last season. He saw his teammates work, and he did his best to act as a coach when he couldn't help as a player. He was energized by their effort, fueled by their support, but still, he wondered.

By the time spring practice began, Thompson's back had recovered enough that he could run through drills again, but now a broken hand kept him off the field and away from contact.

This was a blessing. He wasn't ready to be hit.

"I was still in the recovery stage," he said.

Summer workouts began and Thompson kept pushing. He moved in small increments. He was as curious as anyone to learn what he was capable of if he took off the reins and unleashed his maximum effort, but it was too soon. His body was ready, but he was not.

In early July, however, the freshmen arrived on campus, and Thompson found inspiration.

During conditioning drills one day, Thompson decided to test himself against speedsters Ronald Darby and Marvin Bracy.

They ran, and he ran.

"I was able to keep it up, keep going, and once we got done I didn't have any pain," Thompson said.

• • •

It has been a month since Thompson kept pace with the two freshman track stars, but it all still feels new. He's not used to that burst of speed, and running like the old Chris Thompson feels far less familiar than it should.

After nine months of not knowing what would come next, he has trouble shaking that feeling.

"I try to be used to feeling good," Thompson said. "But I'll be honest, sometimes I do think about (the injury). That's a bad thing, but I can't really stop myself."

The fear, the doubt, the unknown -- it is baggage that slows a runner down, and so the objective should be to forget.

Forget the months of rehab.

Forget the pain that came with each step.

Forget those thoughts that still worm their way into Thompson's consciousness during the lonely hours late at night when he can't help but wonder if the next hit will feel like that last one, the one that nearly ended his career.

Forgetting should be the goal, but it is not.

Instead, Thompson clicks play again. He watches as he cuts a run back inside for no good reason. He watches as he ducks his head to try to elude a tackle, an instinctive reaction that he can't say for certain he won't do again in the heat of the moment. He watches as his body lay sprawled on the ground, and he remembers what it felt like and how far he's come.

Why does he keep watching?

"It happened, and I've got to remember it," Thompson said. "That's one of the things that keeps me going. I can say I overcame that."