UConn football family rallies around hospitalized teammate

In this Aug. 30 file photo, UConn linebacker Eli Thomas (22) raises his arms to the crowd as the team enters the field for their season-opening game against Central Florida at East Hartford. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)
In this Aug. 30 file photo, UConn linebacker Eli Thomas (22) raises his arms to the crowd as the team enters the field for their season-opening game against Central Florida at East Hartford. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)

Storrs — UConn football coach Randy Edsall received the shocking news after his flight arrived at his recruiting destination last week.

During the bye week, redshirt junior Eli Thomas, a 22-year-old linebacker, suffered a stroke prior to a weightlifting workout on Wednesday and was rushed to the hospital.

Edsall received updates throughout that day and shortened his trip to Maryland, returning home on Thursday morning. When his flight landed, he went straight to the hospital.

"You don't like those kind of phone calls," Edsall said. "When you're on the road and all of a sudden you're getting a phone call from a trainer, or doctor or athletic director, usually it's not a good thing. Then what you do is you just put things in motion to best help and comfort the family."

Out of respect to the family, Edsall declined to go into detail about Thomas, letting UConn's statement stand from Monday that included remarks from Thomas' mother Mary Beth Turner.

The UConn coaching staff and players are rallying around Thomas, who's in stable condition and making good progress.

Senior linebacker Santana Sterling asked to wear Thomas' No. 22 on Saturday when UConn visits No. 20 South Florida in Tampa.

"Santana's going to wear his number this week as long as he wants to for the rest of the season," Edsall said. "He came to me and I said I have no problem with that."

The Huskies are still trying to digest what happened to Thomas.

It put things in perspective.

"When we heard what actually happened, it was very scary," linebacker Eddie Hahn said. "It made you really be grateful and sit down and thank everybody that is close to you and tell everybody that you love them because you don't know when it is going to happen to you.

"... You just want to pray that he gets back to 100 percent and he gets back around us as soon as possible because we miss him."

One of the team's veterans, Thomas has battled through adversity throughout his football career, working his way back from a knee injury three different times. The linebacker has appeared in four games this season, recording 11 tackles and one sack.

Now Thomas is on the sidelines again, dealing with a significant health issue.

"It's really sad and it hurts, because that's a guy who gives 100 percent all the time ," senior Tyraiq Beals said. "He's a real energy guy. For something like that to happen to him after everything that he's been through, it does hurt us a lot.

"You really don't know what to say about it and all you want to do is just pray he gets better."

The Huskies are keeping Thomas in their thoughts as they prepare to play No. 20 South Florida (6-0) in Tampa on Saturday night.

The family has asked the Huskies to put together what they're calling, "The Book of Eli."

"I'm definitely going to have something to write in that," redshirt freshman Zavier Scott. "I've also been keeping in contact with him, making sure the family is okay. I sent him a message just to try to give him a little pick-me-up.

"Also, he's one of the guys that comes to our weekly recovery run. Obviously, he wasn't able to make it this week, so we put his jersey out there. He's still with us."

Edsall praised UConn's training and medical staff for their response that day to help Thomas, whose mother extended a special thank you to assistant athletic trainers Caitlyn VanWie and Tony Salvatore.

"They did an absolutely phenomenal job," Edsall said. "I was told that from the time that Tony made the call to when they got the clot out, I think that was the fastest that that particular surgeon ever had that process happen."

g.keefe@theday.com

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