Thomas, a stroke survivor, an inspiration to UConn football teammates

Storrs — His challenging comeback from a devastating stroke continues every day.

UConn's Eli Thomas, a redshirt junior linebacker, has gradually improved since undergoing surgery roughly six months ago. He still sometimes hesitates when speaking.

He's recovered to the point where he's cleared to train with his teammates, but not play football.

It's just another trying trip down the road to recovery for Thomas, who's dealt with more than his share of adversity. He's bounced back from three knee surgeries during his football career.

"It's my life," Thomas said on Tuesday. "One thing happens and I just keep going and keep pushing. That's what life is. When life gives you lemons, I make grape juice. You never expect anything. You've just got to go with it."

Coach Randy Edsall recently named Thomas one of three team captains, along with Matt Peart and Luke Magliozzi.

Watching Thomas compete in a recent cone drill only reinforced Edsall's decision.

"He laid out just to try to win," Edsall marveled. "If all those guys can't give the effort that he has then they shouldn't be a part of what's going on. To me, that's the inspiration. To see how much his teammates mean to him, how much this game means to him, how much this university means to him, there's no better inspiration and there's no better motivation than having that guy in your room and around you."

Peart has been by Thomas's side during his comeback. They're roommates as well as teammates.

"Just to see him come back from where he's been is truly amazing," Peart said. "Just to know what he's been through is nothing like anyone could handle, especially at his age. I'm just really happy that he's back on the field, back in the weight room with us and back in the room, hanging out and everything.

"It's a testament to his passion and love for the game and for his brothers."

A native of Elmira, N.Y., Thomas spent two years at Lackawanna College before transferring to UConn. He has come a long way since suffering a stroke before a weightlifting workout in Storrs last Oct. 10.

That day, Thomas started showing symptoms while stretching. He couldn't talk and didn't understand what was happening. The UConn training staff alertly took him aside and asked him a series of questions.

"I couldn't even think of how to answer," Thomas said. "It doesn't make sense, I know. The best thing I can think is I was watching a movie of my life but I wasn't in it. After that, they took me to the hospital 15 minutes away and gave me some medicine to stop the stroke.

"After that, I don't really remember much except after I woke up from surgery and my family was there and everybody was crying. ... I tried to talk and I couldn't talk. I couldn't say anything at all."

Thomas spent 10 days in the hospital, seven in the intensive care unit. Then he went to a rehabilitation hospital for another six days.

While sidelined last fall, teammate Santana Sterling wore his number 22 in a game against South Florida and made an interception.

"Don't ever tell him I told you this," Thomas said. "A couple of tears dropped when he caught that. ... It made me feel really good."

Thomas returned to school in January.

He says his rehab is less physically demanding than when recovering from ACL surgery, but is more mentally challenging.

There's no guarantee that Thomas will ever play football again. "Nobody thought I was going to be here, so I'm definitely hopeful," he said.

Former New England Patriot Ted Bruschi offered Thomas some valuable and uplifting advice during a visit to UConn a few weeks ago.

Bruschi suffered a stroke in 2015 and eventually returned to play later that same year.

"The hardest thing is the unknown," Thomas said. "I'm in here working out but am I going to able to play? But I don't worry about that any more. Tedy told me just take it day by day and it will work itself out."

Thomas has gained strength from the loving support of his family and people back home as well as his UConn teammates and coaching staff.

He's remained positive while battling through all the adversity.

"I'm alive," Thomas said. "I almost died. That makes me pretty happy. I'm grateful every day. I tell my friends and family every single day I love them. It's just inspiring. At the end of the day, many people have it way worse than I have. I know some kid that got in a car accident and he can't walk anymore.

"I'm good. My speech is messed up and I'm good. I'm still going to classes and playing football. I'm good. It's not that crazy to me."

g.keefe@theday.com


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