Randy Thomas kept it a secret. Even from his teammates.
They knew the Washington Redskins' right guard had an aching neck but didn't know how bad the injury was. Only Thomas' wife, his mother, and the Redskins' coaches and medical staff knew the gamble he took by playing in the second half of the 2008 season.
Thomas played with a herniated disk in his neck, an injury that required surgery in January. That injury, if aggravated the wrong way, could have ended his 10-year career or left him paralyzed.
Football builds that toughness, so you just keep going day-to-day thinking, "'I'll be all right,'" Thomas said. "That's the way I handled it for a couple of weeks. But after a while, I decided I needed to look into this some more so I talked to [now-retired director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer]."
The team's doctors soon shook up Thomas with their worst-case scenario.
"They mentioned the possibility of being [paralyzed], and it kinda shocked me," he said. "I called my wife, but I stayed positive. I told her, 'The doctor didn't say I can't play anymore.' If you give me a little daylight, I'm going to take it and go with it. I don't live in doubt. But she and my mother were on pins and needles every game after that."
Offensive line coach Joe Bugel said he had tears in his eyes when Thomas told him the bad news.
Then Randy said: 'The good news is, I'm going to play through it. I'm going to tell the doctor it's my body,'" Joe Bugel recalled. "I said: 'Are you sure this is what you want to do? We have a great friendship. I want a friend for life, and you're going to be that.' He said he really felt he could play with it. I said, 'You're not going to do anything stupid, are you?' We talked at length about it, but Randy's pretty stubborn. And that sucker went out and finished the season. Talk about a warrior."
Other than some precautionary massages, Thomas didn't change anything.
You couldn't tell, ? he said. ?I told a couple of guys I had gotten stingers, but I'd been having those since '05. It could have really ruined my life, but I never regret what I do. I was like, 'This is what I need to do. This is something we can take care of after the season.' We were trying to make the playoffs, and I felt like I could go. I was taking a chance, but football does that to you. I risked a lot. Any hit could have done it, but you get that competitive drive and you don't worry about the consequences.?
Thomas played the entire finale at San Francisco even though Washington had been eliminated from playoff contention, a major blow to him since he had missed the 2005 and 2007 postseasons because of a broken leg and torn triceps, respectively.
"It was satisfying walking off the field each week knowing I had made it through," Thomas said. "I had to finish the season. It was an accomplishment that I made it through."
A metal plate and screws replaced the herniated disk in the operation, and Thomas received clearance to begin working out last month. Thomas said he feels great. He's squatting more weight than he ever has during workouts with left guard Derrick Dockery and the team's young offensive linemen, leading Bugel to call him the Pied Piper.
The recovery was such a breeze except for that first week when I couldn't really swallow or eat a lot,? Thomas said. ?They removed something that was bad and replaced it with plates and screws. They said my neck's stronger than it was before. My whole left side just woke up. My numbness went away. I don't have headaches anymore. My hands aren't a little shaky anymore. I see a big-time change. It's like I was dipped in something new."