* Blaine Thomas, 23, is recovering from a gun shot wound suffered last Friday in Durham
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Think about the best teammate you've ever had. Have you ever thought about what defined that person?
Maybe he or she was there for you on the good days or bad, encouraging you to be your best. Or maybe that person was the friend who always stuck by your side, the teammate who hung with you on the course or challenged you to become better.
Maybe that person wasn't as good as you as an athlete, but they continually reminded you of why you were capable of much more.
Now picture Blaine Thomas, 23, who is a much different man today than he was last week.
As a young kid in Tallahassee, Florida, he rode the high school cross country van with his sister and her coach, soaking information up like a sponge. In high school, he waited his turn, making the varsity cross country team as a junior at Chiles High School, then experienced his first state team championship win in 2014, ultimately displacing the other team's fifth and final scoring runner. In college, hoping to keep that flame alive just a little bit more, he ran through two torn labrums in his first season at UNC Pembroke to score in the steeplechase.
When Blaine finally realized running would just be a recreation, he found a different calling. He transferred to Florida State and followed a feeling that had been guiding him for so long, deciding to major in religion and minor in criminology.
"I think he needed someone other than his pastoral circle, or he needed somebody in his family to say, 'That's who you are. You need to go chase that,'" Blaine's father, Bob, said. "And he's been all in since then. He really has."
Then in 2019, it kept going. Faith led Blaine to Duke University, where he enrolled in Divinity School.
Which is all to say ... Blaine Thomas, who turned 23 in June, has done all the right things in his life, and he has lived a life of service for nearly everyone. In pursuit of that dream, he has found something he was truly passionate about.
But as in life and in competition, we all face challenges, and some endure more extreme hardships than others. And last Friday in Durham, North Carolina, Thomas faced the most difficult obstacle in his life when he was shot in a drive-by shooting while helping a neighbor with his car.
The bullet hit Blaine's stomach and exited the body entirely, dealing him with a major wound and blood loss that would prove to be life-threatening. Soon thereafter, he was rushed to the hospital by his roommate -- though perhaps in the only redeeming sign of this terrible moment -- it was just five blocks away.
Still, it was the start of the most difficult race of his life, the beginning of three surgeries that would see Blaine fight through the pain and come back on the other side.
What happened next for his family were the cursory moments that follow all traumatic events, and they weren't easy.
"He has maintained his sense of humor through all of his unbelievably," Bob Thomas said. "He's an amazing dude."
Police in Durham informed State Troopers in Tallahassee of Thomas' life-threatening injury, then the officers made the trip to the Thomas household -- just a few miles down the road -- in the dead of night to inform the young man's parents of what took place.
Bob Thomas, the longtime Florida State University track and field and cross country sports information director, first heard his dogs barking at 1:40 a.m.
"Then Kim (my wife) heard a knock at the door," he said.
"We were greeted by two Tallahassee police officers. They told us right there on our front porch what happened."
While helping a neighbor get into his car late Friday night in Durham, a gunman unloaded on the complex where Blaine and his roommate lived, approximately 100 feet where they were standing. Blaine was shot through the stomach.
For a moment, a crushing fear crept into Bob's and Kim's heads: The possible death of a child.
"If you have a child that's away in college or in the military, seeing someone come to your door, that's probably the worst feeling in the world," he said.
While Blaine was still alive, the police said, he was being rushed to surgery and he had a real fight on his hands. Unfortunately, in a world of COVID-19, only one close family member would be able to be in the hospital at the same time, so Bob kissed his wife and immediately got on the road, making the nearly eight hour trip from Tallahassee to Durham, keeping his phone on his hip.
When news of Blaine's injury came to his sister, Carly -- who ran collegiately at Florida State University -- she almost didn't believe it.
"I screamed," she said. "I was in disbelief."
Carly was with her fiance in St. Augustine, Florida, and immediately raced home to pick up her younger brother, Cole, wanting to tell him the news in person. Bob was just an hour or two into his journey north.
It was hard not to think of memories on that drive, those father and son moments of which all dad's have for a lifetime. He found it difficult to think of just what his son was facing.
But ultimately, Bob said, he kept coming back to Blaine's faith. Years ago, this was a young man who was a leader of his high school's FCA. Then, while on campus at FSU, he had been a resource for students, and a familiar face in the church. There was also the runner ... the athlete ... the person who wouldn't quit.
"My son is incredibly blessed with the spirit of the Lord and he's a complete rock star at what he does," Bob Thomas said.
Blaine was in North Carolina for a reason. In recent months, as the coronavirus was ravaging the state of Florida, he took on a new internship and presided over a new role as a chaplain inside the hospital at Duke.
Over that stretch, he saw the highs and lows of the world through the lense of his faith. From praying for individuals going through hardship, to seeing individuals potentially on their last days, he begun to understand just what servicing others meant on a broader level.
"There was times when he told me, 'Today was a hard day,'" Bob remembered of a conversation. "And for someone who has never experienced that, it probably challenged his perspective on things. But his Divinity School family, it really embraced him and he embraced them, too."
Soon enough, Bob was in Durham.
He felt fortunate to see his son, who, while on the hospital bed and tubes in his mouth and nose, had this fighting spirit -- Bob saw the runner who never gave up.
"The hospital saved his life," Bob said. "It was not a minor injury. It was a devastating gun shot wound."
The first surgery aimed to save Blaine's life, stopping the blood loss and preserving his internal organs. The second surgery worked on Blaine's spleen, which was impacted along with the kidney, and the third and final surgery tried to put a bow on all of it. Blaine ultimately received 58 pints of blood to help him stay alive.
Through it out, Blaine has continued to inspire people. His selfless spirit has been evident.
"I'm moved every day when people come in," Bob said. "I have seen professionals who are professionals because they are chaplains. They are supposed to be composed and pray. I've seen doctors and heard nurses and seen nurses cry and be moved by what he's moved from what he's going through. That doesn't happen. That tells me how special Blaine is and how he has moved people."
Just before the third surgery, Blaine was awake, though unable to speak. Doctors and nurses gave him a whiteboard to communicate with his father.
As the phone calls piled up, and Blaine listened to all the friends and family and loved ones in his life, he blinked his eyes, cried and then smiled.
A person on the other line joked to Blaine, "You've finally got your street cred."
Blaine responded through the whiteboard, slowly writing each letter. "I ...m ...m ...o...r...e ...h...o...l...e...y"
"He has maintained his sense of humor through all of his unbelievably," Bob said. "He's an amazing dude."
Back in Tallahassee, Carly was with her family and thinking of the next steps. While she was unable to be in Durham with her brother, she thought she could help in another way.
"As soon as people started hearing what happened, we thought of, 'What can we do?'" she said. "I had a couple people say, Why don't you do a GoFundMe? And I was like, you know what, I think that's the best idea."
Not thinking much of it, Thomas set the goal at $20,000. It got surpassed in a few days. First it was family members and friends. And then friends of Florida State. And then even more donations came, some from people high up in the sports world.
As word spread, more and more donations came. Soon enough, the GoFundMe was at $40,000.
Blaine's high school coach at Chiles, Scott Gowan, was back in Tallahassee and couldn't stop thinking about his former athlete.
"I'm 500 miles away and I wish I could do more," he said. "I've talked to Blaine's teammates and former class members and I told them to pray for Blaine. Deep down, I knew he was going to make it. He's too tough. He's a fighter, he's not a quitter."
As a coach, he also reflected on all those moments with Blaine. He thought of those times when he drove the van with a younger Thomas in the front seat, listening to all the athletes talk about the big race.
Thomas had wanted to be a part of that team for as long as he could remember. His sister had won a state individual championship in 2009. His father had been around the NCAA program at Florida State for as long as he could remember. And then, when that opportunity finally came, Blaine made the most of it, Gowan remembered. He was part of the team's top seven for his final two seasons.
"For Blaine, he could have been a No. 1 somewhere else," he said. "But if I know him like I think I do, I know he would have rather been on a good team than be a No. 1."
Gowan remembered Blaine's final performance at the state cross country championships in 2014. He ran his fastest 5K of his high school career on a difficult Apalachee Regional Park course -- the first time any Florida team was on it -- and went 16:15. While he finished sixth for Chiles, he displaced Leon's fifth-runner, ultimately leading his team to a state title.
"That might have been the best team we ever had," he said.
Back in Durham, just a day after his third surgery, Blaine said his first words to his father.
Then on a FaceTime call, he spoke to his mother and sister. Tears streamed down their faces.
Soon enough, doctors eventually took the ventilator off.
His GoFundMe hit $60,000 and continues to climb -- and that will be important, considering the recovery will be long and hard.
Then, on Thursday, less than a week after his gun shot wound, Blaine stood up for the first time and walked a lap around the floor of the hospital. There were too many smiles to count.
Maybe the most poignant moment of this week-long journey so far, Bob said, was early on in the process of figuring things out.
As he was trying to work his way through the Emergency Room to see his son, Bob was stopped at the front desk. He was asked to provide information of who he was and who he was trying to see.
"My son, Blaine," he said, "he's in the ER."
"OK, let me see," the nurse responded.
"He's in the CPE program here at Duke. He's a chaplain in training at Duke Medical."
Her eyes shot back up.
"Oh my God," she said. "I didn't realize that was him when we were working on him. I know him. He's always in here helping people and helping us."
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DONATE
Carly Thomas has begun a GoFundMe for her brother and has titled it, 'Blaine Recovery Fund.' You can also follow Carly's Facebook updates on Blaine at this link.
It should be said that Blaine is definitely a MileSplit family member.
His family obviously is a huge part of the Florida cross country and track and field community. But even deeper than that, Blaine himself has stuck with this sport even after graduating from Chiles in 2015.
Back in 2017, I met him for the first time at the Florida State University Pre-State Cross Country Invitational. It was there where Blaine came on the broadcast as a co-host.
He was a generous, kind, and most of all, a willing listener and learner. And, as the race coverage shows, he knows his stuff, too!
Check out Blaine's commentary from that race: