|FSU's Chris Thompson suffered two broken vertebrae last season at Wake Forest. (US Presswire)|
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- They come to Chris Thompson before each game -- teammates -- to pledge their protection. Receivers, offensive linemen, blocking fullbacks. They've got his back, which is almost a sick analogy.
Among other setbacks in his Florida State career, Thompson has actually broken his back.
In some form or another they all tell him, "The guy that's guarding me, he won't hit you."
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It's a silly promise, really. Thompson, of course, is hit hard multiple times each game. Two vertebrae were broken in his back after taking a hit in last season's Wake Forest game. It has been a long, hard return to the point that each one of Thompson's 33 carries this season seem like a gift.
"Every week I pretty much see Coach [Jimbo] Fisher showing how much he really trusts me," Thompson said at the height of Florida State's relevance this week. The conquest of Clemson has kept the 'Noles solidly at No. 4, established them as ACC favorites and confirmed some portion of the promise that FSU is "back."
At this recent high point of FSU football, those teammates still feel compelled to offer their protection promise. Florida State's senior tailback -- at 5-foot-8, 187 pounds -- is asked if his teammates believe he needs that extra shielding.
"Maybe in the back of their minds, they are thinking about that," he says. "They all know what I went through and know what I made it out of."
Thompson, an Eastern Time Zone version of LaMichael James, knows he is lucky to be able to experience the moment. So lucky that he is asked if his life to this point has been blessed or cursed.
"I'm blessed," he says, "I'm still blessed."
You wonder if that question can be asked of the entire program. The great Bobby Bowden went out 33 months ago not quite covered in glory. The program had slumped. Saint Bobby had to vacate 12 wins after an NCAA investigation. Coach Jimbo Fisher's son has an extremely rare genetic disorder that causes bone marrow failure.
Football hardly seems to matter after that, and it has been a long time since the 'Noles have mattered as much as they do right now. So they balance the reality of current life with the potential of restoring football glories past.
"Stories, I've been hearing stories," said sophomore tailback James Wilder Jr., who was 7 the last time the 'Noles were playing for a national championship. "I could know more about the history."
Blessed or cursed?
"It's amazing how the Lord was with them," Frankie Carroll said.
The Pelham (Ga.) High coach isn't talking about FSU at all. Carroll is at a new job these days. For 34 years he was at Madison County (Fla.) High in Greenville, Fla., about 60 miles east of here. It is where Thompson played, growing up loving the Seminoles. Rated the second-best all-purpose prospect nationally, Thompson picked the 'Noles over Miami, Florida and Clemson.
Think that made a difference Saturday night?
"Chris always wanted to be a Seminole," Carroll said.
Madison County is also where Thompson almost lost his life.
"His mama believes and I believe God has a plan," Carroll said. "It was part of God's plan. It showed Chris believed that God left him here for a purpose."
There are folks close to this program who are amazed that the prize running back is around at all. That day when Frankie was called five years ago, Carroll's brother Bubba was on the other end of the line. Nine hours away. It was bad. Real bad.
Thompson and two Madison teammates as well as two coaches were returning from a camp in San Antonio. On that day Thompson woke up on a lonely stretch of I-10 in rural Louisiana. Standing. He had no idea how he had gotten there, or out of the back seat. Around him were twisted bodies and a wrecked van. A New Orleans woman was passing on the left when a tire blew out and forced the van off the road.
"I was watching Apocalypto ," Thompson said. "It really started to get good to me. Something in my mind just started to tell me: 'Close your DVD player and go to sleep.' I don't know why, but it was something that kept running through my head.
"Next time I open my eyes, I was actually standing up from me to you [a few feet away] on the Interstate, cars flying by. Standing there no shoes on. I looked down the hill and I saw the van."
News accounts said the van flipped over several times. Once again, Thompson has no idea why he wasn't hurt. Bubba Carroll, now 34, and Thompson's teammate Jacobbi McDaniel were knocked unconscious. Perhaps when he went to sleep that relaxed Thompson's body enough. Where he had been sitting, there was an oak tree. His seat was smashed to the roof of the van.
When Frankie Carroll got the call he jumped in the car with his daughter-in-law and drove those nine hours straight through.
"I prayed for nine hours," he said. Those that were hurt the worst were treated at a hospital. The others went to a nearby hotel to wait until Carroll and his daughter-in-law arrived. "I pretty much came out the healthiest," Thompson said. "I just think it was something God did. To this day, my coaches don't know what happened. The coach that was sitting beside me got hurt pretty bad to the point he was told he may not have kids ever."
Thompson's payoff, for now, is being the leading rusher for a top-five team. Those seniors have suffered through hurts off and on the field. FSU has mostly been a series of almosts since last winning the ACC in 2005. Saturday seemed different.
"This is what you sign up for when you come to Florida State," quarterback EJ Manuel said, "big games like this."
But there is so much more. Thompson has spoken to his old high school team about his experience. Live for now and for something higher. When you slip out of death's tackle there has to be something else in charge.
But what about that blown tire, the accident itself? Who was in charge of that? Things tend to get metaphysical real fast in such situations. When asked about it, Thompson practically gushes. He has the answer. It is clearly something he hasn't buried in a mental file somewhere. It's something he celebrates because along with the Seminoles back on the national scene Chris Thompson is, well, here.
"God," Frankie Carroll says, quoting the mental file of his former player, "has a plan for me."