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Leopard relives instant of impact

Thomas Bunn returns from a broken leg two years later to play in the very same game in which the injury occurred.

By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002


Thomas Bunn had been here before.

In this stadium. Against this opponent. In this very situation.

It cost him two years of football.

Shaking off his queasiness and uneasiness, Bunn snapped the ball to Hernando punter Willie Fifer and charged downfield Oct. 11 at Lecanto's Panther Stadium.

Bunn fought through a gantlet of blockers and neared the punt returner. All around him, voices shouted, pads cracked and bodies collided.

He had but one thought: "Don't get hurt."

Two years ago, he had.

A broken femur led to 2 operations, 9 weeks away from school, 4 months of rehabilitation, 2 years without football and a 4-inch scar above his knee.

Bunn remembers the date: Sept. 8, 2000.

Hernando led 21-0 late in the game when Bunn raced downfield on the kickoff coverage squad. Teammate Ryan Bunch ran alongside.

As they neared the Lecanto ballcarrier, Bunch was hit from behind and lost his balance. His helmet smashed into Bunn's right leg, breaking it. After a 20-minute delay, Bunn was taken to a local hospital.

"It was nasty," Hernando running back Dee Brown said at the time.

"I don't know what he did, but it was nasty. I heard him screaming," Brown said. "'I know he always jokes around, but when he's serious, I know something's wrong."

The injury ended Bunn's season. Recovering from it took far longer.

Bunn's femur was snapped and wedged down beside the knee. He was in surgery for three hours, 45 minutes of which were spent just getting the femur out from beside the knee.

"They had to put a 2-by-4 up in my groin, and the doctor said they had a winch kind of thing," Bunn said.

"They were going to cut (the leg) open and then move (the femur), but on the last tug he said they yanked it and it popped out."

Dr. Adrian Medina realigned the leg and inserted five bolts above Bunn's knee.

"My husband (Jerry) told him when he was laying in the hospital bed, "You know, this is going to take you two years to get over,' " said Bunn's mother, Susan.

Bunn's comeback began the following day, when he was released from the hospital. He returned for X-rays every two days for the next few weeks, then weekly until his cast was removed.

The cast was exchanged for a brace. Months of rehabilitation followed, consisting of leg workouts and electric stimulation.

Drugs alleviated only some of the pain.

"It was just like having a baby, because he was up all night with pain," Susan said. "It was awful."

Bunn's medication was reduced after four weeks. But because he was in a wheelchair, he could not return to school for five more.

Bunn's mother said it took three weeks to find a home tutor. When the family finally did, the teacher could help with only science, history and English, so Bunn had to drop Spanish.

He attended some home games in a wheelchair and was cleared to ride the team bus for Hernando's final road game.

By the following spring, Bunn's doctor told him the best way to rehabilitate the leg was to start using it again. So he went out for baseball.

Lacking speed and mobility and favoring the leg, Bunn saw only sporadic action in the outfield during a largely forgettable junior varsity season.

He considered playing football in the fall, but his doctor suggested an MRI to make sure everything was healing properly. That meant a 45-minute operation to take the pins out of his leg and another month of rehab.

"He said it was just like breaking it again," Bunn's mother said. "There was the pain, and he had to wear the brace again, which he really didn't want to do."

The MRI results were encouraging, and Bunn played baseball the following spring. A catcher since T-ball, he was moved to pitcher and had a 7-1 record and 1.82 earned-run average for the varsity.

He even picked up a nickname, "The Vulture," for his habit of entering games late and leaving with wins.

"One day, I went in pitching against Springstead and we were down 3-2 in the fifth inning," Bunn said. "I threw to one batter, and we got up to bat and we scored 11 runs and I got the win."

Baseball season went so well, Bunn hopes to continue playing in college.

He was reluctant when Fifer approached him with the idea of returning to the football team for his senior season. Fifer, after all, quit playing after witnessing Bunn's injury.

The two had an agreement. If one plays, so does the other. In time, Fifer persuaded Bunn to return to the Leopards.

"I just figured, I might as well," Bunn said. "It's my senior year. I might as well go all out."

Fifer couldn't believe it.

"He's got guts," Fifer said. "I don't know if I'd be able to do it."

Bunn's baseball coaches were less than thrilled with the idea. His mother feared for her son's safety when he left for Hernando's opening game at Springstead.

She attended the Leopards' home opener against Citrus and was encouraged when Bunn returned home injury-free.

"I just keep looking around to make sure you see his number standing up," Susan said.

The real test came last week, when Bunn returned to Lecanto to play in the stadium where the injury occurred.

Hernando's first punt was pivotal.

Bunn, who snaps for punts, field goals and extra points, flipped the ball back to Fifer and ran downfield to cover the punt.

His first few games back, Bunn had tried to avoid contact. But coach Bill Browning had noted before the game that linebacker Andres Lawson had made more than half of Hernando's tackles on punt coverage and challenged the other players to do their part.

So, ignoring the memory of his injury and the instinct to protect himself, Bunn propelled himself through the blockers, past his fear and toward the return man, wrestling him to the ground.

It was a tackle two years in the making.

"I think it's a thing now where he won't look back on it when he's 25 years old and say, "Gee, I wish I would have overcame that fear,' " Browning said. "You get in a car accident, but you've got to get back in that car and drive at some point, and I think he eventually overcame that."

-- Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to pastor@sptimes.com.

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