GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Jaquarius Thomas is considered the loudest player and jokester of the Greenville-Weston football team.
He's also the most inspirational.
The junior linebacker opened the season with 10 tackles in a come-from-behind victory at Gentry, and he's been a vocal leader for the Hornet defense.
"He is definitely a guy that everyone listens to on the team," said Hornets head coach Shannon Williams. "You can tell when a kid is happy to be out there, and he's definitely happy to be out there amongst his brothers."
Thomas always has a smile on his face and continually encourages his teammates. If you didn't know him, you would never know his life was just centimeters from being taken away.
Thomas was getting dressed for Greenville-Weston's graduation the evening of Friday, May 24, when he was looking for a shirt at his grandparents' home. It wasn't in the first closet, so he looked in another as his younger brother Johnny, a sophomore, followed close behind. Thomas felt as if something was about to happen.
"I told him, 'Don't touch nothing you ain't got no business touching.' ... I didn't know nothing was in the room, so I really don't know why that came out my mouth. I turned my back and about 30 seconds later, 'boom.'"
Thomas had accidentally been shot with a .38-caliber revolver. He said it grazed the left side of his head.
"It hit me in the back of the head, and it came out my (left) eye," Thomas said. "All I heard was a humming sound. I dropped to my knee then I got up and walked out of the room, down the hall and sat on the couch. I was conscious the whole time.
"Johnny told me it just went off in his hand by accident. I really, truly think I'm blessed because it felt like as if I knew it was going to happen."
Thomas was airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. There, Thomas met with Dr. Kyle Lewis, an eye surgeon, and learned the extent of the injury.
"He told me when I was shot that it damaged the muscles that make your eye turn right, so this eye (left) don't turn left. It just goes right and up and down," Thomas said. "He said I wasn't going to have vision out of it. I knew I wasn't going to have vision out of it because the eyeball was hanging out of my eyelid. I knew that was over with."
Even with the injury to his eye, that really was the least of his concerns.
"The whole while I was there the doctor was shocked because they were like, 'Why you ain't worried about yourself?' The only thing I was talking about was football. Can I still do this, can I still do that."
Defensive coordinator Quintarus McCray was with Thomas at the hospital. Thomas impressed him with his attitude.
"He's just a warrior," McCray said. "I just knew then he was dedicated."
Thomas had on surgery on Saturday and returned home that evening with a greeting from Johnny, his twin brother Jadarrius and several of his coaches and teammates, including fellow senior linebacker Jimmy Sims.
"When I saw him, I was like, 'Aw, it's got to be over for him,'" Sims said. "It was not too good."
Thomas and Sims alternated every four plays on defense last season. Thomas and Sims were fifth and seventh, respectively, on the team with 31 and 27 tackles. Thomas had 2.5 tackles for a loss with a team-high two sacks and a fumble recovery, having played in just seven of the team's 11 games.
Thomas had his sights set on a big 2013 season, and he was determined to not let this setback keep him down. He missed all the summer practices and 7-on-7 scrimmages in June and July and was disappointed he wasn't out there with his teammates. He could only watch.
"I'd come up here every day and sit with the team and let them know I was all right," he said.
Thomas was cleared in mid-July and invested in a patch to cover his eye after the bandage was removed. Fall practice began Aug. 1, and Thomas wasted no time in making his presence known.
"He was hungry," McCray said. "It was like he was a new kid. There was a feeling all over the field and everybody felt it. He was running around and having fun."
Thomas couldn't have been happier to finally be back on the practice field.
"I was just trying to get everyone hyped and letting them know I'm going to do my best," he said. "I was just really excited."
With such a close encounter to death, Thomas realized how fragile life can be. He was already taking accelerated classes in school, but realized he needed to make a change in his life. Thomas became a Christian and was baptized at Walking in Love Ministries.
"All in life all I really love to do is play football; that's me," Thomas said. "I was hanging with friends I had no business hanging with, and it was just after it hit me, it was my time to just go on and clear it out. It's football and church; playing my video games, playing with my brother; and spend time with my family."
Williams said Thomas has changed since the baptism, and it has shown on the field.
"He's become more of a vocal kid and is now showing positive things," he said. "Not even worried or concerned with football, but it changed his life, and I think it put him on the right path, understanding tomorrow is not promised. And you have to live your life in accordance because when it's your time to go, you want to make sure that you've done everything right and pleasing in the sight of God."
McCray said Thomas is the heartbeat of the team and his impact goes beyond football.
"When he's going, we're all going," McCray said. "He's made the coaches want to go harder. Everything I do, I do for them on and off the field. I try to set an example. I use him as an example all the time. He's still hungry, and he still fights. It's been a learning experience for everybody to take nothing for granted. He did a great job of showing us that this summer. He doesn't take a play off. He doesn't take a day off. I don't think another kid of his generation would have done that and come back so quick. Nothing gets him down."
With a patch covering his eye the first two weeks of practice, it took a little time for Thomas to adjust. He couldn't look to his left without moving his head around, and he had to get used to catching the ball again. However, he has not allowed that to be an excuse.
"I had to get used to locking my eye down on the ball," said Thomas, who know has an artificial eye. "Then I had to get my angles on tackling right. I stayed after practice some days because I was real determined in my head to get this right."
Sims said the team had a missing element, and it was Thomas.
"He brings a lot of energy to the team," Sims said. "He's became a lot better player since last year, even with one eye. I don't think I could do what he's done. He's a strong guy and has come back to it like a man and did what he had to do.
"It makes me think you never know when it's your last chance. It makes me think to go hard every time, every chance I get."
Information from: Delta Democrat Times, http://www.ddtonline.com