Sep. 18—MANKATO — Having recovered from three surgeries on the same knee and a stroke, and having traveled halfway across the country looking for a place to play football, Eli Thomas stood on the sidelines of Blakeslee Stadium two weeks ago, excited about the future but wary of the past.
"It was emotional," said Thomas, a senior middle linebacker for the Minnesota State football team. "I've been to the mountain top a couple of times, and something always brings me down.
"It felt too good to be true. I kept thinking something bad was going to happen. But I stayed in the moment because every play could be your last. I plan to take advantage of every play I have."
Thomas and the Mavericks are back at home Saturday, hosting Bemidji State at 4 p.m. at Blakeslee Stadium.
"It's been a long journey, for sure," Thomas said.
Thomas, who grew up in Elmira, New York, suffered a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee during the spring track season of his senior year, which sidetracked his dream of playing college football.
He ended up spending two seasons at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and after getting an offer to play at the University of Connecticut, he tore the same knee ligament.
"I was nervous that UConn was going to pull the offer, but they didn't," Thomas said. "I have a lot of respect for the coaching staff at UConn."
He played in five games at UConn in 2019, starting one, but then suffered a stroke at practice in October. He was doing some stretching when his right side became paralyzed.
"The trainers responded really fast," he said. "They saved my life."
When he woke up in the hospital, he couldn't talk. But he was back at UConn by January, working hard on his classes and his speech.
"I still have some trouble," he said. "Some things just don't click like they used to."
When he was finally cleared to return to football, he wasn't sure he'd get another chance. He explored the transfer portal and attracted some interest from Division I and Division II programs.
"But every time I told them I had a stroke, they weren't interested," he said.
He finally found a home at Minnesota State, where he enrolled in January of 2020 and has been waiting to return to the field.
"It's been a long journey," he said. "I'm faster and stronger now than I was before the stroke," Thomas said. "I thought college football was done for me. I was really low. But the staff (at Minnesota State) gave me a chance to keep playing football."
Through two games, Thomas is the Mavericks' leading tackler with nine solos, including 1.0 tackles for loss, and three assists.
"The (middle linebacker) is kind of like the quarterback," Minnesota State coach Todd Hoffner said. "Both positions require leadership and productivity for each unit to be successful."
The Minnesota defense has struggled, allowing more than 30 points in each of the first two games and more than 100 yards rushing in a game for the first time in quite a while.
There's been only six sacks, with no interceptions and only one fumble recovery. Opponents are averaging 362.5 yards per game and been successful on 40.6% of the third-down plays and 1 of 1 on fourth-down plays.
"Collectively, we haven't played well — offensively, defensively and special teams," Hoffner said. "When the team isn't playing well, that's a reflection on the head coach. We have to figure out how we can get better."
Thomas said that with all the new faces on defense — Minnesota State returned just four defensive starters from 2019 — there's been some miscommunication and confusion on the field.
But the energy and enthusiasm at practice this week was good.
"We've been beating ourselves," Thomas said. "We have to be accountable for what we're doing on the field. We just have to worry about doing our jobs. We have standards of excellence, and we haven't been doing that.
"We're just trying to fix things and get better."
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.