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Ex-CHS athlete coping with life-changing football injury
Thomas Vanderlaan will receive a hometown hero's welcome from family, friends, teachers, coaches and community members on Jan. 14.

The 2008 Ceres High graduate's life was forever changed in June of 2011.

Vanderlaan, 21, broke his neck and injured his spinal cord while practicing with the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Falcons' football team. He's paralyzed from the mid-chest down.

"It was really hard to handle at first," said Vanderlaan, a 6-foot-7 defensive end. "I'm probably one of the most independent persons you'll meet. But it's just a transition, something I got to get used to."

Thomas was hospitalized for over four months. He had two major surgeries. Vanderlaan currently attends physical therapy three times a week at the San Diego VA Hospital.

"My biggest goal is to make it to a manual wheelchair and be able to push myself around," he said.

Vanderlaan played varsity football for two seasons at Ceres High under Brett Johnson's guidance.

He earned honorable-mention, Valley Oak League accolades his senior year. Thomas started at center on offense. He made 28 tackles, registered one sack and forced one fumble on defense. Vanderlaan earned an invitation to the 23rd North/South Chowchilla Rotary All-Star Football Game.

"He was a pleasure to coach and be around," Johnson said. "He's a very positive, hard-working kid. He never backed down from a challenge. He gave everything he had every play."

Thomas earned two varsity letters in basketball while suiting up for Jason Martin.

A standout center, Vanderlaan made the VOL All-Defensive Team as a senior. He ranked fourth on the team in scoring (5.8 ppg). He came off the bench his junior season.

Thomas attended grades K-12 in Ceres. He went to Virginia Parks Elementary and Mae Hensley Jr. High.

Vanderlaan joined the Marines following a year of schooling and football at Modesto Junior College. He worked as a correctional specialist at the Navy Consolidated Brig in Miramar for four months before his accident. Thomas achieved the rank of Corporal in two-and-a-half years.

"I got bored of the slow life," he said. "I wanted something more."

Family friend Rita Trejo helped organize this weekend's event, which will be held from 3-5 p.m. inside Ceres High's cafeteria.

"I just felt like I needed to do it," she said. "He's my son's best friend. When we found out about the accident, we visited and prayed for him. He deserves to be recognized for what he's done. This is a kid who went to school here. He's well known."

Said Vanderlaan: "I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at home. I want to thank them for believing in me."