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Thomas honored
Thomas Vanderlaan might never walk again.

The ex-Ceres High athlete broke his neck while training with the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Falcons football team in June of 2011. The accident left him paralyzed from the mid-chest down.

Vanderlaan has since regained feeling in parts of his body, including chest, underarms, left leg and ankle, and right knee. He can also move his arms.

"I'm definitely doing a lot better," said Vanderlaan, 21. "I'm trying to increase my strength in what I do have and work on my hands. I'll make the best out of it. That's how I've always been. I just have to start from square one."

Thomas received a warm welcome during Saturday's hometown hero ceremony. More than 100 people attended. They gathered inside Ceres High's cafeteria.

The event was covered by Fox 40 News.

American Legion Hall Ceres Post 491 honored Vanderlaan.

Ceres Youth Basketball founder Don Donaldson presented a Virginia Parks Elementary basketball jersey to Vanderlaan.

Brett Johnson and Jim Pernetti, two of Thomas' former coaches, spoke.

"We're here to honor and support him," said Rita Trejo, family friend and event organizer. "He deserves it."

Said Vanderlaan: "It was pretty breathtaking. It feels good to know I made a positive impact on people's lives."

Thomas was hospitalized from June 28-November 6.

He spent a month in La Jolla-Scripts ICU.

Marine Vanderlaan was transferred to San Diego VA Hospital.

Thomas was in a coma for three weeks.

He had two major surgeries.

His weight dropped from 235 to 165 pounds.

Vanderlaan had to be fed through a stomach tube for 21/2 months.

"I was stuck in bed all day," he said. "All I could do was think. It was tough. When I started seeing my family and friends, I chippered up and became me again."

Thomas' diet eventually changed. He feasted on fast food, including In-N-Out Burger, Wendy's and Taco Bell. Susan Wares, Vanderlaan's mother, was the delivery person.

"It tasted so good," he said.

Tracey Andrew, Thomas' cousin and a registered nurse, provided updates during his recovery.

"He is truly an inspiration to all who come into contact with him and his attitude continues to impress and amaze me," Andrew stated in a Sept. 12 post on "Despite the challenges he is facing, he is making short-term and long-term goals and working each day to meet those goals. Some of those goals he has met already and may seem small but they are actually huge strides in his recovery."

Vanderlaan watched the Miramar Falcons win the Camp Pendleton Base Football League and Best of West titles. Thomas' teammates placed his initials on their helmets.

A 2008 graduate of Ceres High, Vanderlaan played varsity football for two seasons under Johnson's guidance.

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

He earned two varsity letters in basketball while playing for Jason Martin.

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

Vanderlaan attended Virginia Parks Elementary and Mae Hensley Jr. High.

"Thomas' inner strength and belief is going to carry him through this," Johnson said. "He's always had that positive attitude. He'll be successful no matter the outcome."

Vanderlaan joined the Marines on July 27, 2009. He spent the previous year attending classes at Modesto JC, where he was a member of the Pirates' Golden Gate Conference and Graffiti Bowl champion football team (8-3, 5-0). He was employed by Big 5 Sporting Goods.

"I wanted to see the world and be a part of something bigger," said Vanderlaan, who saw a Marines commercial on television and signed up the next day. "I planned on making a 20-year commitment."

Thomas worked as a correctional specialist at the Navy Consolidated Brig in Miramar for four months before his accident. He was previously stationed at Camp Pendleton for 18 months.

He achieved the rank of Corporal during his two-and-a-half-year stint with the Marines.

"I got a ton of awards," said Vanderlaan, who will receive an "honorable" medical discharge from the military. "The biggest thing I'll take from the Marines is leadership skills."

Thomas plans to continue his education, possibly at San Diego State or Arizona State.

He could seek employment as an engineer or architectural drafter.

He's also considering opening his own gym.

"I can do all of that still," Vanderlaan said.

As for the distant future, Thomas envisions marrying and starting a family.

"Hopefully, I can find someone," he said. "But I'm not worried about that right now."

Vanderlaan will focus on recovery and maintaining his health.

He attends physical therapy three times a week.

Thomas lives in a two-bedroom apartment with younger brother Matthew and best friend Jesse Trejo.

He also receives help from several personal care assistants.

"We got a team down here," Vanderlaan said. "My favorite thing to do is take Matt and Jesse to the gym and work them out. I also enjoy going to the beach. I get as close to the water as I can."

Thomas and Jesse played football together as seniors at Ceres High.

"They've been inseparable since then," Rita said. "They share a special bond."

Vanderlaan's condition has improved drastically thanks to his hard work, determination and positive attitude.

Thomas relies on an electric wheelchair to get from point A to point B.

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

Vanderlaan will not give up on trying to stand on his own two feet.

"There's a chance I could walk again," he said. "It's going to be a long process. I should see improvement within a year. I'm just trying to live my life."