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Day: October 17, 2015

Taking the bump of brain injury

Keizerite Thomas Lucas was working toward a career in pro wrestling when a car-on-bike collision left him with a traumatic brain injury. He's now pursuing his GED and a job. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)
Keizerite Thomas Lucas was working toward a career in pro wrestling when a car-on-bike collision left him with a traumatic brain injury. He’s now pursuing his GED and a job. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

There is one memory of his budding pro wrestling career that survived Thomas Lucas’ traumatic brain injury: getting a piledriver from the vertically-challenged Dink the Clown.

“He showed up while I was in Portland and he was one of the main coaches for the pro wrestling school there. He was teaching us how to take a head bump like when someone’s piledriving you,” said Lucas, 25. A “bump” is pro wrestling parlance for a fall.

Lucas’ path to this point in his life has had many twists and turns, but he’s got the type of persona you can see taking a mic and calling out his next opponent in front of television camera. Even battling with his memory problems, he can fill a room with his easy-going, open-to-it-all attitude.

He credits WWE’s Mick Foley for his own calling to the squared-circle rope opera.

“He sacrificed his body for the fans, and he proved you didn’t have to have six-pack abs or 24-inch pythons,” Lucas said. “It didn’t matter if he was the disturbed Mankind or the lovable, sweet hipster Dude Love, he always kept me watching.”

Given the big personalities and shock-and-awe theatrics of pro wrestling, Lucas got a bit of a wake-up call when he went to wrestle with the Boys & Girls Club as a fifth grader in Arkansas. The first day of practice he learned no one would be going through a table.

“I figured it was a start. Normally, a wrestler won’t win his first year. What’s important is learning the moves and building off that. I scored one victory my first season and the adrenaline from that just kept me going. I went in and was undefeated for the next season and the four seasons after that,” Lucas said.

It was while wrestling for Boys & Girls Club that Lucas had one of his more eye-opening matches.

“I wrestled a match with a kid from the school for the blind. It was cool watching people with differing abilities and learning how to start matches and keep hand contact with him so he knew where I was at,” he said.

For reasons he wouldn’t realize until much later, it was a match that had an indelible impact on him.

Lucas moved back to the Pacific Northwest as a sophomore in high school, but kept on wrestling. He learned in his junior year that he was likely to be held back and decided to drop out.

“After I dropped out, I was going to go to JobCorps and study welding, but then I heard about a wrestling school in Portland. I learned how to sign up, but it was $100 a week,” Lucas said.

He talked it over with his father, James, who he credits as his biggest role model in life, and decided together to give it a shot. Before starting, Lucas wanted to take a trip to visit family in Arkansas.

While visiting, Lucas started coaching other high school wrestlers and discovered another school offering lessons in pro wrestling for half the cost.

“I called my dad and explained the opportunity. He told me to stay and do it. He’s always been my biggest supporter,” Lucas said.

The course was intended to take about a year to complete and then the graduates would be hooked up on the local pro wrestling circuit.

“You learn how to take a bump and protect your head. Then you learn footsteps, which is the psychology of wrestling moves. It’s like being a ballerina. You have to learn certain techniques to do certain things even down to applying simple things like a hammerlock,” he said.

Lucas completed the entire gauntlet in nine months and credits his amateur background for seeing him through.

Then, on his way home from one of his two jobs on his bike, in the week set to graduate, fate dealt him a cruel twist: he was hit by a car. The bike frame crumpled causing the chain to fly free. The chain wrapped around Lucas’ arm and he was dragged along until the driver was able to stop.

“I was riding across from a park where they have softball games there. Luckily, there were games going on and, when I was run over, I had people who saw what happened and called for help. If it wasn’t for that I probably wouldn’t be here,” Lucas said.

He woke up six weeks later in a nursing home filled with senior citizens a few weeks before his 19th birthday. He remembers the year because he was given a WWE video game for his birthday to fill his time and the game title years always run ahead of the current one.

“I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, short term memory loss and the doctors told my family that if I survived the coma I might not be able to walk or talk again or do much of anything for myself,” Lucas said. “I think I was stubborn, like all the women in my family. I think learning how to take the bumps in wrestling also helped.”

He spent the next several years learning how to function as a survivor of a brain injury, but picked up a number of skills along the way. He earned a Career Readiness Certificate and another certificate in guest and lodging services from the Arkansas Career Training Institute.

Lucas finally moved to Oregon about three years ago and began working with Vocational Rehabilitation Services to find a job. After a year of temporary job placements, Lucas decided he wanted to add a GED to his arsenal of credentials and began working with tutors at Keizer’s Mid-Valley Literacy Center. In September, he got approval for special accommodations – like extra time, a calculator for the math portions and an assisting reader – to take the tests at Chemeketa Community College where he’s just begun classes.

“Having a brain injury isn’t part of my plan, but I’ve got to deal with it,” Lucas said. “The thing I’m having difficulty with now is what to do after the GED. I get six free credits at Chemeketa if I pass the GED with them and I’d like to put them toward a degree.

“The biggest thing for me is not letting my brain injury overpower me. If I don’t do something it should be because that’s my choice.”