Shooting victim to graduate college

Former football player, now in wheelchair, on verge of engineering degree

  • William Thomas was paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet seven years ago in the mayhem of a shooting at Randallstown High School.
William Thomas was paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
May 19, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

William Thomas doesn't want anyone to pity him, and he doesn't want to spend his life feeling sorry for himself.

Paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet seven years ago in the mayhem of a shooting at Randallstown High School, Thomas will never have the football career he so ardently desired, but he has found another cause: making sure others don't end up like him.

Far from conceding defeat to his physical limitations, the 24-year-old former wide receiver will graduate Friday from Morgan State University with a degree in electrical engineering, a field of endeavor far removed from the gridiron. Thomas — known as "Tipper" to his family and friends — appears eager to move on from the horrific event by which he became known, and to prove that he can succeed even from a wheelchair.

"To society, this may be considered a reduced way of life, but it can still be a good quality of life," he said a few days ago at a restaurant in Northeast Baltimore, to which he had driven himself. "Just because 98 percent isn't 100 percent doesn't mean it's not a good percentage. In order to get over anything, you have to accept it, come to terms with it. That's the only way you can move forward."

And that's just what he is doing, banking on his graduation from college — like millions of other students — as a springboard to a bright future. "I look forward to the adulthood of my life," he said, his optimism clear. But Thomas was not always quite so positive, especially given his arduous path to recovery, which involved years of operations, physical therapy and rehabilitation.

By any measure, the events of May 7, 2004, were far from just another random, easily dismissed act of violence. Sparked by a dispute, apparently, between two teenagers — neither of them Thomas — the shooting erupted as a charity basketball game was letting out. Four students were wounded, Thomas the most grievously. One of the two shooters was given a 100-year prison sentence, with lesser terms for two other men.

For Thomas, the goal was to come to terms not only with his paralysis but with those who caused it. "For me, personally, the decision to keep going was immediate," he said. "The forgiveness took a while longer."

Thomas focused as much as he could on getting through college, although he berated himself for taking longer to do so than is considered normal. He was three weeks' shy of his senior prom when he was shot, and he entered college in the fall of 2005, his entry delayed a year by his medical care.

Since then, he has become a vocal advocate for nonviolence, and speaks at schools, colleges and other venues to what he calls "problem children and juvenile delinquents" about the perils of being a miscreant. He illustrates his presentations with a documentary about his experience that has been shown on the Discovery Health Channel.

"I make them get it," he said. "I show the video of my first night in the hospital, me lying out on the stretcher, tubes going in and out everywhere, the crime scene with the placards on the ground. They get the message."

Thomas also founded the TIPPER Foundation (the acronym stands for Traumatic Inpatient Parent Provider Emergency Reserve), a human-services organization that provides help to victims of traumatic injuries and their families, including financial support, counseling and spiritual comfort. He is a member of the Trauma Survivors Network, and spends time every month with severely injured patients — some of them also paralyzed — at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was hospitalized for weeks after being shot.

"I talk to them and try to show them that there is life on the other side," he said. "I'll help anyone. With my experience in life, I'm pretty well-rounded."

Thomas, who in addition to being struck by three bullets lost a lung to infection, has earned commendations and awards for his outreach efforts, among them citations from the Maryland General Assembly and the Baltimore City Council. He lives alone in what his mother, Peggie Henderson, calls an "immaculate" apartment in Towson that he cleans himself. He also does his own shopping and errand-running, she said.

His friends are not reserved in expressing their respect for him. "His positives definitely outweigh all the negatives he's gone through," said Judah Green, 24, who was with Thomas at Randallstown when he was shot and has remained a classmate and ally in the electrical engineering program at Morgan State and in the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

Getting through college is a "major accomplishment" for Thomas, Green said. "A lot of people probably didn't imagine he'd get that far. He's inspiring to me. He's created a foundation so he can help others, and he's raising money for that and having dinners for it. It's an annual thing now."

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