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Rising From the Ashes - Thomas DiPlacido

01/18/2013, 8:30am EST
By Bruce Lerch

Overcame a near fatal explosion just over two years ago & now playing D1 lacrosse

Like any other college athlete, Thomas DiPlacido is just trying to find his place on the field.

The former Xaverian standout and Wrentham native is a sophomore at Sacred Heart University, his first year there as a preferred walk-on with the lacrosse program, and recently survived the first round of cuts after the fall season.

That he is able to play at all is nothing short of a miracle.

July 30, 2010, started off just like any normal day. DiPlacido was spending his Friday working at his summer job for his father's construction company. While sweeping out the basement at the job site, he noticed a funny smell that made him light-headed so headed off to another sector, but had to stop and sit down along the way because of the dizziness he was experiencing.

A half an hour later, DiPlacido went back to the basement to finish what he started. It was in those next few minutes that his life was changed forever.

"I went back to go clean up and picked up the pile and was ready to walk up the basement and I just remember a bright light," DiPlacido recalled. "I remember sitting in the corner of the basement, realizing what happened. After the explosion, I knew what happened."

"I was just sitting in the corner, huddled up in the basement," he continued. "I remember waking up and everything from my waist up was numb. The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Am I going to just sit here and wait for someone to come find me or am I going to get up and go look for help?'"

The soon-to-be high school senior collected his wits enough to pull himself over a nine-foot concrete wall and race into the street shouting for help. Fellow workers on the site saw him running and quickly covered him with a blanket.

"He was still on fire," his mother, Charise, remembered. "One of the workers said they saw him running out of the house after it collapsed in. One of the movers wrapped a blanket around because he was on fire. They all started trying to help him and it was a chaotic scene."

It was later determined that the explosion was likely caused by a release of propane gas in the basement of the duplex condominium where DiPlacido was working. One worker died as a result of the blast and seven others were injured.

Where it all started

DiPlacido's lacrosse career began in the town of Wrentham when he was seven years old. His older sister, Arielle, also played and went on to do so at King Philip. His older brother Matthew became a football and rugby player at Xaverian.

In those early days, the sport was new to him. "I was terrible," he said with a laugh. "I could barely catch the ball. I think drove my mother off to watch my sister play."

One thing he did have was speed. He began working with Jack Piatelli, who founded the boys and girls programs at King Philip, was enshrined in the New England Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1998 and currently works with PrimeTime Lacrosse. DiPlacido also started attending camps and as he played more and more, the game began to click for him.

Life or death struggle

Immediately following the explosion, DiPlacido was airlifted to Mass. General Hospital in Boston before being transferred to the Shriners Burn Center. From the waist up, he was almost unrecognizable. Normal treatment for patients with burns covering more than 50 percent of the body includes surgery within 24 hours so as to ward off possible infection.

DiPlacido's condition was so bad that doctors were afraid to perform surgery on him, fearing he wouldn't survive.

"That Sunday, the doctors called a family meeting and said his vitals weren't coming up," Charise DiPlacido said, choking up at the memory. "They said they couldn't go into surgery because they didn't think he'd make it through."

Somehow, some way, his condition had improved enough Monday morning where doctors felt comfortable bringing him in. The first procedure took around ten hours as surgeons worked feverishly to remove all the dead skin. In all, DiPlacido spent four months in the hospital, undergoing numerous procedures. Skin grafts were taken from his legs, stretched to form larger sections, then stapled to his body.

Prior to the accident, DiPlacido was a 180-pound athlete. By the time he finally went home in November, he was down to 115 pounds.

searching for normal

Photo Credit: Sean T Noonan

Even though he was at home, there were still plenty of complications. Sleeping in his bed was an issue. If he laid down, his skin would break and cause another round of re-healing so he spent the first month sleeping on a chair in the living room, leaning against his shoulder. He needed help bathing, and his mother rubbed creams on the affected areas daily and spent hours massaging it in so the skin grafts would not dry out and shrink.

Friends had visited him in the hospital and continued to do once he was home. They gave Thomas a feeling of normalcy amidst everything else he was going through. They also gave him someone to play catch with as lacrosse started coming back into the picture.

Getting back to school was the first step, however, and DiPlacido did return to Xaverian during the second term of his senior year. Charise said the school was supportive of the situation and beyond helpful in helping Thomas transition back.

It was rough at first. He only lasted a couple of hours each day for the first few weeks. When he started going full days, free periods were spent taking naps on a couch as his body continued its recovery from spending four months in a hospital bed.

"We had this little place where we could hang out and that became my sleeping spot on the couches," he said. "Campus ministers would normally yell at you for sleeping but they left me alone."

It wasn't until after Christmas that DiPlacido finally approached Xaverian coach Tim Gardner about the possibility of a return. At first, he just wanted to be around the team again and had an eye on attending practices. Then it became about maybe playing in a game. By the time the season rolled around, he knew exactly which game he wanted to play in - the Hawks nonleague game against Walpole, a team with several of his close friends on the roster.

the comeback

Photo Credit: Sean T Noonan

As he worked his way back to practice, DiPlacido found that his stick skills were still there. It was his strength and stamina that were missing. His main source of exercise since his hospital stay consisted of physical therapy sessions in Foxboro, which wasn't quite enough to return to the rigors of one of the state's toughest schedules.

He attacked his rehab and got himself ready, and when the Walpole game rolled around, DiPlacido was back in a Hawks uniform. The game was at Turco Field and the Walpole crowd, aware of his situation, gave him a huge ovation when he took to the turf.

"I went in and ran down the field once and was gassed," DiPlacido recalled with a smile. "Coach pulled me and said, 'Sorry but you looked winded.' It was okay. I couldn't have made it down again. I played a regular shift at middie but I think I made down the field once. I hadn't had any running before that. I was practicing but I didn’t run that much."

Nonetheless, it was a triumphant return.

"I was nervous," his mother said. "I remember thinking, 'Was this the right thing? Am I stupid to let him do this?' But when you have a passion like he has, how do you stop it? When he took the field against Walpole, I was so proud of him after all he'd been through."

a bright future

As he finished out the season and his senior year along with it, his future needed to be dealt with. After mulling the possibility of a post-graduate year, DiPlacido took a recommendation from one of his guidance counselors, electing to apply to Dean and play for coach James Behrer, who is a family friend.
"I told him Thomas was going to apply to Dean and coach got all excited," Charise said. "He was like, 'Why are you playing for me? You're too good for this.' Thomas still had doctors appointments and it was close to home so it worked out well. He had to get acclimated to taking care of himself without me there. He did really well and he played well."
By the end of his first year, DiPlacido began applying to larger schools with Div. 1 lacrosse programs. He remembered playing on a team at a summer event out at UMass that was coached by Mark Gongas, an assistant coach at Sacred Heart University. Gongas remembered him too, and also remembered being impressed by him. DiPlacido was invited to walk-on with the Pioneers and jumped at the opportunity.

He had a successful fall, getting a ton of playing time and doing enough with it that he is still on the team as they prepare for the start of the season in February. He hopes to earn himself a spot as an offensive middie, and the only hurdles he needs to overcome now are those of confidence, not his health.

DiPlacido admits he is his own worst critic. If he makes a mistake, he takes it harshly upon himself and sometimes lets it get in his head. he worries that he's thinking too much about learning the Pioneers plays and who is going to be where on the field instead of just playing. His coaches have told him to forget about the nerves and just play.

"When he was home at Thanksgiving, he was telling me what the coaches had said," Charise stated. " I told him to think back to summers playing for Mass Elite when he was just having a ball and playing top notch lacrosse. Let the rest of it go and play the sport that you love and you've worked so hard at to get where you are. Hopefully he'll take that with him and clear out the roadblocks."

For a kid who survived a near-fatal explosion, multiple surgeries, skin grafts and attacked his rehab so as to get back into a position where playing Div. 1 lacrosse was a possibility, just going out and playing should be the easiest thing Thomas DiPlacido will ever do.

All photos provided by the DiPlacido family.

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