35th Street. 41st Street.
Bri didn’t want to go back to Milwaukee, but knew another move was inevitable. She argued and pleaded half-heartedly. She packed her bags, stuff with medals and trophies, and reclaimed her role of passenger on the ever-familiar route of a bus ride to Milwaukee.
She was miserable. She missed her friends and family in Fort Wayne and longed to return. Her grades dipped and she wasn’t playing sports. It took the full semester, but eventually Bri’s pleading secured a return to her grandparent’s home in Fort Wayne.
Back at Wayne, Bri was behind in class. She missed some of the required courses and needed to put in extra work. Otherwise, she’d face the realities of not being able to compete in track or having to repeat her entire sophomore year. Bri didn’t want that, so she did everything she was asked. She stayed late, made up missed homework, met with teachers and caught up, just as she was supposed to do.
Sharin was thrilled. Not only was one of the best sprinters in the state back to compete for him, but the wide-smiled girl who brightened everyone’s day was back in the hallways of Wayne High School.
As teachers and classmates watched Bri earn A’s and B’s in the classroom and win race after race on the track, few had any idea what her life was like when she’d go home. They didn’t know about the trips to the food banks and church pantries as she went with her grandma to fill the bag with donated food. They didn’t know about the syrup sandwiches and other “struggle food” after five hungry kids raided the pantry. But how could they? Bri’s smile never faded, her grades and behavior never slipped and her race times only got faster.
Her junior year was much of the same. Win just about every race, do well in school and move a few times, though just in Fort Wayne. Bri won more medals and trophies as she repeated as the state champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and made finals in three events at USATF Juniors.
Those medals, and most of the other awards and trophies she’d ever won, though, would soon be gone.
Some were lost during the endless moving process – left in a box or bag that was misplaced. Some left in unpaid storage units, likely sorted through and then thrown away. Others were picked through during evictions.
Behind the smile, Brionna remembers those days.
She’d come home from school to find everything out on the porch and lawn. Everything she’d ever owned, at least what hadn’t already been scavenged, was scattered in such a way that the bright red letters on the door spelling “EVICTION NOTICE” went almost unseen.
Just about all that’s left of those 12 regional and 11 sectional championships, 12 conference titles, four state and three national crowns, numerous MVPs and other awards, are the memories.
Smith Street. Spatz Street.
As she entered her senior year, Bri was back with her grandparents. Her mom and grandpa had an argument and her mom left. The five kids were living with the Whites, but the burden was growing to be too much. That winter, her grandparents told Bri and her siblings that they had to move out by the end of the school year.
The news came like a gut punch. They didn’t know where they’d go. Normally, they’d move back in with their mom, but she didn’t have her own place anymore. No one would take five kids aged 16 to 23. Suddenly they realized they’d all be completely on their own for the first time.
With her bright smile concealing a heavy heart, Bri went to school and shared the news with Sharin.
He didn’t miss a beat. Almost immediately, he asked Bri if she would like to move in with his wife, Whitney, and two young kids. He also decided it was time for her to take the recruiting process seriously, something that she had not paid any attention despite the vast interest from programs, so that she would have somewhere to go and the opportunity at a bright future.
The recruiting letters had been flooding in for months from just about every school in the country, but Bri didn’t even open them. She wanted to go to college, but had no interest in the process. How could she look forward to what would inevitably be another move?
Sharin changed that.
He sat down with Bri. They opened the letters and filled out the questionnaires. Together, they answered and returned phone calls, set up college visits and got through the NCAA Eligibility Center process. Sharin worked with her to narrow her list to four schools – TCU, Kansas State, Indiana and Purdue.
Then it was time for her trips.
With Sharin’s help, Thomas made official visits – by herself – to her final four schools. She liked the warm weather at TCU, the staff at Kansas State and the close proximity of Indiana and Purdue. It made the choice tough, one that Sharin remembers Bri constantly swaying back and forth. One day she’d say she was going to TCU. The next, she’d burst through the door touting Kansas State. She even thought about staying home and running for local NAIA powerhouse Indiana Tech.
After weeks of wavering, Sharin finally sat Brionna down and told her it was time to make a decision.
It was Purdue. Bri and Sharin loved how genuine head coach Lonnie Greene and assistant coach Angela (Goodman) Elliott were throughout the recruiting process. They were helpful and accommodating. It also helped that Purdue is just two hours away from home – Fort Wayne. And, important to Bri, Purdue beat Indiana in the dual meet between the schools.
Bri called Greene with the news. She committed to his promise of a bright future at Purdue and the goal of turning the program into a perennial power.
Bri’s senior year wound down and her storied high school track career didn’t end the way the movies would script. A nagging hamstring injury sidelined her most of the year and forced her to miss the state championships. In the back of her mind, she was also reluctantly counting the days until she and her siblings would have to move out of her grandparents’ house – the first time they’d have to move out when their mom wasn’t there.
Graduation came and Bri was showered with awards. Her 3.3 grade point average and dominance on the track even earned her the prestigious Sertoma Award, given to one senior at each Fort Wayne high school for excellence in scholastic, character, good morals, personality, cooperation, sportsmanship, citizenship, leadership, extra curricular and athletic participation. She smiled.
Underneath that smile, though, Brionna was heartbroken because it was time to move out.
But Sharin and his family were there.
They took Bri in as if one of their own family members and moved her into the basement. She had to do some chores during her three-month stay, including cleaning and babysitting, but they were there for her and she enjoyed nearly every minute.
Bri was the new big sister to the Sharins’ two boys. She played with them, looked after them and changed the 2-year-old’s diapers. She hated the diapers. But, as is Bri, she took it as a challenge. Bri decided it was time to potty-train, which only took a few weeks before she had changed the last diaper.
Martin Jischke Drive. Campus Suites Boulevard. McCormick Street. Malibu Drive.
The summer months flew by and it was time to head to college. Moving was nothing new, so going to a place where she knew there would be a steady roof, food, roommates and a father figure in coach Greene was exciting.
As the Sharins made the two-hour drive west, it nearly felt as if they were dropping off their own child. She’d stayed with them just three months, but made an everlasting impact. The Sharins fought back tears as they helped organize Brionna’s room and said their goodbyes in the dorm directly across the street from Rankin Track & Field.
For the first time, Bri had her very own home and behind the smile, she was happy.
Bri made an instant impact at Purdue, too. She broke three school records, won three Big Ten medals, including one gold, and made it to the NCAA Outdoor Championships as the anchor leg of the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays in her first year. And she didn’t just show up at that meet. The freshman from Fort Wayne showed out. Live on ESPN, she chased down the best sprinters in the country and earned first team All-America honors in both events.
She won plaques and medals to restart her trophy case.
As a sophomore and junior, the success continued. More All-American honors, conference medals, first team All-Big Ten nods and school records, all while earning A’s and B’s in the classroom.
Now, with all her success through three-plus years at Purdue, Brionna may need a trophy room.
Through the roller coaster of vicissitudes, Brionna has never lost her smile. She’s grateful for everything and everyone in her life – her mom, grandparents, siblings, the Sharins and other family and friends. She smiles for her present and her future because she knows life won’t be hard forever. Despite coming from nothing, Brionna sees everyday as an opportunity to rise up and take advantage of what she’s been given.
She’s done just that at Purdue. With just a couple months left in her academic career, Brionna is approaching graduation with a GPA above 3.0. She wants to find a career that will help her be set – have a house or apartment, a car, food and not live paycheck to paycheck. More than that, she wants to find a job that will help people in one way or another. Through all the struggles, Bri smiled and saw the good in people and now wants to be that good in someone else’s life.
It’s no coincidence that everywhere she’s been, people know Brionna Thomas.
And the more she continues to be a blessing in others’ lives, everyone will know Brionna Thomas.
Most college students graduate with the experience of a lifetime and look to make a name for themselves.
Brionna Thomas will graduate with a life full of experiences hoping the name she has made can help everyone.