You can't properly tell the Jordan Thomas story without beginning it on the worst day of his life – August 16, 2005.
That's the day a tragic boating accident cost him both his legs below the knee less than two weeks before the start of his junior year at McCallie School. That's the day the young man who recently proclaimed himself, with a slight chuckle, "Probably the most prolific junior golfer in the history of the Vince Gill Junior Golf Tour," had to rethink every plan he'd ever had for himself.
"The worst day anybody could ever imagine," he said. "And the McCallie community was a huge reason I got through it. I think about those McCallie boys on the Ridge, the boys in blue, all the time. When somebody asks where I went to school, I don't think about college. I think about McCallie."
But thanks to what Thomas accomplished on July 20th at the United States Golf Association's inaugural U.S.Adaptive Open on Pinehurst's No. 6 course, McCallie students and alums will now think about Thomas as a USGA medal winner for months, if not years to come.
Shooting a 10-over-par score of 226 over the three-day event, Thomas not only shredded the field in the Multiple Limbs Amputee Flight, winning that category by a whopping 18 strokes, he also finished fifth overall to capture low amateur honors.
"It's been constant messaging since I won," said the 33-year-old Thomas. "So much joy and pride from the McCallie community. So uplifting. I've probably had over one thousand messages from people with ties to McCallie. There's nothing like the McCallie family."
There aren't many stories as uplifting as the one Thomas keeps adding magical, inspirational chapters to with each new accomplishment.
Not 10 days after the accident, and at least eight weeks before he'd be fitted for artificial limbs, he announced the formation of the Jordan Thomas Foundation to help supply prostheses for young amputees until they turn 18.
"I just remember seeing so many kids who didn't have parents, didn't have health care," Thomas told CNN a few years back. "I just knew that the future was grim for them." Seventeen years later, the Foundation has raised at least $4 million and is currently supplying over 80 young people with artificial limbs.
"Kids outgrow prostheses like they outgrow shoes," said Thomas. "They usually need to be replaced every 12 months; they might last 18 months at the most. And they're not cheap. They can run $50,000 for a single prosthesis. Plus, insurance often doesn't cover 'activity limbs.' That is why we are committed to assuring that every child has access to the prostheses they need to do whatever they want to do in life. Limbs are not a luxury. So we're also constantly working with insurance agencies to help get these prostheses covered."
Such philanthropy and charity long ago began to earn Thomas national acclaim for his foundation, everything from being recognized as a Top Ten CNN Hero of the Year in 2009, to the National Courage Award that same year, to Tennessee Ambassador of Goodwill and Point of Light recipient in 2020.
"Jordan Thomas's accomplishments, given all he's had to overcome, are a testimony to his character, resilience and courage and McCallie is so proud and honored to be a part of his story. His story and his Foundation have given hope to so many people and persuaded them to chase their dreams," said Head of School Lee Burns '87.
But golf unleashes a different type of passion and commitment in Thomas. Within days, if not hours, of getting his first pair of artificial legs, he was swinging a golf club, recalling that moment thusly: "You think there was any way I wasn't going to get back on a golf course as soon as I could get upright? I couldn't wait to swing a golf club. That's all I could think about once I knew I was getting my legs."
Still, swinging a golf club and posting scores of 76, 74 and 76 over three rounds atop Pinehurst No. 6 in a USGA event while standing on artificial limbs in the middle of July heat and humidity is another matter.
Or as current McCallie golf coach Rob Riddle said, "Given all he's had to overcome, Jordan shooting those scores on the easiest municipal course you could find would be amazing. But to do it at Pinehurst in a USGA event is almost beyond words. Absolutely phenomenal."
It is phenomenal, as are Thomas's plans for competitive golf going forward. "I wouldn't be surprised if the R and A (the Royal and Ancient, which oversees The (British) Open), doesn't start an Adaptive Open soon," he said. "Maybe there could even be an Adaptive Masters at some point. Wouldn't that be cool?"
The ease with which he won his flight even has him dreaming really big dreams about what he can achieve in the future.
"I want to pass Jack Nicklaus in USGA medals," he said. "I think he won eight total (two as an amateur). In fact, if I could win 19, I'd add a room onto my house to display them all."
But he is also refreshingly honest about his first medal, which might also be the first one ever won by a Chattanooga native.
"There is no way I'd have a USGA medal around my neck today if I hadn't lost my legs," he said. "And what a wonderful opportunity this has been to get some attention for the Foundation."
In a general way, the U.S. Adaptive Open provided a platform to focus attention on the better, more laudable points of the sport of golf rather than the Saudi-backed LIV Tour and such. Or as national golf commentator Dottie Pepper told Thomas in Pinehurst: "You got people back in touch with the soul of golf."
The Jordan Thomas Foundation has gotten those supporting it back in touch with their charitable souls and those young people who benefit from it in touch with the healing power of hope.
"We want to show our (Foundation) kids what we're all capable of when we just get out of our own way," Thomas said.
So from that long ago boating tragedy in 2005 has come a triumph of the spirit of epic proportions, McCallie's role in that never far from Jordan Thomas's head and heart.
"If I could break that medal up into a million pieces to share it with everyone who's helped me," he said, "a lot of them would wind up in the hands of people connected to that school on Missionary Ridge."