Becoming a champion changes your life forever. Olympians get a gold medal to mark their moment in history. For others, it's a trophy or a ring. But what if that testament to all the hard work and sacrifice disappeared?
Freddie Thomas' 1987 Division II football national championship ring is the keepsake he thought he would never see again.
"I never thought I'd see it again," Thomas said. "I never thought I'd see it again."
The ring disappeared a quarter of a century ago. To understand why he wanted it back so badly, you need to first understand why it's more than a just a ring.
"A lot of memories right on this field," Thomas said as he reminisced back at the football field he once played on, at Troy University in Alabama. "Some of my closest friends, I met here at Troy."
Thomas was a two time All American at Troy. A walk on who overcame long odds to become team captain. He was so dedicated he played with a torn shoulder labrum most of his senior year, leading the Trojans to their second Division II national championship in his four year career.
"Every time you walk into this stadium and see those banners up there we had a part of that," he said.
The players were each rewarded with the national championship ring, connecting the teammates for life. But just days after their greatest victory the Trojans would be devastated by loss. Two of Thomas' teammates, brothers Sean and Thomas Miller, died in car accident.
So when Thomas traveled to Lakeland, Florida soon after, for the wedding of another teammate, he made sure to take along his national championship ring. Needing to hold onto all that it symbolized now more than ever.
"The last time I remember having that ring was about to take a dive into the pool at the hotel," he said.
Thomas looked everywhere. But that prized ring had vanished. His connection to what it meant, now missing along with it.
"I was just like hey, that's a part of me that's gone," Thomas said.
Heartbroken, he returned home to Alabama. Years went by. Then in 2003, he received an unexpected phone call. A stranger said she had found Thomas' ring.
"The joy was just there man somebody got my ring," he remembered with a laugh. "I said whatever it takes, I'll do whatever it takes to get it back. It never came."
Turns out, the ring was never sent. An honest mistake. Thomas' ring got tossed into a moving box.
Next destination. Southern Indiana. That moving box tucked away. The ring, hidden inside. Where it would sit for another 10 years.
Thomas thought the game, was over. In reality, the comeback was about to begin.
His ring ended up in the newsroom of Raycom-owned WAVE 3 in Louisville, Kentucky. How did it get there? The woman who contacted Thomas all those years ago found it in her attic and brought it to us, hoping we could return the ring.
WAVE 3 News Troubleshooter Eric Flack tracked down Thomas in Birmingham, Alabama where he lives today with his wife and teenage sons.
After 25 years and more than 1,700 miles, Thomas' national championship ring was finally back where it belonged.
"Wow, oh man," Thomas said as he slid the ring on his for the first time in more than two decades. "That is awesome."
"It means a lot," Thomas said, tearing up. "It really means a lot."
His thoughts, drifting to a team bound by friendship, a championship and a ring that once again, tied them all together.
"I will always remember the guys that played on those teams," Thomas said.
Thomas said he plans to wear the ring for a while and maybe take it back to a tail gate with this team mates this fall. Then, he's going put it away for safe keeping. Until it's time to hand it down to his 14-year-old son, Jalen.
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