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At Sherwood, There's No Doubting Thomas

Despite Prostate Cancer, Football Coach's Intensity 'Is Second to None'

By Jake Schaller
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page D01

Al Thomas shook his head, grimaced and, as football coaches are wont to do when they are disgusted, ripped his hat off and threw it to the ground. His players had been sluggish and undisciplined throughout an August afternoon practice session -- jumping offside, taking plays off, not hustling.

But before Thomas could express his disgust with the effort he saw, he put his hands on his knees, leaned his tall frame forward and stared at the parched grass on the Sherwood High School practice field. He gathered himself, ordered his starting defense off the field -- "Get 'em out of here, they're making me sick!" -- and took time to rest and chat with a reporter.

Sherwood Coach Al Thomas, 64, had prostate cancer diagnosed in May. He didn't miss a practice of two-a-days in August. "He's here at five in the morning every day," AD Bob Cilento said. "I've never seen anything like it." (Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)

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"It's getting really hot out here, maybe that's making me grumpy," Thomas said. "I'm still getting my strength back."

Thomas, 64, returned to high school football in March, when he accepted the job as head coach at Sherwood. In May, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had surgery, then additional surgery after hemorrhaging while recovering from the first, had to return to the hospital after developing blood clots and finally endured eight weeks of radiation treatment. A day after his final radiation treatment, Sherwood opened practice.

The rest Thomas took on that hot August day was a rare moment for the Maryland High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame member. Despite feeling weak and suffering from other side effects from his treatment, Thomas did not miss a practice throughout two-a-day sessions. He worked 16-hour days, attempting to install a new offense, a new defense and new belief at the Sandy Spring school.

"He's here at 5 in the morning every day," Sherwood Athletic Director Bob Cilento said. "I've never seen anything like it."

Only once during two-a-days did exhaustion force Thomas to sit in the shade and watch a seven-on-seven drill. Thomas credits an unusually cool summer -- "the weather's what saved me," he said. His peers point to a fanatical work ethic and an unquenchable thirst for victory -- he has never had a losing season -- that have made him one of the most successful coaches in Maryland history.

"It did not surprise me, but it still amazed me," Sherwood assistant and former Seneca Valley coach Terry Changuris said of Thomas's efforts this year. "I just tried to imagine the sickest I've been. Where you're vomiting every 20 minutes, like you've got a bad flu. But he went to work every day. . . . His intensity is second to none."

When Thomas accepted the job at Sherwood, he felt healthy and full of energy.

He had retired from McDaniel College, where he had been the defensive coordinator for seven years, after the 2002 season to have a pacemaker implanted. As he recovered and regained his strength, he realized something was missing. The 2003 season marked the first time Thomas had not played or coached football in more than 50 years.

"Being away from football was not good for him," said Thomas's wife, Sally. "It's just been such a big part of his life for so long."

Thomas grew up in Johnstown, Pa., was a two-way lineman in high school and played defensive end at Slippery Rock. He came to Montgomery County in the spring of 1964, accepting a position as a math teacher and assistant football coach at Gaithersburg High. He served under legendary coach John Harvill for a decade, then started the football program at Seneca Valley when the school opened in 1974.

In 14 years with the Screaming Eagles, he compiled a record of 129-24 and won five state titles. He then moved to Damascus and went 59-13 in six years, winning two state titles. In large part to watch his son, Marc, play football at Salisbury, Thomas accepted a job as an assistant with Cambridge-South Dorchester, a school on the Eastern Shore. After two years and a state title there, he spent seven years as the defensive coordinator at McDaniel College, which made the playoffs six times in that span.

Perhaps even more telling than his record -- 352-67-3 in the 39 years as a head coach and an assistant before this year -- is Thomas's influence on the area coaching ranks. Richard Montgomery Coach Mike Bonavia, Urbana Coach Dave Carruthers and Damascus Coach Dan Makosy all coached under Thomas, and Quince Orchard Coach Fred Kim played for Thomas. Current Thomas assistants Changuris and Bob Hampton both became head coaches after serving under him. Thomas's son, Marc, is an assistant at Whitman.

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