As a high school football coach, Mike Madison knows how difficult it can be not only to attract players, but to hang on to them. For a year, and almost longer, Brentsville senior running back Justin Thomas was the one who got away.
After playing football as a freshman, Thomas opted to give up the sport to concentrate on basketball. It was a decision Madison had seen many a young player reach.
"You know how it goes," Madison said. "Everybody figures they can play basketball, and it's a lot more fun sport to play. You can take 25 footballs, 25 softballs, 25 baseballs and one basketball, and if you have 50 kids out there, 45 of them will go for the basketball. That's just the way life is."
Thomas went for the basketball--he has averaged in double figures the past two seasons--but felt he was missing out because many of his friends played football. So, as a junior, he returned for his first varsity season, and this year he has evolved into one of the Bull Run District's finest all-around players on a team that Friday night will play at Madison County for the Region B Division 2 title.
But as recently as August, Thomas was not sure whether he liked football enough to devote so much time to it.
"Until this year, football was something I did for fun," said Thomas, who has rushed for 824 yards and caught 24 passes for 586 yards. He had 277 rushing and receiving yards last week in the region semifinal win over Buckingham County.
"It was never something I really loved. It was never my first choice to go out and play football. It was a last-minute decision. I didn't want to sit at home doing nothing, so I talked myself into playing it."
It was an internal conversation that had gone the other way two years before when Thomas gave up football.
"I think the thing back then was that he came out of the ninth-grade program, and he knew he was going to be competing with some kids who were maybe a little better than he was at the time," Madison said. "It's not unusual for young people to sort of shy away from football at that stage. Plus, at that same time, his basketball skills were starting to blossom. . . . We left the door open for him."
Thomas, known to most as J.T., might be drawn to basketball, but he has plenty of football lineage. One cousin is former Osbourn All-Met linebacker Elmer Holmes. Another cousin is Brentsville graduate Duane Thomas, a running back at Concord (W. Va.) College.
"I think it did me good sitting out that year, because I don't think I got burned out from [football]," Thomas said.
Thomas plays both running back and defensive back, but he has not tempted burnout his senior season because the Tigers also give seniors Greg Faith (636 yards) and Erik Croushorn (593 yards) plenty of carries. Each has been the leading ground gainer in a game at least once this season.
Thomas, unhappy about the publicity the team was getting when it was 6-1, would like to widen Brentsville's name recognition. He runs into Prince William residents who have never heard of the Nokesville school. Winning a region football championship would help. If not in football, then maybe this basketball season.
The din of dribbles in the gym perhaps has tugged at Thomas this week. Basketball practice has begun, but not for the basketball players on the football team.
"He probably doesn't like me saying this," Madison said, "but he's probably a better football player than he is a basketball player. He's put together one of the better football seasons that's been around here in a long time."
CAPTION: "I didn't want to sit at home doing nothing, so I talked myself into playing [football]."-- Brentsville senior Justin Thomas
CAPTION: After devoting himself to basketball, senior Justin Thomas returned last year to help Brentsville football.
CAPTION: Justin Thomas has 824 yards rushing for the Tigers, who play for the Region B Division 2 title Friday night against Madison County.