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.
"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.
Thomas tried to fill the void left by football last fall by working two days a week at Little Bennett golf course, but it didn't work. He felt he had to return to coaching, and, after being passed over for jobs at Seneca Valley and Quince Orchard, was hired at Sherwood.
Two months after accepting the Warriors' head coaching job, Thomas, who had been monitored for prostate cancer for several years, tested positive for the disease.
Surgery was more intrusive than anticipated when doctors realized Thomas's cancer had spread. Then, two nights after the surgery, he began hemorrhaging. A nurse on duty realized the situation and Thomas underwent emergency surgery. Thomas, who was in critical condition for several days, took 18 pints of blood -- "That's a lot of blood, buddy," he said -- as he endured essentially the same surgery a second time.
"The doctor said, 'Had [the nurse] not called us in the middle of the night and gotten us in here, you probably would have died,' " Thomas said. "That kind of shakes you up."
There was more to endure. A week after his second surgery, Thomas noticed pain and swelling in his legs. Doctors discovered he had developed blood clots and Thomas had to return to the hospital. He was on his back for a month, and then had to start radiation treatment.
Football has put an additional strain on Thomas's recovering body, but he says it also has helped him recover. Teaching his intricate defensive schemes and immersing himself in game planning have been a tonic. "He needs football," Changuris said.
And while Thomas is glad to be back coaching, that alone will not satisfy him. Those who know him best said he will need to win, too.
Thomas has one of his toughest tasks this fall. He has perhaps the most experienced coaching staff in the state, but only three of the players on his roster started on varsity last season -- "I told [Changuris] I'd trade him in a minute for an All-Met tackle," Thomas said, laughing.
That is why Thomas says that no matter how sick or tired he feels, will not be outworked. His alarm clock goes off at 3:58 each morning to make sure of that.
"A lot of people get up at 6, a few get up at 5, and only the really crazy people get up at 4, so I want to beat all those crazy people," Thomas said. "Then people ask, 'Why not 3:59?', and I say, 'Because there's probably one other crazy son-of-a-gun that gets up at 3:59, and I want to beat him, too.' "