There’s a story Johnathan Thomas’s family friends enjoy telling, a charming tale about the University of Maryland football team’s latest commitment, and the version he knows begins like this: Back when Nathan Thomas first moved his family to Massachusetts from Philadelphia, before he became a state trooper and the governor’s bodyguard, he coached football at Peabody High School. Baby Johnathan was a regular guest at practice, unleashed by his father to waddle the gridiron in diapers.
First everyone stared, aghast at the 2-year-old racing down the sidelines, disposable Huggies slipping below the waistline. Then the adults in attendance bolted for the coach’s son, like a brace of mama mallards racing after a single runaway duckling.
Except they couldn’t track down Johnathan Thomas. Even in diapers, he was a speedster.
“At least, that’s what they tell me,” Thomas said.
Thomas began competitive football at age 7, but those early practices hooked him even sooner. During timeouts he served water, gawking at those padded giants, role models he longed to join. Games were spent either on the sideline beneath the lights or tossing a football behind the end zone, listening only to the band and the roar of the Tanners faithful when one of their own crossed the goal line.
Soon, Thomas became that superstar, eliciting similar cheers. His first play in youth football, a kickoff return, went for a touchdown. If adults couldn’t catch him, how could his peers? At St. John’s Prep High School in nearby Danvers, he led the Eagles to their first state title in 15 years last fall. He rushed for nearly 1,800 yards and scored 18 touchdowns, which means 18 times heard the crowd go crazy. Really, Thomas said by telephone Thursday evening, there’s no better feeling.
An early college commitment might come close. Visiting College Park in mid-April was supposed to be a rest stop, a quick pit before arriving at Virginia. During the visit, however, Coach Randy Edsall offered a scholarship quickly enough to pique Thomas’s interest. A north-south back with 4.47-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Thomas chose Maryland over offers from Arkansas, Boston College, Connecticut and Virginia, among others. The Terrapins love his power running style, his speed and his tenacity.
The third trait likely came from his father, the coach-turned-state trooper and bodyguard. On April 15, Thomas took his visit to Boston College. Hanging around the football offices, he wondered why passers-by suddenly began breaking into tears. Eventually, the news reached Thomas. Two pressure cookers had exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line. Three died. Thomas was scheduled for an overnight with the Eagles, but he went home instead.
That Friday, with the restless city emerging from a lockdown, authorities swarmed a Watertown home, where the lone living suspect took shelter in a boat. Nathan Thomas was nearby, protecting Governor Deval Patrick.
“He was there,” Thomas said. “He was on the scene for the whole thing. He was tired. It was a long day.”
Thomas’s recruitment process proved similarly draining. He visited Arkansas on Monday, and talked at length with Edsall on Wednesday night. Committing this soon – his oral commitment gives Maryland three for its class of 2014 – lifted the weight off his broad shoulders.
“Now the recruiting process, it’s exciting. You feel loved,” Thomas said. “And then again, you feel stressed out, because you’ve got everybody coming at you, trying to pressure you, telling you this and that. You have to find out what is the truth. When you try to win somebody over, you’re going to try to do whatever you can. If that means lie to them, lie to them. You have to figure out who’s going to be real with you, and who’s not going to be real with you. You have to figure out who’s going to help you in the long run with things, where can you be successful in the long run. That’s what I felt about Maryland.”
Location factored into the decision, too. Traveling into the Deep South for games would have been a schlep for Thomas’s family. But Maryland? Please, that’s nothing. With family in Portsmouth, Va., Philadelphia and New York, Thomas spent summers riding up and down Interstate 95.
The Terps have offered scholarships to four other running backs in Thomas’s class, according to 247sports.com, but he’s the highest rated in the group. He projects as somewhat of a hybrid between Maryland’s current running backs, rising sophomores Wes Brown and Brandon Ross, a shifty back with power between the tackles.
During the Division 1 Super Bowl against Brockton last December, on the second play from scrimmage, Thomas took a wheel route 33 yards into the end zone. St. John’s Prep won in a 48-28 blowout. Thomas finished with 68 yards on 15 carries, and one more touchdown.
Afterwards, the Eagles took turns hoisting one another into the air, crowd-surfing in celebration. Thomas remembers looking into the sea of helmets and pumping the trophy towards the heavens. Finally caught and snatched up, willingly loving every second.
“Nothing can beat that feeling,” he said.