Long before discovering stardom on the football field, young Richard Thomas found trouble as a youth.
Growing up in a gang-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood, Thomas was on a path to ruin – until he found football as his escape, a means to a promising future.
“I remember my dad taking me to the Coliseum to watch USC,” Thomas told a large group of students at Cascade Middle School last week, part of its Diversity Day program. “I remember telling him that someday I’m going to be a USC Trojan. … Then later, as the guys in the white jerseys and purple pants were winning big, I told my dad I wanted to be a Washington Husky.
“My dad looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to be nothing.'”
Thomas would overcome the discouraging moment and his difficult relationship with his father, who had spent time in prison. He would overcome those trying early days to find his way.
He eventually would lose the braces he wore as a child that corrected his legs, curved and broken at birth. He would overcome his own insecurities, from being the victim of bullying and a player of gang violence.
“I had such low self-esteem,” he told the students. “I responded with anger and frustration … I would get into fights.”
Thomas says the inspirational turning point in his life came from the words of a visiting Los Angeles Laker.
“Byron Scott came to our school and basically told us, ‘You can achieve your goals, your hopes and your dreams,’ ” Thomas said. “I’ve always remembered that. … I get choked up thinking back on it.”
And now Thomas delivers the same type of message to kids today.
Thomas, a stocky and powerful man, would escape his troubles for brighter days in Seattle. He would find a new home here, graduate from Kentwood High School, earn a scholarship to the University of Washington where, as a bruising fullback, played a role during the Huskies’ glory days of the early 1990s, a period which brought a national championship, a string of Pac-10 titles and Rose Bowl berths.
Thomas parlayed that successful run into a one-year stint with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens in 1996.
“But I was too slow, too chubby, too short,” he said of his abbreviated pro career with the Ravens. “That, and I took too many hits from (linebacker) Ray Lewis.”
While in Baltimore, Thomas joined teammates in making speaking appearances in the community. He soon found it enlightening, inspirational. He soon found his calling, a life after football.
“I had the opportunity to speak with a couple of young people who were devastated in their lives. Our interaction helped them significantly. I became addicted to that,” Thomas said. “And now, today, I love what I do.”
Thomas makes about 80 appearances a year around the country – to schools, community centers and wherever he can reach youth. The message is bold and direct: Get up, be accountable, be a leader and move forward.
“You may encounter bad things in your life,” Thomas told the students, “but that doesn’t mean it should destroy the rest of your life.”
Cascade Middle School Principal Isaiah Johnson asked Thomas, his longtime friend, to spend the entire day with his students and staff addressing the issue of diversity.
The event, “We All Belong,” kicked off with an all-school assembly featuring Thomas, who shared a positive message about building an inclusive campus culture. He also discussed the topics of bullying and race relations.
“Robert’s message is critical in creating the positive campus culture and atmosphere we as a community desire,” Johnson said. “We want to build leaders. We want to empower our youth. We want to create a school where everyone treats each other with love and respect. We also want to build momentum for our next school year.”
Throughout the day, Thomas met individually with students, entertained a question-and-answer panel discussion with them, and led talks in front of kids. The topics include bullying, human trafficking, drugs, violence, race relations and other tough issues facing youth today.
“It was very educational, a message that might help others,” said eighth-grader Sarah Ferrell.
Thomas was funny, but poignant. He believes his message will make a difference.
“I do,” he said. “I want kids to realize they can overcome obstacles and reach their potential.
“It’s a battle to keep (the program) fresh and interesting,” he added. “But I always want to tell them that the best years of their lives are still ahead and that you can make choices to be great.”
To learn more about Richard Thomas’ programs, visit www.richardthomasonline.com.