Ian Thomas had been away from football for about 18 months after a failed tryout with the Washington Redskins in 2013.
A three-year starter and honorable mention All-Big Ten at the University of Illinois, Thomas continued to work out and contemplated joining a pro team in Canada. What he didn't think about, at first, was coaching.
That changed when he received a call about two years ago from Rick Peacock, who had been named varsity football coach at St. Vincent Pallotti High in Laurel in 2012.
Peacock thought Thomas had something to offer even though he had never coached football at any level.
"I really wasn't thinking about being a coach," said Thomas, 26. "I said I would go and help out and lend a hand. I kind of fell in love with it. I had been away for a year and a half; I was really missing it. It brought me back to the game."
Two years later, and following the resignation of Peacock after last season, Thomas is preparing for his first season as the head coach at Pallotti.
"From the first day, that was it. It clicked right there. I had never coached at any level," said Thomas, who also teaches health and physical education at Pallotti. The players "really believed in what I said and tried to execute what I asked of them. It was good to see the results immediately. Older guys in the NFL and college are kind of stuck in their ways. These younger guys were eager to learn and wanted to get better."
Thomas said Peacock informed him three weeks before his resignation so that he could prepare to apply for the job. Several players approached Pallotti administrators in support of Thomas.
"He felt I had the tools to get the job done," Thomas said of Peacock. "He showed me so much. He felt it was time for him to pass it on to me. I still have a lot more to learn, obviously."
The Panthers, who begin regular-season play Aug. 28 at Paul VI High in Fairfax, Va., are the defending champions in the C Conference of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) and are moving up to the B Conference this year.
One of the top returning players for Pallotti is junior linebacker James Patterson, who said he has received collegiate scholarship offers from Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Kent. He welcomes the opportunity to play for Thomas, who also played linebacker in high school.
"He expects a lot of us. It helps us reach for the next level," Patterson said.
Cameron Sullivan-Brown, a junior who has played wide receiver and cornerback, said the transition of Thomas from defensive coordinator to head coach has gone well.
"He is a player's coach. He is very hyper. He is into the little details," Sullivan-Brown said.
Jaret Patterson, the brother of James, said: "He brings a lot of energy. He makes us work. He has a lot of confidence."
Thomas will be also be the defensive coordinator this year. The offensive coordinator will be Justin Winters, a 2007 graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt who played in college at Buffalo under Turner Gill, a former Nebraska standout who is now the head coach at Liberty University in Virginia. Thomas and Winters were both all-county players in high school.
"It is contagious, his attitude to the game," Winters said of Thomas. "He brings a college style; we are organized. He is a defensive-minded coach."
Emphasizing defense makes sense because boxing was the first athletic love of Thomas. He competed from age 8 to 14 and was ranked third in the country in the National Silver Gloves for two years in a row.
For a time he trained a few miles from his Cheverly home in Palmer Park at the gym where champion Sugar Ray Leonard honed his skills.
Thomas, who played youth football with the Lanham Raiders, attended Greenbelt Middle School and continued boxing as a freshman at DeMatha. He missed the interaction with his friends, so he gave up boxing and began to focus on football at DeMatha as a sophomore.
He played for coach Bill McGregor at DeMatha and was ranked as the 19th-best weakside linebacker in the country by Scout.com. He picked Illinois over several other schools, including Maryland and Connecticut.
Thomas tore his labrum and had surgery before his freshman year of college and overcame torn ligaments in an ankle to start three years at Illinois. In the end he was probably not big enough to play middle linebacker in the NFL at 6 feet 1, 232 pounds.
"Being undersized was a big thing I had to overcome. I have never been the biggest guy. But pound-for-pound I have been the strongest guy on every team I played for," he said, sitting at his desk in the basement of Pallotti.
Thomas, who lives in New Carrollton with his wife and two young children, sees coaching as more than just Xs and Os. "It goes way beyond the football field. It is more than just football. Football is a tool. There is a lot more to life that football. But you can learn so much from the game," he says.
Did you know? Thomas was voted the top linebacker as a senior at Illinois … he was recruited to the school by Mike Locksley, now the offensive coordinator at the University of Maryland … Thomas was a standout boxer in his youth and was ranked third in the country at one point … he was an assistant at Pallotti the previous two years before getting the head job before this season.
THE THOMAS FILE
Name: Ian Thomas
School: Pallotti in Laurel
Title/year: Head coach/1
High school: DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville
Family: wife, son, Ian Jr., age 3, daughter, Cheyenne, age 1