For much of Ian Thomas' life, football was merely a distraction. It helped keep him out of trouble, which is so easy to find growing up in Baltimore City. It gave him an outlet for the overwhelming grief he felt after the sudden deaths of his mother and father. It provided him with a sense of purpose and a path to a college education.
Sure, Thomas dreamed big. Given his circumstances, of course he hoped for better and brighter. But playing in the NFL? It was only about two years ago when he even considered it a realistic possibility.
"Coming from Baltimore, we didn't look at goals that big," Thomas said.
Thomas, who played the past two years at Indiana, is considered one of the better tight ends in the 2018 draft class. He's expected to be taken on the second day of this week's draft, a selection that would cap a remarkable ascent and highlight a story of perseverance, resourcefulness and brotherly and sisterly love.
It was Thomas' older brother and sister who provided for him and his siblings after the death of their parents and made sure they committed to an education. Thomas wasn't recruited out of Digital Harbor High School. He got on the radar of a junior college in New York only after the school's football coach saw clips of Thomas dunking a basketball. In his first season at Indiana, Thomas had three total receptions.
Yet, Thomas flashed NFL potential in 2017, catching five touchdown passes and averaging 15 yards per reception. At 6 feet 4 and 259 pounds, he has the size/speed combination that so many teams, including the Ravens, covet at tight end. He is raw and relatively inexperienced, but Thomas has grown up quickly everywhere that he's been. He's had no other choice.
"He's one of the greatest people I've ever met," Indiana associate head coach and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "With his background of losing both parents at such a young age, he could have gone a lot of different ways and he didn't. It's a great tribute to him, but it speaks volumes for his entire family. They kept Ian focused on the right things and Ian never went on to the bad things. Now, it's all going to pay off for him. It's a great story."
Learning to cope
Thomas is not a big talker. The 21-year-old is exceedingly polite, but he opens up only when he's extremely comfortable with his audience. It took months before some of his former coaches and teammates learned about the adversity he faced in his young life.
In June 2004, on his eighth birthday, Thomas lost his mother, Martha. She ignored a persistent toothache for weeks and an abscess developed. The infection led to kidney and liver failure. A little over a year later, his father, Earl, died of a heart attack. Thomas had yet to turn 10 and suddenly he and his eight siblings were alone.
"It was very hard to deal with, especially for me as a young kid," Thomas said. "I don't really know how to explain the feeling, but I know it was hard for me to readjust my life when my parents weren't there. As a 9-year-old, you have a bunch of questions, a bunch of love to give and get."
In the months that followed, Thomas estimated that he and his siblings moved five or six times, staying with extended family and friends. They moved in with an uncle, but that arrangement became unsustainable and the uncle voiced a desire to give the kids up for adoption. That's when Clif Farmer, Thomas' oldest brother, stepped in.
Farmer, in his early 20s at the time, gained legal custody of Ian, his brother, Earl, and his sister, Ashanta. Thomas' four youngest siblings stayed with their grandmother. Their oldest sister, Dishae, helped Farmer support the younger kids.
"It wasn't a hard decision at all," Farmer said. "I never even thought twice about it. My brothers and sisters needed help and I'm there. We had each other. That's all we really needed. My mom raised me good enough to know how to hold things down."
Farmer and Dishae had both dropped out of school, but they were determined to not let their younger siblings do the same. Farmer got a job as a concrete laborer. Dishae babysat and worked at a day care center. They made sure that Ian, Earl and Ashanta had a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs.
"I was making $9.50 an hour and bringing home like $200 a week," Farmer said. "When I was a teenager, I was a troubled kid. My main thing was to not let them be anything like I was. I gave up pretty much my whole life. I was young and wanted to do certain things, but I had to remember what came first."
When the kids weren't at school, practice or an extra-curricular activity, Farmer mandated that they stayed home. He knew the temptations of the streets and was determined to shield them. He kept the kids plenty busy by assigning chores. William Brandon, Ian's football coach at Digital Harbor, remembers Farmer pulling his star player off the field before a big game because he didn't do his household duties.
"He held him accountable," Brandon said. "I've always said that Ian was a rose that grew out of the concrete of Baltimore."
The community pitched in to help, too. Judy Mayer met the Thomases while helping out in an after-school program called Banner Neighborhoods. She grew close to the family and did what she could to make sure they had what they needed. Mayer still takes the Thomas kids out to dinner, gets them Christmas gifts and sends them care packages.
"My whole life before I retired, I worked with the juvenile justice system. When you have an 8-year-old boy who doesn't have much money and then his mother dies and then his father dies, what happens to him? I know that story very well," Mayer said. "The Thomases were wonderful people. These were decent, lovely kids. They weren't going to go into the system. That's why I got involved. I had enough experience to know what to do to help keep kids out of the system. It takes a lot of people to do that."
Making it on his own
Along with not wanting to let his legal guardian down, Thomas said his involvement with Tender Bridge, a program that links at-risk children in East Baltimore to sports and recreational activities, helped keep him and his brother, Earl, out of trouble. Through the program, the boys played football, basketball, lacrosse and hockey.
Still, Dishae worried about Ian. He was the quietest member of the Thomas family, by far, and rarely talked about his feelings. Once, when Dishae was straightening up the boy's room, she found a book of messages from Ian to his late mother.
"Football was how he found his way through grieving," Dishae said. "It was his getaway."
Ian, who also participated in basketball and track at Digital Harbor, went to Towson University football games and was enamored of ex-Tigers running back Terrance West. Ian knew that West made it out of a similar Baltimore neighborhood to become an NFL prospect. However, academic questions prevented Ian from enrolling at Towson and following in West's footsteps.
He had all but given up on football and committed to getting a job when Brandon reached out to Joe Osovet, who headed a strong junior college program at Nassau Community College in Garden City, N.Y. Osovet was impressed by Ian's size and athleticism on the basketball court, but he needed to see him on the football field. When he did, Osovet was sold.
Ian knew nothing about Nassau Community College other than it represented opportunity. Dishae worried about how he'd fare on his own. Ian took to the football part of it immediately, immersing himself into the sport, bulking up and becoming one of the top junior college tight ends in the country. Indiana, South Carolina and Texas A&M started recruiting him.
Off the field, he experienced some challenges. He felt bad about asking his family back home for money, so he worked two jobs to make sure that he could afford food and rent. He lived in a six-bedroom apartment with 11 other football players. The group was forced to move several times because it missed rent payments.
What Thomas called the low point came when he was informed that several of the courses he took at Nassau were nonaccredited and didn't count toward his degree. The confusion delayed his departure, but Thomas loaded up on classes and enrolled at Indiana in time for the 2016 season.
"Here's a kid that came from nothing, that had nothing handed to him, that had to earn everything that he has accomplished in his athletic and academic career," said Osovet, now an assistant coach at Tennessee. "There aren't enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe how rewarding it is for Ian Thomas. He's a special kid. He deserves everything that's coming to him."
Coming full circle
Thomas was in class at Digital Harbor in February 2013 when the Ravens paraded through the streets outside after their Super Bowl XLVII victory. It brought joy to Thomas, who rooted for the team and had met several of the players at various community events. Thomas' favorite player was tight end Todd Heap, whose jersey he wore long before he harbored NFL aspirations of his own.
The predraft process has been both consuming and rewarding to Thomas, and some of it has been a family affair. Farmer drove 16 hours to Mobile, Ala., to watch his younger brother participate in the Senior Bowl.
"To see him accomplish his goals is overwhelming for me," said Farmer, now 32. "And not just him. All the kids that I had with me, they all graduated from high school and went to college. To see all of them go in that direction is a blessing."
Ian has returned to Baltimore this week to watch the draft with family and friends. He'll be the center of attention, but as far as he's concerned, there are so many others that share in the accomplishment.
"They know what I came from and what we've been through," Ian said. "They've given me the motivation to keep going."