The 1993 film “Rudy” became an instant classic as it told an inspirational story about a diminutive kid who overcame the odds to achieve his dream of playing college football. Damon Thomas’ story is a bit different, though.
Thomas, who is entering his junior year at Erasmus Hall High School, didn’t grow up in the bucolic setting of a small town in Illinois. Thomas is growing up on the streets of East New York while trying to overcome a childhood trauma that might otherwise cripple someone without the most determined of spirits — the death of his parents.
Thomas’ story, as he remembers it, started when he was just 5 years old. While watching TV, he heard someone come into the house and, thinking it was his older brother, he ran downstairs to the door to greet him.
“When I got downstairs, I saw somebody that I had only seen in scary movies, so I ran back upstairs to my mom's room," Thomas recalled. "She asked what happened, and her and my dad went downstairs to see what was going on — [A]ll I heard was 'bang-bang,' and that was the last time I have ever saw my parents.”
Thomas’ life wasn’t easy after that. He recalls going into a group home for a little while before he eventually moved in with his father’s mother. But it wasn’t long before she passed as well, and he was moved into another group home. Eventually, he moved in with his other grandmother, Avis Frederick.
Over the years, things didn’t get any easier. Thomas has three brothers, but the oldest disappeared after the death of their parents and the other two were not good influences. With his grandmother working seven days a week to support him and his brothers, Thomas lacked guidance and quickly fell in with a bad crowd. He played basketball and football, but his attitude was poor; he did what he wanted to do, without viewing practice and sports as important.
One day, when he was in the eighth grade, Thomas was with a group of friends crossing Linden Boulevard when one of his peers made a remark to another group of kids that happened to be passing by. An argument quickly escalated and one of the kids pulled a gun on Thomas and his friends. He immediately ran.
“When I got home, I felt like I heard my parents voices,” Thomas said, still visibly shaken from the incident. “They were telling me that if I kept it up, I wasn't going to live long. My life was just going to end. I didn’t want to be like that; I’ve already lost too many people.”
From that point on, football became Thomas’ life.
When he used to only occasionally go to practice, it suddenly became torture to miss it. At Erasmus Hall, he met Curtis Samuel, who became an All-American in high school before he went off to Ohio State on a football scholarship. In Samuel, Thomas had the perfect mentor.
“He was always talking about Curtis,” said Kimanee Baskerville, a friend’s mother who Thomas stays with on weekends. “We definitely saw an impact on him and now that Curtis is in college, that's even stronger. He’s seen what Curtis has achieved and he’s working even harder to get that D-I scholarship. He won't settle for less when he knows that he can do more.”
Thomas still lives with his grandmother, but Baskerville and her husband, Shawn Cabbell, watch after him on weekends. Thomas began spending time with their son and was eventually over there so much that Baskerville has come to call Thomas her "other son." And she treats him like family, too; she and her husband continue to make sure Thomas is staying off the streets and doing well in school.
Determined to stand out in high school football, Thomas goes to college camps during the summer with teammates Jahsen Wint and Aaron Grant. If he doesn’t have enough money to pay for the camps, Grant’s father, Demel Grant, helps him out. They’ve gone to camps at Fordham, Rutgers, Stony Brook and Penn State this summer.
Even though Thomas’ life is more stable now than it once was, he said he hasn’t lived out his happy ending yet. He’s still desperate to get out of East New York and, at 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds, it’s not going to be easy for him to get that football scholarship that he dreams of. In fact, it’s so tough for him sometimes that he occasionally thinks about quitting.
The closest he came was during his sophomore year in high school, which was his first year on the varsity team. He had an especially bad practice and was in tears before he walked off the field.
“It can be so frustrating,” Thomas said. “I run all of these drills and, even though nobody can hold me, I feel like coaches don’t see me. I can run the 40-yard dash at 4.4 seconds, and all the [college] coaches’ heads turn to me — but then they see my size and they turn right back around. I know I have the skills, and I constantly hear my parents encouraging me, so I can’t quit. It isn’t easy, though.”
Thomas’ high school coach at Erasmus Hall, Danny Landberg, admits that it will be a long shot for him to obtain that coveted Division-I scholarship offer. However, he did point out that Thomas’ work ethic will go a long way toward helping him.
“His work ethic is through the ceiling, and you can’t deny his heart,” Landberg said. “Coaches like to see that dedication, so it’s going to be hard for them to keep ignoring him. He’s also got tremendous speed, so that helps, and if he keeps his grades up he’s got two years left to show people what he can do.”
Thomas will be a junior next season and is expected to compete for a starting spot as a running back at Erasmus Hall.
“People sometimes come up to me and tell me that I inspire them,” Thomas said. “Some teammates have asked me how I can do this. It makes me smile when I hear that. It keeps me going. I have to make it; I have to get to a D-I school because otherwise I don't know what I'm going to do. All I know is that I have to do this for my parents.”