Archdeacon: Thomas emerges from homelessness to stardom

Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) carries the ball for a touchdown as UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock (4) tries to defend in the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) carries the ball for a touchdown as UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock (4) tries to defend in the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

After living in his car, Dunbar grad has found a home and a restart in Utah.

Right now – as he and his Utah Utes teammates prepare for their Rose Bowl match-up with Ohio State, January 1 in Pasadena – Tavion Thomas is riding high in the college football world.

But just eight months ago he was parked in Dayton.

Temporarily homeless, he said he was living with his one-year-old son in his car – a red, 2008 Chevy Malibu – that he parked in various spots around Dayton and Kettering at night.

“It was tough,” he said the other day by phone following the Utes’ practice. “I was out there in the dark, feeling alone. Right then I was wishing I had been patient and just stayed at UC. But that was done and I didn’t know what I was going to do.

“I thought my football career was over. To be honest, I never saw any of this coming.”

Today, the Dunbar High grad is the toast of Pac-12 football:

»His 20 rushing touchdowns this season lead the conference and are tied for third best in the nation. And that’s while really playing in only 10 games compared to the 12 or 13 of the other Division I leaders have.

»In late October and early November, Thomas had back-to-back four touchdown games – against UCLA and Stanford – a feat that hadn’t happened in the conference in 25 years.

»At 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds – and fast enough that he anchored Dunbar High’s state champion 4 x 100-meter relay team in 2017 – he’s hard to bring down.

According to Pro Football Focus, 71 percent of his 1,041 rushing yards this season have come after contact.

He’ll certainly be a concern of the Buckeyes, who could not contain Michigan’s similarly-sized, 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hassan Haskins, who rushed for 169 yards and five touchdowns when the Wolverines thumped OSU, 42-27, in late November.

And Thomas knows the Buckeyes well.

He was recruited by them while at Dunbar, where he ran for 2,670 yards and 28 TDs as a junior and senior, his only two seasons as a high school running back. His senior season he ended up the City League Player of the Year and No. 18 ranked running back prospect in the nation.

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Dunbar RB Tavion Thomas. Belmont defeated Dunbar 42-0 in a season-opening high school football game at Welcome Stadium in Dayton on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. MARC PENDLETON / STAFF

Dunbar RB Tavion Thomas. Belmont defeated Dunbar 42-0 in a season-opening high school football game at Welcome Stadium in Dayton on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. MARC PENDLETON / STAFF

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Dunbar RB Tavion Thomas. Belmont defeated Dunbar 42-0 in a season-opening high school football game at Welcome Stadium in Dayton on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. MARC PENDLETON / STAFF

But the Bucks were concerned about his academic standing and wanted to send him to a junior college first. He balked at the idea and eventually committed to Oklahoma.

But then the Sooners wanted him to go the juco route as well, so he de-committed.

He ended up making his grades and signed with Cincinnati, who did not waver on him. As a sophomore, he played in UC’s 42-0 loss to the Buckeyes, rushing 11 times for 58 yards, but also fumbling in the fourth quarter.

“I got a taste in my mouth from that game, but now I really want this game with Ohio State,” he said. “It’s going to be a good one for sure.”

A fresh start at Utah

Thomas had a tough upbringing.

He said he doesn’t know his dad. And his mom struggled with various problems of the street.

He said she was evicted from their house and that Children’s Services took him and his siblings away on a couple of occasions and then split them up.

Eventually, he said his mom moved to Minnesota: “She wanted a fresh start.” He said he still talks to her regularly.

For a while he lived with his aunt and uncle, who went on college visits with him.

“His senior season he really blew up,” said his former Dunbar coach Darran Powell, who talks to Thomas once a week.

“He started getting offers from all over the country – Alabama, USC, Ohio State. Basically, anybody who had a football team wanted him.”

After changing his mind on Oklahoma, Thomas ended up with adequate grades and headed to Cincinnati, where he was the Bearcats No. 2 running back as a freshman and rushed for 499 yards and six touchdowns in eight games.

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Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) carries the ball for a touchdown as UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock (4) tries to defend in the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Credit: Rick Bowmer

Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) carries the ball for a touchdown as UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock (4) tries to defend in the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Credit: Rick Bowmer

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Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) carries the ball for a touchdown as UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock (4) tries to defend in the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Credit: Rick Bowmer

Credit: Rick Bowmer

The following season, he sat out the first game against UCLA for an undisclosed violation of team rules and then played in four games, gaining 190 yards and scoring one touchdown.

“When he went to UC, he wasn’t mature enough and got in a little trouble here and here,” Powell said. “It was nothing major, but he’d end up sitting for a half or part of a half. Then he might mess up in practice so he kind of stayed in the doghouse.”

After Thomas played in four games that 2019 sophomore season, Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said he would be redshirting.

Instead Thomas announced on Twitter: “Salty that it had to come to this…but I will be transferring from the University of Cincinnati. I appreciate the love and support y’all gave me when I was here.”

Last year he ended up at Independence Community College in Kansas, which gained fame on Netflix in a two-season run on the popular docu-series, Last Chance U.”

Thomas season at Independence was impacted by COVID and the school played it games in the spring. He gained 347 yards and scored five touchdowns in four games, but Powell said he was then sent home for an undisclosed reason.

It was after that release that Thomas returned to Dayton and found himself with no place to go. So some nights he slept in his car. He said people gave him food.

“I believe all this happened for a reason,” he said. “I think I needed to go that route and be humbled to get me right. I had to learn to appreciate what I had.”

A few schools showed interest in him – especially UAB – but by then he had set his sights on Utah and he managed to contact former Utes’ star Zach Moss, who is the school’s all-time leading rusher and now plays for the Buffalo Bills.

Moss talked to the Utah coaches, but initially no scholarship was available. Eventually a spot did open and he arrived on campus in the summer.

“When I first saw him, I was like ‘Wow! This is a big running back here!’ quarterback Cam Rising told Utah reporters. “It’s nice to have a guy like Najee Harris (the former Alabama running back who’s now a Pittsburgh Steeler.)

“I was just excited. I knew he was a phenomenal player when he first got here and I was just excited to see him go.”

‘Kept my head down and just worked’

But it still wasn’t smooth sailing for Thomas. He arrived overweight and without the benefit of spring football.

In the Utes’ opener against Weber State, he rushed for 107 yards on just 12 carries and scored two touchdowns, but he fumbled once. In the next game, he suffered an early-game fumble in a loss to BYU.

Instantly, his star faded.

He carried the ball just once for no gain in the next game, a loss to San Diego State, and he had just one carry for one yard against Washington State in game four.

Once again, his college football career was on the ropes.

“This time though I didn’t take it personal,” he said. “The team kept my confidence up and I kept my head down and just worked.”

Coaches worked with him on everything from ball security to pass protection and blitz pickup and this time he embraced what he was being told.

He was given another chance against USC and rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown.

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Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs into the end zone during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Alex Goodlett)

Credit: Alex Goodlett

Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs into the end zone during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Alex Goodlett)

Credit: Alex Goodlett

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Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs into the end zone during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Alex Goodlett)

Credit: Alex Goodlett

Credit: Alex Goodlett

Over his next seven games, his rushing yardage would top the century mark three times. He ran for 160 yards against UCLA, 177 against Stanford and 142 on No. 3 Oregon.

In those seven games, he ran for 17 of his 20 TDs.

His totals almost surely would have been higher, but Utah sat him out one game – against Arizona State – to rest him for the critical Oregon match-up.

At season’s end, Thomas won All-Pac 12 first team honors.

“I’m trying not to focus on all that,” he said quietly. “I know the other side of it, too. It wasn’t too long ago I was living without the game.

“That’s why I’m so thankful now.

“I’m thankful just to have a roof over my head and a bed. I’m thankful just for a nice place to sleep. And I’ve got people here who really treat me well. I can be myself now. I’m not being judged.

“I know I made mistakes, but everybody makes mistakes and I’m trying to work on them.

“Really I feel pretty blessed right now. It’s like a dream, but one I’m getting to enjoy every day. And I hope it keeps going because one day I want to be able to provide for my mom and my kids back in Ohio. I want to be able to lift them up to something better.”

No one is happier for him than Powell:

“It was just a matter of his maturity catching up to his talent and now it finally has. He’s gotten a second chance and he’s definitely taking advantage of the opportunity Utah has given him.

“He’s doing his thing and they all are riding his wave right now.”

Tavion Thomas is no longer parked in the dark in Dayton.

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