ADA — Robert Thomas is proof positive that athletic ability and options go hand-in-hand.
A four-sport start at Sulphur, Thomas came out of high school with offers to play both professional baseball and college football, and after weighing both, he listened to a scout from the Detroit Tigers. He turned down a chance to go to Southeastern Oklahoma University on a football scholarship and instead opted for a potentially lucrative baseball career.
“Going into my senior year (at Sulphur), I had my mind made up that I was going to play (college) football,” Thomas recalled. “I had a lot of D-1 schools calling me my junior year, then I had some injury issues, and the recruiting process didn’t go that well my senior year.
“I signed with Southeastern, then a scout from the Detroit Tigers called me and asked if I would play (baseball) if I got drafted late,” he added. “I told them I would only play baseball if I got my school paid for it it didn’t work out, and they wouldn’t do that. He told me if I went to a (junior college) and worked on some things I could be drafted in the first round.”
Thomas took the scout’s advice and went to Cowley County Junior College in Kansas, where he had two productive years. He also spent the summers before his freshman and sophomore years as the center fielder for the Ada American Legion baseball team, helping the Post 72 Braves to the state tournament in both 2008 and 2009.
But last fall, fate intervened, and Thomas saw his athletic career take another U-turn.
“I happened to get a weekend off and came down for the ECU-UCO (football) game, because the father of a friend of mine (Hunter Marcum, who played Legion ball with Thomas the past two seasons) was getting an award,” Thomas recalled. “I could see the kind of program they were trying to build at ECU. If there was that much positive around a team that was winless, I could only imagine how much excitement there would be if this team ever started winning.”
Impressed by what he saw from a Tiger squad that was nearing the end of an 0-11 season, Thomas called ECU head coach Tim McCarty after the game and told him he would like to come to Ada to play football. And the rest, as they say, is — or at least could be — history.
Thomas enrolled at ECU in January, and he entered spring practice last week as one of five quarterbacks in camp. A freshman as far as his football eligibility goes, Thomas sees his new career path as a fresh start at a school where he never saw himself playing before.
“No part of me ever wanted to go to ECU,” he admitted. “It’s 30 minutes from my home, and I always wanted to get away from home. I thought of East Central as the next level for Sulphur grads — that’s how many kids from there came over here. I was looking at UCO and again at Southeastern, because they let me know how disappointed they were when I didn’t come down there out of high school.”
McCarty — who returned in January of 2009 for his second tour as ECU’s head coach after spending three seasons as an assistant at Kansas State — was more persuasive, though, and welcomed Thomas into the ECU fold.
“Once I got to meet this coaching staff and see their plan for the future, I knew this was a place where I would fit in,” Thomas said. “Once this coaching staff gets their type of players in and gets their system in place, this is a program that can win the (Lone Star Conference) North. I think this area will embrace these players.
“I don’t think people know how good this coaching staff is and how great a guy Coach McCarty is,” he added. “People WANT to play for the guy. Thirty-seven recruits don’t just come to an 0-11 program. ECU is really lucky to have him.”
McCarty appears to be just as big a fan of his newest quarterback candidate.
“He’s got good size, he’s smart, he’s a good athlete, he’s conscientious and detailed in what he does, and he’s a team-type of player,” McCarty said. “All of those attributes are huge when you’re thinking about what a guy can bring to the table, and what he brings to the table is a A LOT. You don’t have to look very hard at him to see that he’s a football player.
“There aren’t a lot of Sam Bradfords and Josh Freemans out there, but Robert was a very productive quarterback in high school,” he added. “He was drafted to play baseball, so he was gifted at several sports. The other thing about Robert is that he’s a little older freshman. We’ve got a four-year player there that we feel is going to be a pretty special player.”
In fact, Thomas will probably spend five years at ECU. With Josh Phillips — a starter in part of three seasons, including seven games in 2009 — back for his senior season and 6-6 juco import Tyler Vanderzee in camp this spring, Thomas said he doesn’t see a downside to redshirting in 2010 and learning McCarty’s system on a team that has just 14 seniors on the roster and is loaded with talented young receivers.
“I know that I will probably redshirt this season, which will give me another four years,” he said. “I’ve talked to the coaches, and they say they’re trying to prepare me to be a three- or four-year starter here. This whole season, I get to work with the practice squad and get some reps in so I’ll be ready when my opportunity comes.
“The guys we’re throwing to are all so competitive,” Thomas noted. “They’re all young, and they know if they slack off, somebody will take their spot. We’ve got the little guys and the tall striders who can go up and get the ball. In high school, the tallest receiver I got to throw to was a modest 5-11; here, we’ve got threats all over the place. It’s going to be fun to grow up with these guys, because I know that when it is my time, most of these guys will still be here.”
Thomas admitted that learning to be a college quarterback is a big change from playing the position in high school — for a couple of reasons.
“It was really kind of like a whirlwind the first couple of days,” he said. “You have to take it all in, and I had to observe a lot, because I have a lot to learn. All of these guys have been playing college football for the last two years, and I haven’t played for the last year and a half. It’s like starting over.
“My arm strength is perfectly fine — the only thing I’m not up to par with Josh and Tyler is my footwork and arm motion,” Thomas explained. “Obviously, my athleticism is something I have on these other (quarterbacks), but I’m kind of going through a Tim Tebow process as far as my throwing motion. I’m basically throwing a baseball with a football in my hand. Plus, the terminology in this system is completely different from high school I might as well be learning a foreign language — even the basic routes are called something different.”
On the plus side, Thomas is looking forward to having some other options in the offense at ECU, after being the leading rusher, passer and kick returner and also playing in the secondary on defense at Sulphur as a junior and senior.
“In high school, somebody figured out that 83 percent of our offense went through me, so I think that prepared me for the pressure I’m going to have go to through,” he said. “I knew in high school, if I didn’t go do things properly, we probably weren’t going to win that ballgame.
“As far as getting to the college level and not having to focus on EVERYTHING, it’s actually been great,” Thomas added. “Instead of having to become good at a lot of things, I can concentrate on becoming great at a few things. It’s great to finally focus on one position and fine-tune myself and mold myself into a passing quarterback with a run threat instead of a running quarterback with a good arm.”
Thomas said his struggles to master the finer points of the college game haven’t done anything to dull his confidence that he can handle the job when he finally gets an opportunity.
“Coming in, I didn’t know what to expect, especially seeing as how this coaching staff wasn’t the one that recruited me out of high school,” he said. “Coming in here, I knew they wouldn’t throw me into the fire right away, and after watching these guys, I’m really optimistic.”
And, he added, he no longer has that urge to leave home to play football.
“I live with my grandparents, and they need me to be close to home now,” Thomas explained. “Going to ECU, I’m really close to home, and I can get a job in the summer. I don’t have to worry about playing baseball 11 months out of the year.”
At least now, though, he has the option.