As a freshman at St. John’s Prep, Jonathan Thomas watched running back Tyler Coppola rack up huge numbers for a team that made it to the Division 1 Super Bowl.
Asked what he learned by watching Coppola lead the Eagles to Gillette Stadium, the junior responded, “Just to keep moving. He played with a lot of pain, so I just learned from him to suck it up and keep moving.”
He could have just taken those same cues from his own life experience.
When Thomas was seven years old, the Peabody native was skateboarding with his friends, rolling out of his garage when a car coming downhill struck him on his dead end street. The injuries were so serious that he had to be taken into Boston by helicopter.
“I was unconscious when it happened. I don’t remember the helicopter ride or anything,” he said. “They thought I was going to have brain damage and everything. The whole right side of my face, my head, was gone, so they had to stitch it back up. There’s still scars today but it’s not as noticeable.”
The scars may have been more noticeable back then, but they didn’t slow him down. Against his mother’s best wishes, by that summer, Thomas began his football career.
“My mother didn’t want me to play, but it was my brother’s first year, too. My brother went down to play and my dad said, ‘You can help coach.’ But I got in all the drills and stuff and said, ‘I can do this.’ I was the fastest one out there despite my injury.”
By that time, Thomas felt his brush with death had no impact on his ability to play the game.
“I don’t think it had any effect. It’s just a miracle that I’m still alive.”
When Thomas got to the Prep, he had never played cornerback in his life, but was forced to start there as a freshman because of career-ending injuries to Coppola’s brothers, Jared and Brandon.
It was a trial-by-fire initiation to the varsity game if there ever was one. That season, Thomas had to cover the likes of Everett’s Matt Costello (Princeton), Brockton’s Albert Louis-Jean (Brockton) and St. John’s of Shrewsbury’s Richard Rodgers (Cal).
“It was quite an experience coming straight out of Pop Warner to playing the top players in the state. It was a learning experience but it was fun.”
By the time last year rolled around, however, Thomas earned his way into the starting lineup as a running back. With sterling performances against the likes of Brockton, St. John’s of Shrewsbury, Catholic Memorial and Xaverian, he showed the type of potential that already garnered the attention of a number of Division I coaches.
Always blessed with a tree-trunk lower body, Thomas worked with Prep assistant coach Jameson Pelkey over the offseason to improve his speed, which has gone down from around 4.7 in the 40-yard dash to the high-4.5 area.
“I worked on my speed, pulling sleds, hitting the weight room daily,” Thomas said. “I’m working on just every part of my body to get me ready for Division I players coming at me, trying to tackle me. I’m trying to break their tackles: keep my feet moving; keep my legs going.”
“He’s always had that good initial burst,” said Prep coach Jim O’Leary. “Now he has the other burst to go with it.”
Now a junior and three-year starter, Thomas is one of the leaders for a squad that returns 18 starters and wants to go from a 4-6 team to a Super Bowl champion.
“Well, we’ve realized what a great opportunity we have,” he said. “We have nine returning starters on offense and defense. We have pretty much the whole team coming back. It’s another great mindset: we’re ready to get a ring. Everybody’s putting in work.”
And if the Eagles encounter any adversity along the way, expect Thomas to help his teammates suck it up and keep moving.
ST. JOHN’S PREP AT A GLANCE
2011: 4-6 (1-3 Catholic Conference)
Coach: Jim O’Leary (29th season, 189-105-2)
Key Returnees: Lucas Bavaro, Sr. WR/OLB, 6-1, 198 lbs.; Alex Moore, Sr. RB/S, 6-1, 195 lbs.; Jon Thomas, Jr. RB, 5-11, 195 lbs.; Jack Sharrio, Sr. QB, 5-9, 174 lbs.; Gerald Kahari, Sr. CB/WR, 5-7, 162 lbs.; Corey Jean-Jacques, Sr. DT, 5-11, 286 lbs.; Anthony Bongiorno, Sr. TE/DE, 6-4, 233 lbs.; Michael Fawehinimi, Jr. CB/WR, 5-8, 160 lbs.; Tucker Mathers, Sr. DE/TE, 5-11, 195 lbs.; Sean Smerczynski, Jr. ILB, 5-11, 216 lbs.
Strengths: Experience, defense, kicking game, offensive backfield.
Weaknesses: Tough schedule.
Outlook: While the Prep stumbled to a 4-6 record last season, many expect the Eagles to bounce back in a big way this fall despite once again facing a brutal non-conference slate on top of the always-grueling Catholic Conference gauntlet (joked O’Leary, “We’re ranked the fourth-best team in the state and the third-ranked team in our conference”). Most of the optimism centers around a starting lineup that is littered with two and three-year starters. The same defense that held BC High to just seven points last year returns nearly everyone and should be among the best in the state. Last year’s offense was inconsistent but promises to explode with Thomas, Moore and Sharrio in the backfield and Bavaro and Kahari on the perimeter. The offensive line is where the team figures to make its biggest improvement. “We’re so much better than we were a year ago,” O’Leary said of that group, which still only projects to start one senior. Despite all the returning talent, O’Leary is aware that his team needs to find greater consistency to live up to expectations and put last year’s disappointing season in the rear-view mirror. “It’s nice to have players back, but we need to go out and win games now.”