When Tampa Bay Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels talks about recent wide receiver acquisition Johnny Thomas, it’s hard for Samuels not to reminisce about his own career, how he began playing football and the path to becoming a pro.
The similarities between the two are striking.
Thomas didn’t start organized football until his senior year of high school. He was a natural musician, tooting his baritone horn “since I could walk” he recalls.
In high school, Thomas was a basketball player, a defensive specialist who relished the challenge of matching up against the other team’s best scorer and shutting him down. He was also a member of the band, continuing a long-held family tradition.
“Everyone in my family was in the band,” Thomas said. “They might not have all stayed with it like me, but at some point in time, they were in the band. It was instilled in you.”
Samuels, too, was a band guy, alternating between the bass drum and the quads in high school. Like Thomas, he starred on the hardwood as a point guard, shooting guard or small forward from junior high on.
“I joined the band because our band was one of the top bands in the state,” Samuels said of his school, Shaw High in Mobile, Ala. “We actually went on competitions and they were traveling and the football team was subpar average and not doing so good.”
Both Thomas and Samuels were held out of football initially by protective mothers. To get on the field, Thomas pulled an end-around, getting the OK from his grandmother prior to his senior year.
At Shaw, Samuels’ high school football coach watched the swift-footed basketball star during hoops season and knew his talent could help win football games. He met with Samuels’ mother and convinced her to let her oldest son strap on a helmet in the fall.
“I played little league [football] and didn’t have the size,” Samuels said. “My mom thought I wasn’t ready. You have to listen to your parents, and you don’t play. But my senior year, I wanted to do everything.”
Their one season of high school football was enough for each to garner interest from college recruiters, eventually leading to a professional career in the sport.
Samuels became an Arena Football League Hall of Famer and still holds Storm franchise records for receptions (967), receiving yards (11,078), receiving touchdowns (160), points scored (1,076) and tackles (455.5) among others. The former wide receiver and defensive back who played 15 seasons for the Storm is entering his second season as the team’s head coach.
For Thomas, his story is still being written.
“I already accomplished one of my goals by being on an AFL team,” Thomas said. “For right now, the goal is to stay on this team. Once I make the team, the only goal is to win a championship. I’ve got to get that feeling again.”
Going into his junior year of high school, Thomas wasn’t concerned with football or basketball or his baritone horn.
He was simply hoping to survive.
A resident of New Orleans East, Thomas was in the Crescent City as Hurricane Katrina bore a path toward his hometown.
A day before Katrina devastated New Orleans and became the costliest natural disaster to hit the United States, Thomas fled the city, joining family an hour-and-a half north in Kentwood, La., which still took a significant blow from the storm.
“We had power lines down, we had no water and lights for maybe two weeks, it was pretty rough,” Thomas said “But they had wells out there so you could go to the well for water. We were eating pretty good too because we didn’t want any of the food to spoil.”
Thomas went back to New Orleans once it was safe to reenter the city and barely recognized his childhood home. His neighborhood was located next to the Ninth Ward, the hardest-hit section of the city.
“We went back to view the house and take pictures for insurance and it was pretty much done,” Thomas said. “The water was my height, and I’m 6-foot-4. It was pretty rough. My mom and dad ended up rebuilding the house and they’ve moved back now.”
Thomas stayed in Kentwood, but the transition was anything but smooth.
“When I moved there, I really didn’t want to be there,” Thomas said. “Every day I had a dead face because I was out of my comfort zone. My world had been turned upside down. As far as going to class, I went, I did my work. Teacher’s liked me, but I didn’t really like them.”
To get Thomas refocused, his cousins convinced him to join the football team. In P.E. class, Thomas had dominated playing pick-up football against members of the school’s team.
After convincing his grandmother, Thomas joined the football team his senior year. Without a lot of football savvy, Thomas’ instructions were simple: run streaks down the field and go up and get the ball when it comes your way.
“The hardest thing was actually being able to take a hit,” he said. “When it was time to go across the middle, I would chicken out and get scared. They stopped sending me across the middle and just sent me on go routes. And they gave me a lot of jump balls because of my ability to grab rebounds.”
Thomas’ basketball prowess translated well to his new venture as a football wideout.
“You can see it on film,” Samuels said. “It kind of relates to the arena game because the field is so small and you have to be able to make plays like in basketball as a receiver. His height helps him and his jumping ability. He has to be able to go up and get the ball, and I see all those things with his ability to do that.”
Thomas started slowly, but by the time Kentwood reached the playoffs, he had come into his own and was dominant. College recruiters took note, and Thomas suddenly became a hot commodity.
“I just thought I was going out there to have fun. That was it,” Thomas said. “Literally, I was going to go to Jackson State University and be a part of the band. But then I got an offer from Grambling, and I had a junior college offer. Since I didn’t make the grades, I went to the junior college.”
Thomas went to Southwest Mississippi Community College before transferring to Texas College. After losing a season because of a broken ankle, Thomas returned to become an All-Central States Football League selection.
Professionally, Thomas spent a season with the Knoxville Nighthawks of the Professional Indoor Football League before winning a Lone Star Football League championship in 2014 with the San Angelo Bandits.
The Bandits defeated the New Mexico Stars 64-34 in the title game.
“I was nervous until the first time I got hit,” Thomas said. “Matter fact, it was on kickoff and I made the first tackle because I was on kickoff and the crowd went wild.”
Thomas, who also played linebacker for the Bandits, said winning a championship with the Bandits is the most gratifying moment of his sports career.
“It was so big to us that it’s hard to even describe the feeling of getting it,” he said. “I throw that ring on every day just to remind people that I’m a champion.”
With the Storm, Thomas hopes to become part of a young, talented receiving corps that helps the franchise collect its AFL record sixth ArenaBowl championship.
“You’re always looking for those diamonds in the rough,” Samuels said. “I think those players come up and they surprise people a lot. When a guy is kind of off the radar and is looking for an opportunity, coaches tend to pick the underdog. You think to yourself, ‘Man, I can do something with him.’ And that’s with all our receivers. We’ve gotten some young receivers this year, so I’m looking forward to working with them all.”