By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
You probably know senior Von Thomas as Concordia University’s starting quarterback. GPAC opponents know him well, too. They fear him for his ability to tear them apart through the air or by gliding past their defense before it even knows what happened.
But Thomas is more than just the guy who directs an explosive Bulldog offense. His story is one that began in a humble neighborhood on 101st Street in Miami, Fla. It’s a vibrant city where his passion for football spawned, where his dream of becoming a police officer took hold and where tragedy struck extended family members.
A strong leader on the field and a fun-loving guy off it, Thomas traces his positive traits back to his roots and to the most influential person in his life – his mother Blanca.
“My mom was tough. We knew right from wrong,” Thomas said. “We would get disciplined and everything as you can imagine. We are the way we are now because of my mom. It was just her. She raised three boys. My oldest brother is in the army. My other brother works for the county back home. Now I’m getting ready to graduate from college with a degree in psychology.”
With Blanca in attendance at last week’s homecoming game, Von continued his assault on the Bulldog football record book. He surpassed former star quarterback Jarrod Pimentel for both career total yards of offense and career total touchdowns as Concordia blew away Dordt. Five games into 2014, Von is on track for his best season yet in his third year as a starter.
It’s been an incredible run for a guy who, during his freshman season, at times missed classes. He grew and he learned better of it. Look at him now.
“I never set any goals as far as personal (stats), but I’m going to enjoy it,” Thomas said following his record-setting day. “My teammates won’t let me live it down now. It’s a great feeling.”
Anyone who saw him play at Miami’s Monsignor Edward Pace High School knew Von had the potential to become a collegiate star. But he had been overshadowed by future NFL players like Kayvon Webster (Denver Broncos), Demarcus Van Dyke (drafted by the Oakland Raiders) and Adrian Bushell (signed as undrafted free agent with Raiders). Plus Von did not become Pace’s full-time starting quarterback until his senior year – too late in the game to draw the attention of some college recruiters.
But the talent was hard to ignore. NCAA Division I schools were interested in Von, but they wanted him to try receiver. That made Von uneasy.
“I didn’t have any film at that position because I just played quarterback in high school,” Von said. “(NCAA Division I FCS) Alabama State (University) ended up picking me up late. I went on a visit late and told them I was coming.”
And so Von enrolled at Alabama State for the fall semester of 2008. However, he quickly realized, before school even started, that the culture wasn’t quite what he wanted. So he decided to put college on hold and return home where Blanca welcomed him back.
For more than a year, Von worked at the local Costco where his mother served as the store’s supervisor. Von pushed carts, rain or shine. He was happy to help his mom and keep her company with both of his older brothers having already moved out of the nest. At the same time, he knew he wasn’t taking full advantage of the talents God had afforded him.
A chance encounter with a former coach while walking around his high school provided the break he needed.
“One of my coaches saw me,” Von said. “He asked, ‘Hey, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in school.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I left Alabama State. I’m just ready to go back to school and play football again.’ I had been out for that year.”
That particular coach happened to have a connection with a Concordia head coach at the time. Von was put in touch with Bulldog head football coach Vance Winter and Von’s return to collegiate football was set into motion.
Von’s talents were easy for Winter to see upon viewing The Sunshine State native’s high school film. So in December of 2009, Von visited Concordia for the first time and signed on the dotted line to become a Bulldog. As Von remembers, “That was my first time experiencing snow.”
A little snow would not bother someone as tough as Von, now known for his disdain for running out of bounds. An oncoming defender looking to lay him out doesn’t seem so daunting when compared to some of the other things Von has faced in his life.
Let’s be frank, it’s not as if Von lived amidst a Miami Vice-type atmosphere. He admits to being oblivious to what violence did occur in his area, and Blanca and his brothers Arnold and Chris never allowed Von to even think about veering down the wrong path.
Still there were the reminders of what trouble lurked nearby. Blanca had to move the family out of their 101st Street house after it was twice robbed in broad daylight. Then in 2011, with Von settling in at Concordia, something much worse occurred.
“I received a call from one of my cousin’s back home saying that our cousin Michael had been killed – shot in the head and dumped in the water,” Von said. “I contacted my mom as soon as I found out – she was at work – and my brother as well.
“I lost two of my close cousins and we were all the same age range. That was pretty tough.”
Like everything else, Von took it in stride. He dealt with other things like not seeing his father, who lives in Hallandale, Fla., and just “wasn’t there” as Von states.
He was wired early on to be tough and not show weakness. Otherwise he could have simply been eaten alive.
“My older brother Chris would tell me that people would come up to you and just try to fight you just because – just to see what you were about,” Von said. “I tell people now that back home you had to learn to defend yourself. People are crazy back home. You had to learn how to fight. My brothers taught me a lot.”
Those roots also have influenced Von in his aspirations of becoming a police officer. This past summer he interned with the Seward Police Department, learning the ropes of what it will take for him to fulfill a dream – something Blanca always wanted herself. Von plans to enter the police academy after he graduates in December.
“Being a police officer has always been in my mind even though I rarely talked about it before,” Von said. “The internship here was really good experience. I saw a lot of things and learned a lot.
“It was my mom’s dream growing up to be a police officer as well.”
While Von may not have dreamed of playing his college football in Nebraska, he’s not complaining about the way his life has transpired. Concordia has become a second home, and the place where he met his future wife.
“My plan was to get my degree and head back home to Miami,” Thomas said. “Things didn’t work out that way, which I’m pretty excited and happy that it didn’t. I did meet my fiancé here. She was feeling the same way too like, 'I’m never going to meet anybody here from Nebraska.' It worked out for her too. I’ve had a lot of fun here. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t rewrite any story that I had here. I feel like everything happens for a reason.”
The story that Von continues to author has thrilled Bulldog fans, who have seen the Miami native help boost the program into the upper half of the GPAC. With his play on the field and his big smile off it, Von has had little trouble endearing himself to others.
“Von’s just done an amazing job,” Winter said. “He’s been an amazing leader for us. I’m real happy for him to (break those records) on homecoming with his mother and his fiancé here. He’s a great competitor. I love coaching him. I know our guys like playing for him too.”
Von will head back to Florida in December, but trust that he will return to Concordia next May to walk across the stage at graduation. Mom insists. And who’s to argue with Blanca, the woman who has meant so much in his life?
“My mom is forcing me to walk,” Von said. “She was like, ‘you’re not going to miss it after I did all of this for you.’ I said, ‘you got it, mom.’ We’ll be back up in May. I’ll be walking across that stage and I know it’s something my mom has been wanting to see for a while.”
That moment will put a bow on what’s been a remarkable Concordia career for Von – perhaps the top quarterback in program history. Stated simply and fittingly by Von, “Somehow it worked out.”