James Thomas Jr. '09 has created a life he never thought possible. And now he's giving that same chance to high school football players who might otherwise believe they can't do the same.
JT, as he is known to his friends, was born and raised in an area of poverty in Orlando, Florida, and he faced limited options for his future. Without the resources to be successful, he recalls, “it was easier for me to stay home and be a drug dealer than it was for me to go to college.” But that all changed when he met Graceland Admissions counselor Kevin Brown ’96.
Brown helped James recognize the possibilities available to him if he chose to come the 1,300 miles from Orlando to Lamoni. At the time, he felt it was the only chance that allowed him to trade perhaps a troubled future for one of opportunity. For James, Graceland was his chance.
As a freshman, he wasn’t sure he was going to make it at Graceland. The first is always the hardest year, especially for students who experience such a culture shock. He recalls, however, that once he stopped comparing Lamoni to Orlando and began to see what Graceland – and Lamoni – had to offer, he began to not only appreciate his time here, but cherish it.
A self-proclaimed social butterfly, James had interactions with people from all over the world while at Graceland, and he experienced a whole new way of living. He recalls, “I learned how to live in a small town; I learned how to be around a different race.” Being from a predominantly black community in Orlando, he was introduced to multiple cultures – including the local Amish.
An All-American track athlete for Graceland, James still holds the record for the indoor 60 meter and the outdoor 100 meter. He was a member of the football team to win the first conference title in 30 years for Graceland, and the amusement comes through in his voice when he talks about the goal post being brought down in celebration of the team's success that year. The biggest influence throughout his time at Graceland and to this day, however, was the people.
The relationships he built while at Graceland, like so many, continued beyond graduation. Adam Clark, one of his Graceland football coaches, later hired him as a graduate assistant at Western New Mexico, where James spent six seasons climbing the ladder to defensive coordinator. In 2014 at the age of 27, James was the youngest defensive coordinator in college football. He credits his Graceland relationships and the connections he made as a Yellowjacket to his success.
A physical education and health double major at Graceland, James earned a master’s degree while at Western New Mexico. He is now the defensive coordinator for Clarion University in Pennsylvania, an NCAA Division II school, and is again wearing the blue and gold. He and his wife, Razanna ’10, who he met at Graceland, live there with their two children.
While he recognizes that many believe the best part of being a college football coach is being on the field and in the heat of the action, he finds reward in recruiting. “I’ve been able to give athletes like me opportunities to get out of similar situations.” And through those given opportunities, James intends to create a few more for himself.
“I wake up every morning loving what I do,” he said. But he’s not done. “I’m gonna keep on climbing until there’s nowhere left to climb.”