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Jack’s back: Thomas returns for senior season

Jack Thomas
Jack Thomas

Jack Thomas has one more chance to fulfill his football dream, and he plans to make the most of it. ¶ The Central Arkansas Christian senior-to-be was to have been the Mustangs’ man at quarterback last season (while also playing his more natural linebacker slot), but a first-half injury in the season opener at War Memorial Stadium against Stuttgart spelled the end of those plans.

His comeback, though, is a surprise to no one at Mustang Mountain.

“I knew he had the talent to be a great baseball talent, but he is an even better kid,” CAC baseball coach Ryan Stauder said. “Guys who have the total package of talent, work ethic, academic excellence and character are very few and far between. Not often do you find all three in one kid, but Jack embodies each of those characteristics, and because of that he will be — and has been — one of the best leaders both on and off the field that has or will come through the (CAC athletic) program.”

Last year against Stuttgart, on the Mustangs’ second series after Thomas’ one-yard run had given them an early lead over the eventual state champion Ricebirds, he dropped back to pass, saw the receivers covered and lowered his shoulder, tucked the ball and ran up the middle.

“I’d taken that hit before,” he said.

But not like that.

He stayed in the game for two more series but knew something was wrong.

“On the last series I had thrown a 35-yard pass and a 25-yard touchdown pass to Dylan Huckaby and I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’” he remembered. “When I took my pads off in the locker room, it popped a couple of times.

“It still creeps me out to think about that.”

He had suffered nerve damage, a separated shoulder and a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder.

He left with the Mustangs up by 14-7, but they eventually fell, 49-22.

Thomas remembers the injury as “super disappointing.”

“Just putting in all that work all the way through the winter, spring and summer,” he said. “It was kind of a whirlwind after that.”

The first medical report indicated surgery would be required, but the second opinion differed. The tear turned out to be smaller than originally thought, so he required no surgery and dived into rehab at D-1 Sports Training in Little Rock under Josh Landers. He was able to return at linebacker for the last two weeks of the regular season as well as two playoff games before the Mustangs finished 7-4.

He continued strengthening the shoulder for baseball — his other sport — and when he measured his velocity in January, he threw 85 mph — faster than ever.

“At that point I realized I was back,” he said. “I had the confidence. I really wasn’t expecting to gain that after the injury.”

Thomas played pitcher/shortstop for the baseball Mustangs, helping them to a semifinal finish in the Class 4A State Tournament.

Thomas batted .400 and had an on-base percentage of .540. Along with Joey Pinney and Jack Partlow, he was among the leaders in all offensive categories. On the mound, starting against many bigger schools, he was 2-3.

“Because of who we played, our stats are probably lower than all other (Class) 4A schools,” he said.

Stauder called him a student of the game.

“He wants to get better every chance he gets,” he said.

Earlier this summer, Thomas committed to play baseball for Harding University following his graduation. It was his only scholarship offer for baseball.

“I’m pretty sure some of the other in-state schools would have offered me, but I committed so early,” he said. “July 1 is when (Division I) schools can start contacting you, and Harding upped the offer and asked me to make a decision before July 1. But that’s where I wanted to go to school, and even if those others would have made offers, I would have gone to Harding.”

He’s thought about possibly pulling the two-sport double for the Bisons, but he said it wasn’t likely. Despite the injury, he did hear from Harding, Ouachita Baptist and Arkansas State for football.

“It would be real tough to juggle baseball and football, and I take academics really seriously too,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to do it.”

He said he liked both sports equally.

“If you ask me in the spring, I’ll say baseball, and if you ask in the fall, I’ll say football,” he said. “I’m better at baseball, but there’s nothing like Friday nights going out and playing football.”

Thomas, the only child of Johnna and Kirkley Thomas (and also an only grandchild), has been well grounded on Mustang Mountain. He’s been in the CAC system since pre-K. He played soccer first, but when the time came he chose baseball over that sport. He played elementary basketball and football for CAC. During summers, he plays for the Arkansas Express, adding third base to his repertoire. He’ll play shortstop for Harding.

And although sports have been a big part of his life forever, there’s much, much more.

Heading into his senior year, he sports a 4.3 GPA from a transcript chock-full of Pre-AP and AP classes. He’s tied with his friend Adam Weiner — whom he hit for 35 yards during the Stuttgart game last year — for No. 1 in the Mustang Class of 2014.

He said he liked English (but not literature), as well as math and history.

“I’m kind of a nerd,” he said. “I like it all to an extent. Some I like more than others.”

He considered majoring in engineering but is now leaning more toward something in the business field.

Through Mustang Missions, he’s been involved in such philanthropic activities as Miracle League softball, the Southern Christian Home, flag football for children with special needs, Caps for Kids, the Race for the Cure, visiting nursing home residents, donating and delivering canned goods, volunteering at a homeless shelter, collecting and organizing toys for underprivileged children and collecting and packing goods for Haitian children.

“What I love the most about Jack is his faith and how bold he is in influencing others in a positive manner through his example and service to others,” Stauder said. “A lot of our guys look up to him because he shows that he cares about each guy on the team from freshmen to his fellow seniors, which is a rare quality to possess.”

Thomas’ reputation extends beyond Mustang Mountain and Pulaski Academy. Harding Academy baseball coach Shane Fullerton has gotten to know him through summer camps the last two years, and he said it was not an understatement to say he’d love for his own sons to turn out like Thomas.

“I think that’s the highest compliment a parent could get, but I could definitely say that to Jack’s parents,” Fullerton said. “We challenge our kids to play the game that is really a paradox — we want them to be very confident but also very humble.

“To me, that’s Jack Thomas. He’s a very confident kid who can look an adult in the eye and have a great adult conversation, but he’s also very humble. I don’t know a better combination. He’s going to put his team and teammates first, and he honors God.

“You don’t find too many like him. He deserves whatever accolades he gets.”

For his all-around excellence, Thomas was selected as the winner of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Hussman Community Award earlier this summer and got to meet Peyton Manning, the NFL quarterback.

“That was really cool,” he said. “He’s such a personable guy. My dad and I were watching the ESPYs and you’d see him and think, ‘I met that dude, and now he’s out there on the biggest stage.’ He’s personable and funny.”

Thomas, an active member of Pleasant Valley Church of Christ, said CAC had meant a great deal to him.

“People ask me about that, and I tell them it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s like a family. CAC has molded me just from the principles they’ve taught. I’ve got a pretty strong faith, and I give a lot of the credit for that to CAC.

“CAC has helped me a lot with my faith, academics and athletics. It’s given me a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t normally have had.”

Added Stauder: “I can’t say enough about how special he is as a player and person. It has been great watching him develop as a young man over the last few years.”

Thomas knows this fall will likely be his last opportunity on the football field, and he’s ready for the challenge. He’s set to focus solely on quarterback this time.

“I like being in on the action,” he said. “It’s fun — you’re in control and it’s a leadership position.”

He said he didn’t anticipate being tentative.

“I’m not going to be afraid to run somebody over because of what happened last year,” he said. “If anything, it’s made me want to work even harder because I’ve only got a couple of months of football left. When you get something taken from you, you realize you’d better not take things for granted because they could be taken away.”

Words of wisdom from an already wise young man.

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