When Johnathan Thomas first walked through the doors of St. John's Prep in Danvers, Mass., for his freshman football season, he wore a Penn State hat. "I can remember it to this day," said his coach, James O'Leary.
Thomas started that season as a cornerback. Four years later, after signing his national letter of intent in February, he is expected to begin his college career at running back at the school emblemized on his ball cap. Said O'Leary, "That was always the place in his dreams that he wanted to go."
But as his high school career unfolded, it appeared as if Thomas might not receive the opportunity he had always dreamed of.
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Just as his recruitment began to take off, Penn State was hit with severe scholarship restrictions. Bill O'Brien, the Nittany Lions' head coach at the time, was very familiar with Thomas. O'Brien was a St. John's graduate himself and had played for O'Leary, and he was blunt when he explained the Nittany Lions' scholarship situation. Penn State had extended offers to other running backs, he told them, but if anything changes, you'll be the first to know. "Billy was right up front with him," O'Leary recalled.
So in May of his junior year, after taking visits to Boston College, Connecticut, Maryland, Arkansas, Virginia, Wake Forest, Rutgers, Wisconsin and Virginia Tech, Thomas verbally committed to the Terrapins.
He initially held firm to that commitment, but in September he got a phone call from O'Brien that would alter his plans.
O'Brien had just been informed that the NCAA was going to gradually restore the scholarships it had revoked following the Sandusky scandal. Suddenly, he had five more scholarships to award, and he offered one of them to Thomas.
Thomas held off on making any public decision. Focused on his senior season at St. John's Prep, he didn't want to create any distractions. But then something occurred that was out of his control.
In the fourth game of his senior season - shortly after receiving his Penn State scholarship offer and with Nittany Lion coaches in attendance - Thomas hurt his knee on what seemed at first to be a routine play. "He got up and walked off the field," O'Leary recalled. "But as soon as the doctors checked it out that night, they knew."
Thomas had torn an anterior cruciate ligament. Three days later, he underwent season-ending surgery.
The timing couldn't have been worse, or so it seemed. But Penn State never considered rescinding its offer. "The next day Billy called and said, 'We're still committed to him,' " O'Leary recalled.
In turn, Thomas made a commitment to Penn State. On Oct. 20 - less than a month after his injury - he announced that he would be de-committing from Maryland and selecting the Nittany Lions. He is set to enroll this month, and O'Leary said he will be almost completely healed from his knee injury.
"He's back now doing all the drills. It helped the development of the upper body because he was in the weight room the day he got out of the hospital so he could work upper body," O'Leary said. "But he's back to full [participation], working everything now."
He will start his college career as a running back, but O'Leary said that the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Thomas has the potential to play on either side of the ball. As his career went on, he shifted most of his focus to offense. But not all of it. He saw spot duty in the defensive backfield during his senior season, and although he only played three and a half games, he returned an interception 103 yards, a play that was featured on "SportsCenter" in September.
"He was as good or better on defense, but he didn't play it full-time," O'Leary said. "So he has that ability as well. He wanted to go to school to play offense, like most kids do, but the great thing about when you recruit him is that he has that ability to flip over to the other side of the ball."