INDIANAPOLIS — When Ian Thomas speaks about a player he’d like to emulate, without hesitation he cites Jimmy Graham.
But it’s not because they’re both tight ends. Or because they’re both very athletic.
It’s because like Thomas, Graham had a rough childhood upbringing. Graham was left by his mother at a foster home at the age of 11.
When Thomas was 12, an uncle planned to drop he and eight siblings in foster care as well. That’s when an older brother stepped in and raised them all. Both of Thomas’ parents died before he was 10 years old.
So yes, Thomas is one of the most intriguing and dynamic tight end prospects in this year’s NFL Draft. But what Thomas plans to tell NFL teams about what he’d bring their team is this:
“I feel you would be getting a great person and a hard worker,” Thomas said. “But there are a lot of people like that. My ‘why’ is different. My ‘why’ is what pushes me and what makes me go. Why do I do what I do? It has purpose.”
Thomas, a University of Indiana product who may be drafted around the third round, will be driven to show scouts, coaches and front office executives here at the NFL combine that he is the ultimate sleeper.
It would be a remarkable story.
“The struggles that I’ve been through have made me stronger,” Thomas said. “They’ve made me more mature. I had to grow up fast.”
On Thomas’ 8th birthday, his mother Martha died due to complications from an abscessed tooth.
One year later, his father Earl died following a heart attack.
“So I’m right in the middle,” Thomas said of the nine siblings. “As we were growing up, we were moving from place to place. I kind of lived with my uncle for a while. And he wanted to put us in foster care. So my older brother took us in. And he became my guardian. He got custody of us. And we’ve been with him ever since. We’ve just moved as a family all around.”
Growing up in a rough section of Baltimore was not easy. But the family had each other.
“My older brother never let us stray away from what our goals were,” Thomas said. “And what he wanted for us. He never had an easy life. He never wanted us to take the easy route. And drop off just because we had some bumps in the road. It was always, ‘Get good grades. Go to college. Get a job after this to help support your family.’ It was never anything like, ‘Do what you want to do.’ He just kept us on track our whole life.”
So there are the whys. Thomas wants to represent his family the right way. And his city, as well.
“I’ve never wanted to bring bad things to our family name,” Thomas said.
If Thomas, as expected, makes an NFL roster next season, he’ll have made his family proud.
Thomas began his college career at Nassau Community College in Long Island. He transferred to Indiana and blossomed as senior, with five touchdown catches, including two against Ohio State, while averaging 15 yards per catch.
According to a scouting report on NFL.com, Thomas physically compares to former Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Thomas, 6-foot-3, 256 pounds, should run a very fast time in Indianapolis.
“Athletic frame is well-proportioned and NFL-ready,” wrote Lance Zierlein for NFL.com. “Able to gain space from defenders coming out of his turns. Physical through route contact. Has speed to threaten seams or stack defender on deep throw outside the numbers. Hands are good enough. Believes in fight over flight when the ball is in his hands. Uses stiff-arm to punish defensive backs who are looking to grab and drag him down. Possesses good core and lower body strength.”
Thomas is considered a raw prospect, which means he’s not totally refined but also has a much higher potential ceiling. The Dolphins could certainly be in the market for a tight end in the third or fourth rounds.
“I’m blessed to be here,” Thomas said. “I want to be a model for others. I want to show fulfill my ‘why.'”