Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Once a five-star recruit, Xavier Thomas navigated depression to get back on NFL draft path

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Xavier Thomas stepped off the scale, and the number staring back at him flashed “298.” 

For a Division I football player, that number might be typical. For an edge rusher who stands at 6-foot-2 and was a freshman All-American a year before winning the 2018 national championship with the Clemson Tigers, it was a problem. 

The isolation everyone experienced during the coronavirus pandemic compelled Thomas to isolate himself further. Thomas was 50 pounds overweight. That fueled disappointment that descended into depression. The No. 3 recruit in the Class of 2018 – two spots ahead of the Dallas Cowboys’ Micah Parsons and behind only decorated quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields – wanted to quit football. In the low moments, he asked himself: What happened to the plan of obtaining his degree in three years so he could enter the NFL draft once he was eligible? 

They took different paths, but Thomas will finally join Parsons – whom Thomas called “one of his best friends” – in the NFL ranks later this month. He is realistic enough to know he won’t be a first-round selection, yet confident enough to compare his game to that of Parsons. And in meeting with teams during the pre-draft process, Thomas has taken advantage of the chance to tell his story – something he is unapologetic about in an effort to help others who are struggling with their mental health. 

“If anything, it brings a positive light on who I am as a person and things I’ve persevered through,” Thomas told USA TODAY Sports.

Pandemic brings Xavier Thomas to low point at Clemson

Tameka Thomas is not a fan of football. When her son, Xavier, was a child, she tolerated the violence so long as he kept good grades. She admits now she tried to push him toward baseball, another sport in which he showed promise. Xavier turned down the exhaustive travel schedule that comes with travel baseball.

“He would never let anything interfere with football,” Tameka told USA TODAY Sports. 

Which is why she first realized something wasn’t right with Xavier “when he was not really focused on football.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Clemson football program to spread out. Thomas retreated to two of his passions – video games and sweets. He tried to assure his parents that he was OK, Tameka said. They didn’t want to force an uncomfortable conversation on him; he’s not the type of person who will speak unless he wants to. But they sensed an uncommon distance.

“Back then, when I was dealing with that, I tried to keep it bottled in, keep it to myself and be a tough guy and have a tough act,” Thomas said. “Which is a stigma we have with men nowadays – even with women. We got people who deal with a lot of things.” 

Thomas was diagnosed with COVID-19 during the early stages of the pandemic and self-isolated. The weight started coming on then and didn’t stop after his recovery. He remained disconnected from the Tigers even as team activities resumed.

“Which is why I was almost ready to quit football, because I allowed myself to get down to that type of level for myself,” Thomas said.

Thomas credited his teammates for being supportive but said he leaned on two people specifically: Tameka and Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney. 

“I’m super proud of ‘XT’ because he got to a place a lot of people don’t recover from,” Swinney said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “He was in a very dark place. But what he did – and it’s so important – is he communicated and he sought out help, and he had the courage to let people know what he was struggling with. 

“Every time I see him, I think about the dark time that he was in, where he was. To see him now, it’s just amazing. It’s such a great example of why it’s so important that we provide opportunities and resources for mental health, and that we aren’t ashamed to express ourselves when we get in places that are dark.”

Tameka has the same questions others do when it comes to exploring that part of Xavier’s life. How did she help him? She hasn’t asked her son because she doesn’t want to reminisce about the past.

“I’ll be mindful of things,” she says now. 

Tameka remembers one conversation. Xavier had mentioned again he was finished with football. She told Xavier he had to admit that to himself – if that was the truth. 

“But if you’re not, don’t try to slip under the rug something you’re dealing with and you regret this later on in life,” Tameka said. “I don’t know what I did, exactly. I just stayed on him.” 

Tameka herself went to counseling during that time to help. She encouraged her son to go and believes in the power of talking it out. Tameka prayed, too.

“He got low,” Tameka said, “but it didn’t break him – because he got up on his own.” 

Xavier Thomas helps himself by helping others

Thomas was an immediate contributor during the Tigers’ 2018 national championship and had a half-sack in the title game against Alabama. Coming off a USA TODAY Freshman All-America selection, Thomas ended his sophomore year by earning third-team All-ACC honors. 

The plan was coming together. 

Even though Xavier always carried himself humbly, “he went through a moment of being a diva his sophomore year,” Tameka said. Then the pandemic hit, and Thomas had to start his personal rebuilding process. Despite his struggles in 2020, he played seven games after intending to take a redshirt season. In 2021, he returned to third-team All-ACC form.

The NCAA blanket waiver for an additional year of eligibility due to COVID-19 made 2022 the make-or-break campaign for Thomas. But two weeks before the season, after Thomas said he worked himself into the best shape of his life, he broke his foot and nearly missed the entire year, managing to return for three games. 

Thomas had grown up in the church and sang in the choir. In 2021, he devoted himself to Christianity and formed a relationship with God, Thomas said. Because of what he went through in 2020 and his newfound piety, he was able to navigate the first significant injury of his career. He was granted a sixth year of eligibility and started 11 games last season and finished with a team-high 21 quarterback pressures. 

Thomas “put the work in to come back,” Swinney said.

“Because there was a time where I wasn’t sure if he was going to play football again. And now look at him,” Swinney said. “He’s a young man that’s in total control of his life and just has great confidence and spirit. He’s come through the other side.” 

Off the field, Thomas wants to be an inspiration to others by highlighting the importance of discussing feelings.

“Not even just bad things,” Thomas said. “Just people in the world go through things in life. No matter how far you get knocked down or you feel that you’re down and out, you can always get back up.” 

Clemson fans reached out on social media to say that his message resonated with them.

“I think he’s a great example to so many people – known and unknown – that have dealt with some type of mental health situation,” Swinney said. “The fact that he’s willing to use his platform to speak out on that, I know it sheds a great light on a real problem, but also, I know, encourages a lot of people that need it.”

Being open about his past is “really easy” for Thomas. His father, Ezra Thomas, has served two lengthy jail stints during Xavier’s lifetime. Tameka said Ezra always told Xavier to not hide from mistakes. Xavier applied the message in his own way.

“He’s helping himself by helping somebody else,” Tameka said. 

Xavier Thomas motivated by Micah Parsons’ success

While Thomas did not finish his Clemson football career in three years, he completed his degree in criminal justice during that time. He also obtained a master’s degree in athletic leadership. 

The additional three years at Clemson – double the amount of time he intended – taught Xavier to be more focused, Tameka said.

But Thomas still paid attention to what his former recruiting class was up to, including his teammates at IMG Academy in 2018. Nolan Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles is also a close friend, and Thomas also played alongside Andre Cisco (Jacksonville Jaguars), Evan Neal (New York Giants) and Greg Newsome II (Cleveland Browns). 

People ask Thomas if players his age already having professional success, while he dealt with hardship, bothers him. It doesn’t. He learned that timing is different for everyone and that comparison is an unfruitful exercise. 

“It motivated me a lot, just seeing my guys have success,” he said.  

The foremost example Thomas can look to is Parsons, the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Pro. The two met on the recruiting circuit and attended camps together more than six years ago. 

“We always competed against each other, but we always had the same abilities in regards to how he played his position and how I played mine,” Thomas said. 

They frequently talked trash then and “seeing the things he does in the NFL, I can easily translate that in my game,” Thomas said. The feedback he has received from teams is that he will be picked as early as the third round and as late as the fifth. He said his experience in 2020 hasn’t been brought up negatively by any team. 

“Whatever organization that does draft me, I just want that fan base to know that they’re getting a relentless player, and a player that’s going to help them win games,” Thomas said. “… They’re going to love me, whichever organization chooses me.”

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