Above photo of Aphonso Thomas by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- The last season that Aphonso Thomas played football in December was in 2017, not far from Belton in Copperas Cove.
Then a sophomore running back for Trinity Valley Community College, Thomas rushed for 103 yards on 16 carries in the 48-41 victory over Garden City Community College. Now, four years later, he is preparing to go up against powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater as UMHB’s lead back, with a spot in the national championship game on the line. Needless to say, it has been a journey for the redshirt junior, who leads the team in rushing yards with 984 yards through 12 games.
He has found a fit with the Crusader offense, and made the most of his first year back on the gridiron after a two-year absence from the sport.
“Actually it wasn’t hard at the time,” Thomas recently said of his decision to hang up the cleats after junior college. “I appreciated everything [football] had done for me. At the time, I actually felt that I was ready to walk away. But that didn’t last. Eventually, it willed me a little bit and I felt like I had more left in the tank when it came to football.”
UMHB thought the same. Crusaders offensive coordinator Stephen Lee came calling, and Thomas, though unsure at first, had a feeling that he was meant to be in Belton.
“I really liked the coaching staff here,” Thomas said. “Eventually I got it in my head that maybe I needed to do this, that this was part of God’s plan. I felt like [UMHB] wouldn’t keep popping up if it was not supposed to happen.”
As a high schooler, the 5’11, 190 lb running back was a sought-after recruit, receiving offers from the likes of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado State, Nevada and SMU, amongst others as he racked up touchdown after touchdown for Van High School. As a senior in 2015, Thomas rushed for 1,568 yards, adding 21 scores. That all led to a three-star recruiting ranking (the highest is a five-star) from 247 Sports, and being named the Lone Star State’s No. 20 running back in the Class of 2016 by Scout.com.
“Patience as a running back [is something I learned in high school],” Thomas said. “Whether you’re behind [the line], waiting for the play to develop or sometimes games start off slow. We’ve played against some really good run defenses in these playoffs. So having the patience to trust the process is something I brought from high school.”
He took his talents to SMU for a year, where he redshirted, before transferring to Trinity Valley. There, he played 11 games during the 2017 campaign, tallying 405 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But that marked the end, or so most thought, of the former 4A All-State running back’s college career.
But he figured out that his work on the field was not quite done yet, and took a chance on the Crusaders. It is a decision he has not regretted, now in his second year on campus.
“Everybody holds each other accountable,” Thomas said of the program. “I really love that about this place. Everyone has respect for each other. Everyone cares enough to hold each other accountable to do their job. I really appreciate that, and I’m glad to be a part of this program.”
He went through fall practice with the Cru in 2020, but tore his Achilles tendon in the spring before he could really get started. That held him out for the entirety of the abbreviated five-game spring season, but he fought his way back on the road to recovery, healing in five months, compared to the typical 9-12 months.
“It was very difficult at the time,” Thomas said of the Achilles tear. “Obviously, I wanted to play. With it being the injury that it was, being that significant, I’ve never experienced an injury of that caliber before. So it was a very difficult time. But I would say it has been a blessing in disguise. There were a lot of lessons learned on the journey to recovery.”
Of those lessons, trusting the process and hard work are two things the junior, who now stands at 6’0, 210 lbs, took away from his extensive return to the field.
“To keep believing,” Thomas said when asked what he learned. “This injury is supposed to hold you out for nine months to a year. I came back in five months. Hard work will always pay off if I keep believing in myself, in the plan and everything is going to work itself out if I do that.”
He has seen his impact continue to rise as the season has progressed, recording eight touchdowns since the 29-0 win over Belhaven. One of those eight that stands out in particular was his carry that propelled the Cru to victory in the first round of the playoffs against Trinity. Facing a 4th and 1 from the Trinity 17-yard line, UMHB’s coaching staff opted to leave the offense on the field with just over two minutes remaining. A first down would surely clinch victory. But Thomas ended up going for more. A hole opened on the offensive line, and the running back raced through it, scoring a touchdown from 17 yards out for UMHB’s 13-3 win.
“I got great blocking from my offensive line,” Thomas said. “Shout out to them. I just didn’t want to let my team down. I wanted to get the first down; we needed the first down. But when I saw it was as open as it was, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I know what time it is.’”
UMHB is hoping for a similar performance from Thomas on Saturday, as the Crusaders battle Wisconsin-Whitewater on the road in the D-III semifinals. Kickoff is slated for 2:30 p.m. CT and the contest can be seen live on ESPN+.
“No I have not,” Thomas said with a laugh when asked if he’s ever played as far north as Wisconsin. “I have heard it will be cold, and I’m prepared for that. But I’ve never been that far up north.
“For me personally, it’s nothing different. You just want to make sure you get an adequate warmup. You definitely want to warm up better because it’s cold. Other than that, it’s all the same thing.”
Having spent multiple years pursuing his career as a physical trainer after playing in junior college, Thomas understands the importance of stretching and how it can positively influence his performance on the field.
“I pay a lot more attention to things such as stretching now,” Thomas said. “That’s very important because [when I stretch], the more physical I can be, the faster I can be, and it allows me to loosen my hips.”
The offense is expected to be in for a challenge against the Whitewater defensive front. The Warhawks are sixth in the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed per game. But as Thomas noted, if the Crusaders are in sync, success is typically right behind it.
“Self awareness is everything,” Thomas noted. “If we can all be aware of ourselves and our teammates can be aware of each other, we can all chip in and help each other out. It has definitely led us to where we are today.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.