Four years ago, on the sideline at a high school football game, Kobi Thomas sat on the bench in tears, away from the rest of his team while his father tried to console him.A shoulder injury had derailed Thomas’s senior season at DeMatha, and that stretch of a few months was supposed to be when he corralled some long-awaited scholarship offers.Instead, Thomas’s shoulder dislocated twice during the season opener, a nationally televised trip to Las Vegas to face Bishop Gorman.Thomas spent weeks rehabbing — delaying surgery with hopes of finishing the season — only for his shoulder to pop out of place again when he returned to the field at this October game against Gonzaga.Some teammates offered comfort as Thomas thought to himself, “Man, why does this have to happen to me?” The dreams of playing big-time college football seemed in jeopardy, a worry that materialized when Thomas watched DeMatha’s signing day ceremony from the crowd.Thomas clapped for his close friends heading off to Power Five schools but knew he had always imagined being celebrated alongside them.Thomas could have signed that day, too.He had a scholarship offer to Morgan State of the Football Championship Subdivision, but he envisioned something more.
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“Why would I settle for less, knowing myself and knowing the standard I have for myself?” Thomas said.“It just didn’t sit right with me.
I don’t think I would have been happy going anywhere else.”Thomas decided to pursue a walk-on spot at Maryland, even though that meant he’d join the team with no guarantees of ever playing a meaningful role.He hoped he would see the field by way of special teams, and perhaps he could play linebacker toward the end of lopsided games.Thomas felt content in that unheralded role.So all he experienced in the whirlwind of the past month — the rapid ascension from a full-time scout team player to a key contributor with a starting job against then-No.
5 Iowa — came as an unexpected surprise in the wake of several injuries among the Terrapins’ inside linebackers.Maryland loses WR Jeshaun Jones and LB Durell Nchami to season-ending injuries When Thomas attended DeMatha, the high school two miles down the road from Maryland, he and his friends sometimes drove to the college campus during their lunch period, even though they weren’t supposed to leave.
They parked in the lot outside the football facility, sometimes finding tickets on the windshield after lunch, and ate inside the student union as though they were already in college.Thomas loved Panda Express.He couldn’t enroll at Maryland until he took classes for a semester at a community college, so through the fall of 2018, Thomas studied writing and criminal justice while working at Dave & Buster’s.He had high school friends already on Maryland’s team, so he visited with them often.It all felt like “foreshadowing,” he said.
His winding path finally reached College Park that winter, just after the school hired Coach Michael Locksley, and then Thomas’s steep climb toward playing time began.The linebackers’ room at Maryland includes more than a dozen players on scholarship, and Thomas knew his chances of becoming a regular were slim.But he knew that when he chose this route, turning down options where he could play frequently in favor of this one.He had worked his way up at DeMatha, a powerhouse program, and figured he could aim to do the same in College Park.“I knew how the game of football works,” said Thomas, who is set to graduate in the spring but will have eligibility remaining.“You keep your head down, just keep working.
Eventually something is going to shake for you.”Except that in Thomas’s first spring game at Maryland, his shoulder dislocated again and he needed another surgery.The familiar injury kept him out of the 2019 season.During the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Thomas appeared in every game, primarily on special teams.Heading into this season, he felt confident.His understanding of the game had improved, and he had three years of experience in this program.When asked when he felt like he belonged, Thomas thought for a moment and then said, “I feel like maybe this year a little bit.”Thomas’s position group had a few established returners and newcomers expected to contribute, so he worked exclusively with the scout team through the first four weeks of the season.The Terps opened their Big Ten slate at Illinois , and Thomas’s dad, Cadell, had attended high school about an hour south of Chicago.Some family members had tickets to that game.Before Thomas’s dad boarded the plane, he found out that his son hadn’t made the travel roster.“He was really in the dumps about it,” Thomas’s dad said.
“…At this point, you don’t know what to think as far as what the coaches think about you.If they don’t think enough about you for you to even travel with them now, what does that mean?”The next weekend, Maryland faced Kent State at home , and Thomas’s dad, who is a rail supervisor for Metro, went to work instead of the game.He was on the platform at the East Falls Church station in Arlington when the calls and texts started bombarding his phone.Starting inside linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II couldn’t play the second half because of an injury, so Brawley Evans, the coach of that position group, told Thomas at halftime he would play the rest of the way.
Thomas had only practiced with the scout team all week.He kept reminding himself how that experience against the first-team Terps offense would help him here.Maryland’s struggles against Big Ten’s best continue in 66-17 loss to Ohio State Early in the fourth quarter, Maryland called a blitz, and “as soon as they hiked the ball,” Thomas said, “I saw it open up.” So he sprinted toward the quarterback, pushed past the running back and notched his first career sack, prompting a rush of emotion.“Here’s a guy that didn’t get a lot of work all week long,” Locksley said, “but he was prepared to go out and play when his opportunity and turn came.”For Thomas, preparing for the Iowa game the following week brought a new sense of responsibility.He knew he would be a starter for the first time in his career.Freshman Branden Jennings, who had started in the place of the injured Fa’Najae Gotay, was also sidelined with an injury, so Thomas had to step in.He didn’t feel nervous, only “super focused,” he said.
One of his mistakes led to Iowa’s 67-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, after the game was already out of hand , and that disappointed Thomas.Thomas didn’t start the next week against Ohio State ; Ahmad McCullough instead earned the nod alongside Hyppolite.But Thomas has maintained a spot in the rotation as Jennings works his way back to the field, which could come as soon as Saturday at Minnesota.
Even if his playing time dwindles as the Terps become healthier, Thomas will always hold the rare distinction as a walk-on who got to start.Once it became apparent that Thomas had made that improbable jump, he received a red jersey to wear in practice.The members of the scout team wear black, while the defensive contributors are in red.Thomas said he wore that red No.35 for one day, but then he switched back.
The red didn’t feel right.And all season, no matter how much he plays, Thomas wants to remember the mentality he embraced when he started on this path.“I just feel like years from now, I would probably look back and just smile at how I persevered through everything,” Thomas said.“Who would keep playing football after four shoulder injuries, two surgeries, not really getting that much playing time?”.