An unlikely trip takes Thomas to the Rose Bowl
Today, the Dunbar High grad is the darling of Pac-12 football:
His 20 rushing touchdowns this season lead the conference and are tied for third in the country. And that’s while really playing in just 10 games compared to the 12 or 13 of the other leaders in Division I.
In late October and early November, Thomas played four straight touchdown games – against UCLA and Stanford – a feat that hasn’t happened in the conference for 25 years.
At 6-1, 221 pounds – and fast enough to anchor the 2017 Dunbar High State Champion 4×100-meter relay team – he’s tough to take down.
According to Pro Football Focus, 71% of his 1,041 rushing yards this season came after contact.
He will certainly be a concern for the Buckeyes, who couldn’t contain the similarly-sized 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hassan Haskins, who rushed for 169 yards and five TDs when the Wolverines beat OSU, 42-27, End of november.
And Thomas knows the Buckeyes well.
He was recruited by them at Dunbar, where he ran for 2,670 yards and 28 touchdowns as a junior and senior, his only two seasons as a high school backer. During his senior season, he was named City League Player of the Year and ranked No.18 in the country.
But the Bucks were concerned about his academic performance and wanted to send him to junior college first. He balked at the idea and eventually made a commitment to Oklahoma.
But then the Sooners wanted him to go down the juco lane as well, so he backed out.
He ended up doing his notes and signed with Cincinnati, who didn’t hesitate on him. In his sophomore, he played in UC’s 42-0 loss to the Buckeyes, rushing 11 times for 58 yards, but also fumbling in the fourth quarter.
“I got a taste of that game, but now I really want this game with Ohio State,” he said. “It’s going to be a good thing for sure.”
A new start in Utah
Thomas had a difficult upbringing.
He said he didn’t know his father. And her mother struggled with various street problems.
He said she was kicked out of their home and that children’s services took him and his siblings a few times and then separated them.
Eventually, he said his mother had moved to Minnesota: “She wanted a fresh start. He said he still spoke to her regularly.
For a while he lived with his aunt and uncle, who accompanied him to college.
“His senior season, he really exploded,” said his former Dunbar coach Darran Powell, who speaks to Thomas once a week.
“He started getting offers from all over the country – Alabama, USC, Ohio State. Basically everyone who had a football team wanted it.
After changing his mind about Oklahoma, Thomas found himself with adequate grades and headed to Cincinnati, where he was the Bearcats’ No. 2 running back in freshman and rushed for 499 yards and six touchdowns in eight games.
The following season, he missed Game 1 against UCLA for an undisclosed violation of team rules, then played four games, gaining 190 yards and scoring a touchdown.
“When he went to UC he wasn’t mature enough and had some issues here and here,” Powell said. “It was nothing serious, but he would end up sitting for a half or part of a half.” Then he could mess up the training, so he sort of stayed in the doghouse.
After Thomas played four games in the second season of 2019, Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said he would wear a red shirt.
Instead, Thomas announced on Twitter, “Salty it had to come to this… but I’ll be transferring from the University of Cincinnati. I appreciate the love and support you all gave me when I was here.
Last year he ended up at Independence Community College in Kansas, which rose to fame on Netflix during a two-season series on the popular documentary series, Last Chance U.
Thomas’ season at Independence was impacted by COVID and the school played games there in the spring. He gained 347 yards and scored five touchdowns in four games, but Powell said he was later sent home for an undisclosed reason.
It was after this release that Thomas returned to Dayton and found himself with no place to go. So some nights he slept in his car. He said people fed him.
“I believe this all happened for a reason,” he said. “I think I needed to take this path and be humiliated to do well. I had to learn to appreciate what I had.
A few schools have shown interest in him – especially UAB – but by then he had set his sights on Utah and he managed to contact former Utes star Zach Moss, who is the school’s all-time best rusher and now plays for the Buffalo Bills.
Moss spoke to the Utah coaches, but initially no scholarships were available. Eventually a place opened up and he arrived on campus in the summer.
“When I first saw him I was like ‘Wow! He’s a big ball carrier here! ‘ quarterback Cam Rising told reporters in Utah. “It’s good to have a guy like Najee Harris (the former Alabama running back who is now a Pittsburgh Steeler.)
“I was just excited. I knew he was a phenomenal player when he first came here and I was just excited to see him go.
‘I kept my head down and just worked’
But the navigation still hasn’t been smooth for Thomas. He arrived overweight and without the benefit of spring football.
In the Utes’ opener against Weber State, he ran 107 yards on just 12 carries and scored two touchdowns, but escaped once. In the next game, he suffered an early fumble in a loss to BYU.
Instantly, his star faded.
He only carried the ball once without a win in the next game, a loss to San Diego State, and he had only one one-yard carry to Washington State. in the fourth game.
Once again, his college football career was on the ropes.
“This time, I didn’t take it personally,” he said. “The team kept my confidence and I kept my head down and just worked.”
Coaches worked with him on everything from ball safety to pass protection and blitz pickup, and this time he embraced what he was being told.
He had another chance against USC and ran for 113 yards and a touchdown.
In his next seven games, his ground distance topped the century mark three times. He ran 160 yards against UCLA, 177 against Stanford and 142 against the No.3 Oregon.
In those seven games, he’s run for 17 of his 20 touchdowns.
His totals almost surely would have been higher, but Utah missed him one game – against Arizona State – to rest him for the critical Oregon game.
At the end of the season, Thomas took home All-Pac 12 first-team honors.
“I’m trying not to focus on all of this,” he said quietly. “I also know the other side. It wasn’t that long ago that I lived without gambling.
“That’s why I’m so grateful now.
“I’m just thankful that I have a roof over my head and a bed. I’m just thankful for a nice place to sleep. And I have people here who treat me really well. I can be myself now. I am not judged.
“I know I made mistakes, but everyone makes mistakes and I try to correct them.
“Really, I feel pretty blessed right now. It’s like a dream, but I enjoy it every day. And I hope this will continue because someday I want to be able to support my mom and kids in Ohio. I want to be able to elevate them to something better.
No one is happier for him than Powell:
“It was just a matter of maturing to catch up with his talent and now it finally is. He got a second chance and he’s definitely taking the opportunity that Utah gave him.
“He’s doing his thing and they’re all riding his wave right now.”
Tavion Thomas is no longer parked in the dark in Dayton.