By Josh Hunsucker | @jphunsucker
Life never takes you down the straight path. That couldn’t be truer for San Jose SaberCats defensive back Clevan Thomas. As he prepares for Arena Bowl XXVIII, one of Arena Football’s greatest players reflected on the winding path that brought him to the precipice of his fourth title in his ten-year career.
Some men would have given up the dream of football when faced with the same adversity that has looked Thomas straight in the eyes. And most men would not have grasped opportunity so tightly as Thomas did in moments where it reared its fleeting head. However, at each bend in the road, Thomas took solace in “God’s divine plan,” and marched on.
Clevan Thomas grew up in Miami, Florida in the late 80s and early 90s, a hot bed for some of the nation’s greatest college football players and teams. Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, and Emmitt Smith (to name a very few) played right is his back yard. Thomas was passionate about the game, but going into his junior year at Miami Senior High School he had not received a single offer from any of the big three Florida schools: Florida State, Miami, and Florida. That all changed when he ripped off a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown early in his junior year in front of some Division I scouts that had attended the game to recruit another player. By his senior year he had committed to the University of Miami and finished his senior season as a SuperPrep All-American. Then in December of 1995, of Miami got hit with a one-year postseason ban and probation for three years. Thomas wrestled with the decisions of de-committing. He wanted to stay in the “State of Miami,” but ultimately couldn’t let the chance of competing for a national title get away. Thomas decided to de-commit from hometown Miami and headed north to Tallahassee and Florida State.
After two years climbing up the depth chart, Thomas found himself on the verge of cracking the starting defensive backfield in 1999. Looking back on his years at Florida State, Thomas lauded the “leadership” and “greatness” of Bobby Bowden, who he credits with the instilling a focused determination on the 1999 team, which faced numerous off-field distractions on its way to an undefeated regular season. Thomas too stayed focused during that season, finishing second on the team in interceptions and earning a starting spot at cornerback during the Sugar Bowl where he helped Florida State win the National Championship.
The following year, Thomas started for the Seminoles at cornerback, including a second start in a National Championship game, one Florida State would go onto lose. As Thomas saw his collegiate career come to an end, he had his sites set on the NFL until a failed drug test at the NFL combine forced him out of football for the next year. Struggling to keep his football dream alive, his agent floated his name to long-time and current SaberCats coach Darren Arbet. Knowing that this was his likely his last chance to get back into football, Thomas never looked back. In his rookie year he was named Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and First Team All-Arena and took home his first of three Arena League championships.
By 2008, Thomas had made a name for himself in Arena football as one of the games premiere shutdown defensive backs, racked up numerous awards and accolades, and three titles, then as Thomas recalls, life gave him a “reality check.” Days before the Arena Bowl in 2008, then Arena Football League commissioner David Baker resigned setting a series of events in motion that ultimately led to the cancelation of the 2009 season.
Thomas found himself out of work and with the added responsibility of being a “full-time husband with three kids.” Thomas moved back to Florida and began applying for jobs. After initially coaching high school football, Thomas found employment as a correctional officer, working the graveyard shift. With the dream of football slowly fading into the past, Thomas braved the daily danger of interacting with inmates. During the nearly three years he served as a correction officer, Thomas made a concerted effort to learn about and humanize the inmates who he found to be “normal people that made a mistake in their lives, which they usually felt bad about.”
After four years out of football, the Arena Football League informed Thomas that he had been selected for induction into the Arena Football Hall of Fame and had also been named the 24th greatest player in the history of the league by the Arena Football Silver Anniversary Committee. After receiving the news, Thomas took a long look in the mirror and debated whether he would best serve his family by giving football another shot.
Ultimately, Thomas returned to the SaberCats, foregoing his place in the Hall of Fame until he wrote the next chapter of his Arena Football career. Interestingly, Thomas “doesn’t really think about” being selected to the Hall of Fame. Quick to point out teammates and coaches, whom he attributes his success, Thomas says he was more focused on the getting back to the game and helping the SaberCats succeed when he decided to return to football.
After ending his retirement in 2013, as a 34-year old father of three, Thomas re-embraced the roll of locker room leader with a new and more mature perspective. The immediate results spoke for themselves: a career high 15 interceptions (6 for TDs) and being named AFL Defensive Player of the Year. It was almost like Thomas never left, and to think, but for a few simple twists of fate, he may never have even made it that point. On the eve of Arena Bowl XXVIII, a mature and seasoned Clevan Thomas is prepared to take the next step of his journey and seize this next opportunity. Maybe for once the path on Saturday with lead straight to victory.
The Stockton Arena will host Arena Bowl XXVIII, which will air Saturday, August 29th at 4:00 p.m. PST on ESPN, check it out.