Secondary Chance: DB Alex Thomas Finds Second Chance at Ferris State

BIG RAPIDS – For Ferris State defensive back Alex Thomas, football is all about pursuit.

It’s about the pursuit of the ball, the pursuit of the wide receiver, and the pursuit of his dream of playing in the NFL.

It’s his relentless pursuit of that dream that ultimately led him to Ferris State.

Thomas was a Division I recruit coming out of high school. An assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati named Steve Clinkscale sold him on being a Bearcat and chasing his NFL dream.

“He reminded me of my mom and my dad,” Thomas said of Clinkscale. “How much they just believed in how high I could go and my potential. So that’s what always stuck with me.”

While he played wide receiver throughout high school, Thomas was converted to a defensive back at Cincinnati. He started to see significant playing time as a redshirt freshman. As a redshirt sophomore, he played in 12 games and made four interceptions.

“That was when I got the good buzz and the scouts and everybody — that’s pretty much when everybody knew about me and everything,” Thomas said.

With NFL scouts taking notice, Thomas’ dream seemed within reach.

But in the summer after his redshirt sophomore season, Thomas made a decision that would change the rest of his life.

In what Thomas said was an effort to get money to send back home, Thomas and a friend robbed a man of his marijuana at their apartment complex. They were soon arrested.

“It happened so fast it’s just like, it went from me saying like ‘c’mon!’ to me being behind bars,” Thomas said.

Adding to the severity of the charges, Thomas’ friend had a gun with him at the time of the robbery.

“When I went to my bond hearing, that’s when they offered me like 14 years and they were talking about stuff like that. So that’s when it was just like ‘oh snap.'”

Suddenly, Thomas’ dream of playing in the NFL was farther away then it had ever been. His situation, he said, was closer to a nightmare.

“There’s people banging and yelling,” Thomas said of prison. “They knew – I guess they could watch the TV – so they knew the type of person I was so they were yelling, you know what I mean? Like ‘we’ve got this football player in here we’re about to see if he can’ – you know what I mean?- Fight and all that.”

Thomas pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and was ultimately sentenced to two years in prison. Plenty of people told him he had blown his chance: that NFL dream was over.

“Even the officers would say like ‘you know you messed up your life?’ ‘You’re a mess up.’ I used all of that as motivation and a chip on my shoulder,” Thomas said.

Despite what he was hearing, Thomas wasn’t ready to give up on his dream. Coach Clinkscale, whom Thomas describes as a mentor more than a coach, came to visit him in prison. According to Thomas, Clinkscale said that he would try to get Thomas another chance to play football when he got out of prison.

Thomas said that conversation lifted his spirits. He began to read the Bible and started working out relentlessly.

“It was crazy, it started turning around. I wasn’t really depressed. I wasn’t really sad anymore. I was thinking about ‘I’m ready to just get through it and get back to chasing my dream.’”

As he began to workout more and more, Thomas even found support from other inmates.

“[I was] literally working out every single day. Like doing 3,500 push-ups, 2,000 pull-ups, dips,” Thomas said. “It was just like — for me to do that every single day and to be in there with people who were lifers? They were always telling me ‘go hard, go harder.’ Because you’re about to get out. You’re going to get your chance.”

Thomas was released from prison on June 15, 2019. Within a week, he heard from Ferris State head coach Tony Annese.

“He was pretty much just trying to see what type of person I was and what I was really chasing,” Thomas said. “I was just telling him I’m just trying to go to the NFL. I just want to show everybody that you still can do it no matter what you’ve been through.”

Annese said he first heard about Thomas from a friend: Thomas’ mentor and former coach Steve Clinkscale.

Annese and Thomas had a long conversation and Thomas’ demeanor in that talk impressed Annese.

“You want somebody to kind of look back and say ‘hey you know I made a mistake’ and own the mistake. He did that,” Annese said.

Thomas came to Ferris State and quickly established himself as a starter. This season, he leads the Bulldogs in interceptions despite missing time with injury. His 99-yard fumble-return touchdown against Grand Valley State swung the momentum of the rivalry game just before halftime.

“It kind of just makes me embrace life and love everything that I’ve been through,” Thomas said of his experience at Ferris State. “And just believe — you feel me? — That there’s people out here who do care about you and not what you’ve been through. More so who you are now. So that’s what I’ve learned from being here.”

Thomas said he feels the Ferris State football program has given him a second family and a second chance to pursue his NFL dream.

By itself, that second chance is a dream come true.

“Don’t give up, no matter what it is. Whatever your dream is, go,” Thomas said. “You’re the one who believes into it so you’re the only one at the end of the day that can achieve it and make that goal happen so it doesn’t matter what you hear, don’t ever give up.”