As Tommy told me, " I grew up. I'm 21. I'm a man and I have to do things like a man. If you are going to come out here and play football, then play football. Have pride in yourself. These folks didn't sign you just to BS around. You have to play up to your talent level. If you say you are that good, if people say you are good, then show them."
Simple words from a not so simple football player.
Coming into Mississippi State last fall, Tommy, now a junior, was long on football talent but short on football experience.
After having played high school basketball (the sport Tommy says he still loves the most) at Provine High School in Jackson, Tommy gave football a shot during his final year of high school thanks in part to his grandmother.
"My grandma Gertrude asked me to (play football) because I was so big," said Tommy. "I was big in basketball, about 6-7, 250, so she thought that I might as well try (playing football)."
While that was part of the reason for beginning a football career, Tommy had another reason: The NFL.
"(Basketball) is still my love, but I can't make (it to the pros) from it," said Tommy.
Grandma Gertrude saw early on what college coaches and recruiting gurus saw during Tommy's one year of playing high school football.
After recording 102 tackles and 11 sacks during his senior season, well-known recruiting guru Max Emfinger was so impressed, he listed Tommy as one of the top 9 defensive linemen in the nation. He was also selected to play in the Mississippi/Alabama all-star football game. This after just one year of playing high school football.
Many coaches came a-calling, including the likes of Tennessee, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, to name a few. Tommy, after much thought, chose Ole Miss over Tennessee, primarily because he liked Ole Miss' defensive coordinator, Art Kaufman.
"The only other school that I considered out of high school was Tennessee," said Tommy. "I chose Ole Miss because I liked Coach Kaufman, the defensive coordinator."
But before he would be able to attend Ole Miss and play for Kaufman, Tommy had to go the juco route due to academics. He wound up at Hinds Community College where he played for a half a season before running into some off the field trouble that ended his HCC football career.
"I was a little wild back then," Tommy said.
Part of that wildness could be traced back to his high school days where he could get by on talent along. A strong work ethic wasn't needed in high school.
"In high school, if I didn't want to run, I didn't run," Tommy said matter of factly. "I said forget this. That was kind of my problem when I first got into junior college. I kind of rebelled."
Redshirting his next year in junior college, Tommy once again was heavily recruited by Ole Miss and Mississippi State. With Art Kaufman no longer at Ole Miss, Tommy gave Mississippi State a much harder look and ultimately chose them over Ole Miss.
"When he got fired, I didn't want to go there (to Ole Miss)," said Tommy. "I figured he was used as a scapegoat (for their defensive problems)."
After signing with Mississippi State in February, Tommy still had a lot of work to do academically. Transferring to the Mayhew branch of East Mississippi CC , Tommy buckled down academically and became eligible.
However, due to the fact that his classroom work demanded almost all of his time even deep into the summer, he got behind physically. With his lack of football experience, that was doubly tough on Tommy during his first season at State.
"I played hard a half then ran out of gas in the third and fourth quarter last year," said Tommy.
Tommy, despite the heavy class load he had the summer prior to that first season, took all the blame for his poor physical condition.
"That was nobody's problem but mine," Tommy said. "I should have taken it upon myself to work out. Even though I couldn't work out with the team, I should have been working out. There were gyms around (Starkville) that I could have gone to but I didn't do that. It hurt me. Talent can't get you by in the fourth quarter when you are tired. Nothing but heart can get you by then."
Tommy, with the encouragement of his position coach, John Hendrick, is making sure that he will be in shape and will know his D-line techniques this season.
"I worked hard this summer to get my wind right. It is a whole lot better, a whole lot better."
Tommy also commented on improving his technique. "I had to work on my technique and learn the tricks the offensive linemen use on you. That is what Coach Hendrick and I have been working on during last fall and the spring and now. Now, I'm better at reading feet, how they sit back in their stance and their handwork. I have learned the swim, the rip and picking hands (techniques). Before, I was just going to try and run pass them or bullrush them."
Always sure of his natural ability, Tommy now feels just as confident in his game skills.
"I'm not lacking anything," said Tommy with no cockiness in his tone of voice. "I know nobody can stop me but me. Coach Hendrick has run it over in my head so much, it is just natural for me. As an example, if the offensive lineman shoots his hands, I just knock them down."
The bottom line, according to Tommy, is folks are about, "to see the full package, a man who is 6-7, 305 pounds and runs the forty 4.8."
Coach Hendrick is also hopeful that State fans will see that full package after a year of learning and working out.
"When you come in and have never played in this league and are thrust right into playing, you may have some deficiencies," said Coach Hendrick. "Now, he has been through a full season and a spring. I am expecting (him) to be a better ballplayer than he was last year. I am expecting a lot from (him)."
Included in what Coach Hendrick expects of Tommy is leadership. With a fairly young and inexperienced D-line, Tommy is one of the veterans, one of the guys with significant game experience. He is expected to play more of a leadership role because of that.
"Coach Hendrick and I talked about (me being a leader) in the spring and all through the summer." said Tommy who is more of a leader by example than vocal leader. "I'm taking it upon myself to make sure Ronald Fields is getting better, Kahlil Nash is getting better and all the other D-linemen we have are getting better. I'm not the one with the best work ethic, but I'm trying to get better at it. If I can try, then I know you can try. You need the work ethic if you want to take that next step on this level. On this level, everybody has talent, everybody was an All-American in high school."
And if he plays up to his talent level, then Tommy will be receiving All-American honors before he leaves State for a probable NFL career.
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page (http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com), the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.