"For example, when he was brought in to the National Honor Society, I flew down to see him. And when his brother Jared (the son of Thomas and his current wife) was born, we flew down and surprised J.T. on his 16th birthday. He was really surprised by that. He held his brother the whole time we were there."
Of course, visits like that can be tough to arrange, especially for a man who works several jobs to support his family. Thomas holds down a job at Mylan Laboratories, runs the semi-pro West Virginia Wham! Football team, and also has some additional business ventures. Add in the demands of his current family, and it has been difficult to keep in personal touch with his first son in Florida.
Before this past summer, when J.T. came up from the Sunshine State to spend the summer with his father, it had been two years since father and son had spent any appreciable time together. To try to bridge the gap, Thomas and his son spoke frequently on the phone.
"We talk at least two or three times a week," Thomas said. "I have always tried to be a presence in his life."
That separation started back in 1992, when Thomas had to leave home to attend junior college. Although he tried to explain why he had to go away, it obviously was difficult for a youngster of five to understand. Still, Thomas made sure to make up for lost time.
"Every time I came back home, J.T. would stay with me," Thomas recalled. "We always had a real good relationship. I tried to take advantage of every chance to be with him."
That got even more difficult when Thomas accepted a scholarship to West Virginia, which was worlds away from his Florida home. J.T. still couldn't understand why his father was away, so a few years ago Thomas again attempted to explain.
"I tried to explain to him why I made the decision to go on to college," said Thomas. "His reply was, ‘Dad, you missed my first everything.' That was very difficult to hear. So I told him that I planned to be there for the rest of his life and not miss out on the other things. I think he understands that better now. He called me prior to calling the coaches at WVU to announce his decision. We had a great talk about how serious and committed you have to be to succeed in college. And even with the all the time we have been apart, it still feels very good to see how he turned out and how things have worked out."
Despite the fact that Thomas has obviously managed to have a strong positive effect on J.T.'s life, he is quick to dispense credit for his son's upbringing elsewhere.
"I wasn't alone. His mother did a great job in raising him," he said. "She was always supportive of what I was doing and letting him come and visit me. I give her a lot of credit for that, and for the way he has turned out."
Surprisingly enough, Thomas hasn't seen his son play in a live game since youth league. Thomas preferred to save his trips to Florida for family or personal events like the Honor Society, and thus has only watched J.T. play in spring grid-o-ramas.
"The last time I really saw him play was in a 75-pound youth league game," said the linebacker who starred for WVU in the mid-1990s. But other than that, not until this past spring, when I saw him play that half in the spring practice."
With such a limited number of chances to see his son, it seems odd that he wouldn't have at least nudged him toward Morgantown and WVU a bit, where he would obviously be able to spend the most time with him. However, Thomas realized he couldn't live his life through his son's.
"I believe a person has to be happy where they are, and you cant' do it if you didn't decide to be there on your own," he explained. "I'd never discourage him from being close to me, of course, but it was important for him to make his own decision."
Now that he has done so, father and son will be reunited again, probably just as soon as school ends in Florida in the spring of 2006. And while Thomas is excited to see him on the field, it's some of the simpler things that he's anticipating more.
"What I think about for the most part is looking forward to him bringing his friends over," said Thomas. "Just getting to see him when he has some time."
Spoken like a true father.
"I think he's going to be a better athlete than I was. He's a student of the game. He's just a hard-working kid."
"He has all of my certificates and awards, my bowl jersey, my Mountaineer Club awards, everything," said Thomas. "He even owns a College Football 95 video game."