MILLVILLE – Dennis Thomas stood atop a bench in the middle of the square weight room at Millville High School and, with increasing speed, barked out the repetitive order.
“Up! … Up! … Up! … Up! …”
Wearing a tight-fitting, red USA Football t-shirt, the 35-year-old newly hired football coach – who stands 6-foot-1 without the aid of a bench – towered over several dozen sweat-drenched players. The Thunderbolts counted off their pushups and crunches in between the barks as a part of a grueling summer workout inside the nearly 80-degree room.
After former coach Jason Durham stepped down in March following seven successful seasons and the school hired Thomas as its new coach in May, many players were anxious about the transition.
“I was scared,” said rising senior lineman Fred Jackson, who added he didn’t know anything about Thomas.
“To be honest, I was a little nervous at first because it’s somebody new coming in,” rising junior linebacker Zack Douglas said. “Everything is going to be changed from last year…”
But a couple weeks into summer workouts, those fears are dissipating. They’ve been replaced by excitement for a new year under a new coach after a disappointing 5-5 season.
“It’s a little hard being your senior year and having a new coach and you can’t figure out what it’s going to be like,” quarterback Will Polhamus said. “It’s hard at first; you’re not sure. But after the first week, you start to feel better. He has a plan and it seems like it’s going to work out.”
Thomas spent the last two years as head coach at Salem. He inherited a team that went 0-10 in 2012 and in his first season finished 5-6 and won a South Jersey Group 1 playoff game.
Last year, the Rams went 8-4 and made it to the sectional final.
Thomas, who played at Rutgers and led the Scarlet Knights in rushing for two seasons, said it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Salem. Breaking the news proved to be tougher.
“Letting my boys, letting the kids know that I was leaving was probably the toughest thing I have ever had to do in my whole life,” Thomas said. “That was extremely tough. I was heartbroken. But every time I see them, they light up with joy. They’re extremely happy for me. As far as me helping those kids out and helping to get them to (college), that doesn’t stop. I’m in their corner.”
Salem football means a lot to Thomas. He grew up in the town and had a rough childhood filled with aimlessness and misbehavior. But Thomas found his way out through football. He starred at Rutgers and even joined the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2002.
In addition to coaching at the high school level, he also coaches for the USA Football Under-19 team.
“He could have gone the way of a lot of kids at Salem. He could have been on the street,” Thomas’ former coach, Dave Whitzell, said. “He decided he wanted to play football and along the way he picked up some really good character.”
Thomas sees the similar demographics between Salem and Millville, which is something that made the transition more bearable for him.
“I was offered jobs, big-time jobs, at places I feel as though the kids didn’t need me,” Thomas said. “I wanted to be at a place where I could be a huge asset for everyone, not just one particular group of individuals. I think, like Salem, (Millville) fits the mold.”
Thomas drove around town to familiarize himself with his new surroundings, introduced himself to his new fellow teachers – in addition to coaching football, Thomas was also hired as a special education teacher and will start in September – and of, course, met his new players. Thomas held a team meeting during the second-to-last week of school to introduce himself, telling players about the summer workout program, his offensive and defensive schemes and stressing the importance of schoolwork.
What stood out from that first meeting with the new coach?
“His passion,” rising senior wideout and running back Dajour Brown said. “His passion. He loves the game. He’s always excited.”
“You can tell he loves the sport,” Polhamus said. “You can tell he loves being out here and doing what he does.”
Dave Zangaro; (856) 563-5255; firstname.lastname@example.org