Sitting in the football coaches’ office at Wingfield (Jackson, Miss.) High a few days after leading the Falcons to their first 2-0 start in nine years, quarterback La’Andre Thomas shook his head in silence.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to share that.”
After a few moments, he repeated the question back to himself.
“What was my next part? That’s a hard question,” he said. “I really don’t think I can answer that one. What was my next — no, I can’t answer that one.”
Thomas, 18, is reluctant to discuss parts of his past and is just as hesitant to trust a stranger.
“He never complains about what he has been through and has never had the intent to tell someone for a sob story,” said Akeem Thomas, 22, an older brother of La’Andre. “He just works and shows you what he is about. He doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him and his story.”
The tale may be the most uplifting of this high school season.
Thomas has lived with a foster family in a three-bedroom house on Cooper Road in Jackson since he was in seventh grade.
Before that, before he scored six touchdowns last week in a win against Forest Hill, before Southern Miss started recruiting him and before he even knew what a football looked like, Thomas was eating out of dumpsters.
When he was 5, Thomas lived with his grandmother — “or at least I think she was my grandmother because my mom was adopted,” he said — in what he remembers as a shotgun house in an alley off East Fortification Street in Jackson.
Thomas, who turned 18 last month, has seven siblings that he knows of. All eight share the same mother, whom Thomas described as a drug addict, but have different fathers. Thomas occasionally communicates with his mother on Facebook, but has never had a relationship with her beyond that and when he sees her around south Jackson he doesn’t stop and say anything. He said he has never met his father.
While living with who he assumes were his grandparents, Thomas helped push grocery carts full of belongings, collected cans for money and dug in dumpsters searching for scraps of food.
“That’s how we ate,” said Thomas, who was too young at the time to remember much else during that part of his life. “I didn’t think anything was wrong with it … but this is my first time telling anybody it.”
Thomas then exhaled deeply.
“It was that bad,” he said, “and it got even worse.”
The next part — the one Thomas will tell you parts of if enough trust is developed — is more vivid for him.
“OK,” he said. “I can tell you this much. Between fourth grade and seventh grade, I really didn’t have a home.”
Around the time he was in fourth grade, Thomas had eventually moved from the alley situation into a two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment in Jackson with a woman he refers to as his “auntie” and at least nine others, including Akeem. Only Thomas’ “uncle” worked, and Akeem chipped in by sweeping the floor of a barber shop for $5 a night.
It was there where Thomas lived without basic necessities.
He would sleep with two other kids in a twin-sized bed soaked in urine, Akeem said.
They lived without electricity in a home for two years, filling jugs of water with a neighbor’s hose after sneakily hopping over a fence in the middle of the night.
“That’s how we took baths, washed our clothes and drink,” Thomas said. “That’s how we did all of that.”
It usually wouldn’t be enough. Akeem said the boys went more than one month at one point without brushing their teeth or taking a shower before going to school.
“The worst feeling I think I ever felt is just being hungry,” Thomas said, “and knowing you can’t do nothing about it.”
Thomas once went two days without eating, he said, before breaking open a box of instant mashed potatoes — “It wasn’t hot, either.”
Thomas spent as little time at home as he could, often staying over friends’ homes for extended stays that could last months at a time.
“I wasn’t even telling my auntie, where I was supposed to be living at the time, where I been,” Thomas said. “I would just come back, pop up at the house three or four weeks later and she wouldn’t say nothing to me.
“It felt like I was homeless. I was at a time in my life where I felt like no one even cared about me. When you talk about the lowest of lows, I hope that was it.”
After enough friends, coaches and adults questioned why Thomas never wanted to be home, the Mississippi Department of Human Services stepped in, Akeem said. Since then, Thomas has lived with Antoya Turner, who is now his foster parent. Akeem, who now works full-time at Metal Coaters, lived there first and then helped bring Thomas in.
The transition wasn’t easy at first, but it has since improved, Thomas said.
“When I first got there, the trust wasn’t there,” he said. “That was the biggest thing.”
These days, Thomas says he has moved past his history, but it’s evident his former environment remains in his conscience.
He doesn’t have to look far to be reminded of it, either. Thomas is one of many students who come from a disadvantaged upbringing at Jackson Public Schools. Mississippi’s largest urban school district, JPS was recently put on probation for being out of compliance with 22 of 32 of the state’s accreditation policies.
Thomas stands out “because he doesn’t let his situation define him,” Wingfield coach Joel Sinclair said.
Thomas started playing football in the fifth grade and said he realized when he was in middle school that the sport can be used as a platform toward a better future. He routinely works out before and after football practice. He is 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds of what appears to be all muscle.
“When you been through some of the things this kid has been through in his life, you can only go up because there is no more down,” Sinclair said. “Down doesn’t exist for this kid anymore because he’s been there. Everything he does, he works so that he doesn’t go back to where he was.”
Said Thomas: “I really have a deep passion for the game. Even if I didn’t go through what I went through in the past, I still love the game and would probably have the same work ethic. Adding what I’ve been through is just a plus and it really just adds on to the fire that is inside me.”
It has helped him get this far.
Thomas, who has a scholarship offer to play at Southern Miss, has completed 38 of 54 passes for 500 yards and four touchdowns against one interception this season. He has rushed for 248 yards and seven touchdowns on 29 carries. Wingfield is 2-0 heading into Friday’s game against host Heidelberg after winning a total of five games since 2011.
The difference this year for the Falcons has been an added layer of trust.
“It takes me a while to trust,” Thomas said. “It’s hard for me to trust somebody. I have to see them do something, I just won’t go off their word.”
That feeling of confidence and a belief in his teammates developed over the summer when Thomas would plan early morning runs with other players. Thomas called the guys at 7 a.m. each day. Each day, the calls were answered. Those are the same players Thomas is now trusting to make blocks and secure catches.
Around the start of the season, Thomas went with an assistant coach to a church in Jackson where he heard a sermon that has stayed with him every day since. The talk was about the story, “From the Pit to the Palace,” a tale of perseverance through hard times. Thomas smiles when relaying an abbreviated summary, stopping to point out the parts he relates to most.
By graduation, Thomas wants the same things every high school senior athlete wants. A winning season. A state championship. An athletic scholarship.
But he also eyes a bigger picture.
“I don’t want to be another statistic,” Thomas said. “I want to start a new foundation. I don’t want my family to ever go through what I had went through. I want to start a whole new generation. My purpose is bigger than me because one decision can mess up the whole generation behind me. I don’t want that. I want to be known as not just a great athlete, but a great human being.”
That’s Thomas’ next part.