BRADENTON, Fla. – Xavier Thomas, a 6-3, 265-pound defensive end who can run just as fast as elite wide receivers, hasn’t been able to outrace the pain of losing his father before he was even a month old … then getting him back … and then losing him again.
Ezra Titus Thomas, Xavier’s dad, is incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution, Beckley in Beaver, W.Va. It’s his second time behind bars.
Tameka Thomas, who is Ezra’s wife and Xavier’s mother, said her husband was locked up this second time on drug charges. He tried to purchase cocaine, but the connection turned out to be an undercover cop, she said.
Tameka said Ezra owned a car wash in Florence, South Carolina called “Titus Touch” when a “so-called friend” told him about a one-off opportunity to make some easy money so he could buy land instead of leasing it for his business. He was sentenced to 90 months after entering a guilty plea on two charges in 2012.
While all this was happening, Xavier – the oldest of Ezra’s and Tameka’s two children – was growing into a man, on the field and off.
A rising senior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Thomas is the No. 1 defensive end in the nation and the No. 2 prospect overall. Last month, he committed to reigning national champion Clemson.
“I think (Xavier) is pushing himself harder for his dad,” Tameka said. “I’ve never said that to him, but those are my thoughts.”
Xavier, who has a four-year-old sister named Tiana, doesn’t deny his mom has a point.
“I strive off that,” he said of his family. “With me doing good, I think that has inspired (Ezra). He’s missed out on my high school stuff, and he wants to be back in my life.”
Xavier is hoping his father is released in September, in time to see him play his senior year at IMG. But Tameka said a release date of January 2018 to a halfway house is what she has been told will happen.
After he is released, Ezra will be on supervised released for five years, according to court records.
“I don’t know if there is a word to properly measure the depth of my desire to get out of prison,” Ezra said in an email to USA TODAY Sports from prison. “I ache every day for my release.
“I have missed 15 years of my son’s life, and I want nothing more than to be there to support him and experience the grand vision I have always had for him. It will feel surreal to finally get my freedom.”
IMG cornerback Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles, a Nebraska commit, runs a 4.42 40-yard dash and weighs 185 pounds. And while that is considered good speed, Radley-Hiles shakes his head when asked about Thomas’ 40 times.
“He is 265 pounds, and yet we run the same 40 as I do,” Radley-Hiles said. “Xavier is not normal. You can’t even say he is just a defensive lineman. He has the speed of a corner, the savagery of a linebacker, and he’s huge like a lineman.”
IMG coach Kevin Wright said “what jumps off the page” regarding Thomas are his first two steps off the ball.
Thomas attended Wilson High in Florence before he announced he was transferring to IMG in November and arrived over the winter.
“I will use his tape to show our offensive linemen how quick they have to set up,” Wright said. “When I stop tape after his first two steps, you can look across the line and see other guys have barely moved.
“Xavier can make linemen look bad.”
Thomas’ talent helps the secondary, Radley-Hiles said.
“When he’s in, the ball is coming hot,” Radley-Hiles said. “I know the slants are coming, the hitches are coming, the fades are coming. That’s where I make my money (jumping routes).”
But Thomas isn’t just making plays in the backfield. Part of what makes him such a popular recruit is his hustle.
“When the ball is not in his vicinity,” Radley-Hiles said, “he will chase it 60 yards down the field. Sometimes, he beats us to the ball.”
Thomas said he gets his speed from his mom, who ran the 100-yard dash on her high school track team, and his dad, who was a speedy wide receiver who could’ve played college football.
Tameka and Ezra met in the spring of 1997, in Korea, where both were enlisted in the U.S. Army. They were married in October 1998.
One night shortly after that, while Xavier was just two weeks old, Ezra went out to a club with a couple of friends. At the end of the night, Tameka said, Ezra found himself drunk and passed out in the back of his own car.
In the meantime, Tameka said, Ezra’s friends robbed and ultimately killed someone. Because Ezra’s car was used in the commission of a capital crime, he was sent to jail from 2001 until his release in 2010.
At that point, Xavier finally had his dad around on a daily basis, and he emerged as a young baseball star, playing catcher and outfielder and winning the home run derby three years in a row at Maple Park in Florence.
Ezra had been out less than two years when he got sent back to prison after reaching a plea deal on the drug charges. He was indicted in March 2011 before agreeing to the plea deal in March 2012.
Xavier said he makes the trip to West Virginia to visit his dad whenever he gets home to Florence.
“I’ve talked to him my whole life,” Xavier said. “It’s not like he is not in my life.”
Ezra said he has “sworn to earn my undergraduate degree in business and to disassociate myself with the criminal lifestyle in every fashion.”
He also said he’s volunteered to submit to the “residential drug abuse program” while in prison.
“Xavier has never condoned my negative or criminal activity,” Ezra wrote. “He’s quick to tell me when he disagrees with anything I’m doing or saying.
“So we have developed this thing. I don’t do what I don’t want him doing. And he doesn’t do what he doesn’t want me to do.”
Tameka said she has never forced Xavier to have contact with his dad, but she has stressed that it is important. Due to her efforts, father and son communicate via emails as well as in-person when possible.
Through it all, Xavier says Ezra has had a positive impact on his son.
“My dad has been giving me advice my whole life,” Xavier
said. “He’s a very wise man, even though he made some wrong decisions.
“He talks to me about things other than football. Before I committed to Clemson, he made me email him a long essay about my major in college.
“With my mom, it’s the same thing: Education comes first. She doesn’t even like football.”
The game certainly loves Xavier, whose first word as a toddler was “ball.”
Ezra said his son could catch a ball before he could even walk.
“He’s doing what he was born to do,” Ezra wrote, “and I know he will be a legend one day.”
Xavier plans to use football as his ticket to a better life for himself and his family.
Thomas, 17, is carrying a 3.4 grade-point average and is planning to major in business with a minor in marketing.
There’s still time to make things complete in his family.
“I want to own my own business,” Thomas said, “and I want to do it with my dad.”