Panthers rookie Ian Thomas showed perseverance on path to NFL

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ian Thomas was with his grandmother, sisters and brothers on April 27, all waiting for the phone to ring as the NFL draft went into its second day. They all wanted to be there to celebrate a moment that once didn't seem possible for the Indiana tight end.

Especially older brother Cliff Farmer.

Farmer legally adopted Thomas and two of his nine siblings when their father, Earl, died of a heart attack when Thomas was 9. It came a year after their mother, Martha, died from a kidney infection.

Farmer, 19 at the time, didn't want to see Ian or any of his brothers and sisters go into foster homes. He didn't want them caught up in the street life around their neighborhood in Baltimore, where many of Farmer's friends were killed before they reached 21.

So he was there Friday night to celebrate Thomas' long, hard journey to the NFL.

The call didn't come -- at least not then.

It came Saturday when Farmer was on the job as a concrete finisher, where he began working for $200 a week when he adopted Thomas. He got the news from his uncle that Thomas was selected at the top of the fourth round by the Carolina Panthers.

"I was disappointed I wasn't there," Farmer said. "We were partying anyway [Friday] just for him to be in the draft. ... He's ready to work. I believe he will take on any challenge that is thrown at him. I have no doubt he will prevail."

But here's what Farmer missed by not being there in person.

"Everyone is recording it," Thomas said on a conference call shortly after he was selected. "I see some tears here and there, but it's great. Especially, where we came from and how far we've been. So that's a blessing in itself."

No interest in trading

Carolina general manager Marty Hurney had several teams call after the draft's second day wanting to trade for the first pick of the fourth round.

Hurney didn't budge. He had a player in mind.

Apparently, so did one of the teams trying to trade up.

"One of them texted right after and said, 'Well, we don't have to look to trade up anymore,'" Hurney said. "So I guess they were looking to trade up to take Ian."

That would be Thomas, 6-foot-4 and 259 pounds.

The Panthers have been trying for years to find a player to groom as a future replacement for Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and to play opposite Olsen. They hoped it was Ed Dickson, but after four good-but-not-great seasons, they let him sign with Seattle in free agency.

They believe they have that player now in Thomas, considered the best of the second tier of tight ends in this year's draft class, a player who has been compared by some to future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates.

Thomas is a long way from the shrine in Canton, Ohio. There was a time when he was a long way from the NFL, period. Besides losing his parents at a young age, he wasn't recruited by a Division I team out of Digital Harbor High School (Baltimore) and wound up at Nassau Community College -- initially for basketball.

He ultimately found his way back to football and transferred to Indiana as a junior. He caught only three passes his first season and 25 this past year, but showed enough athletic prowess to impress NFL coaches and general managers.

"He definitely has the abilities to come and contribute right away, but we think he has got a very high upside," Hurney said.

'Dream come true'

Thomas is quiet by nature, often answering in sentences of two words. He keeps much of what he's been through to himself and admits that as a kid he never thought the NFL was a possibility.

"But as the years passed, and going through the schools that I've been through, having help from all the good coaches that I have had and having a great support system behind me, they have made it possible for me to believe in myself," he said. "It's a dream come true."

Alan Holmes, the athletic director at Digital Harbor High, has seen three athletes during his career that he knew were special right away.

One was a kid who couldn't escape trouble in Baltimore. Another was NFL star receiver Anquan Boldin.

The other was Thomas.

"People are going to see they missed on a huge prospect," Holmes said. "He's prototypical of the potential you can have no matter how rough your life is, that you can be a good human being and successful if you put your mind to it."

Holmes wasn't surprised Thomas didn't get much attention coming out of high school, but it had nothing to do with talent.

"We didn't have a true high school quarterback," he said. "Ian was catching balls because Ian had skills."

One play in particular showed Thomas' ability.

"He made a catch in a key game against a program we hadn't beaten in years," Holmes recalled. "He had a defender underneath him, a defender behind him. The ball was tipped by the underneath defender. Ian laid out, got both feet inbounds in the corner of the end zone and was able to bring the ball in."

Because Thomas is so quiet, Holmes only recently learned about all that Thomas had been through growing up without parents.

"He really kept that stuff tight to the vest for a long time," Holmes said. "It's all really coming out with this whole recruiting process with the NFL -- exactly what he had to go through."

Farmer believes the tough road will pay off for Thomas.

"I believe it was meant for him to go that route, for him to really have to grind it out to get to where you want to be," he said. "It wasn't handed to him at all."

Thomas can't thank his brother enough for getting him to this point.

"He's always been telling me to stay cool and things will work themselves out," he said. "What is meant to be, will be. I always thank him any chance I get for helping us growing up and for helping me become the man I am today.

"He knows how much love I have for him and how much love he has for all of us. I know it's just a blessing to have him as an older brother and a role model."