Jan. 16, 2002
by Pete LaFleur
John Reynolds never has been one to misguide his students.
The guidance counselor at Powers Catholic High School has steered many students to colleges and universities that met their needs and qualifications. So when Charles Thomas made a visit to his office in the winter of 1998, Reynolds suggested that the promising student-athlete consider applying to the University of Notre Dame. And Thomas definitely was interested.
“My family and I had no idea where Notre Dame was located. I actually thought it was out in California and I really was looking to get out of the state of Michigan, so I decided to apply there,” recalls Thomas, now in the midst of his fourth season with the Notre Dame basketball program as a walk-on guard-while also maintaining a 3.36 grade-point average as a science business major in the College of Science.
“Even though it wasn’t in California, the most important thing was that the school had the academic reputation I was looking for.”
Thomas visited the Notre Dame campus later that spring and opted to attend the school that was just a three-hour drive from his hometown of Flint, Mich. He had bypassed several scholarship offers to play Division I basketball and headed to Notre Dame with some hope of landing a walk-on spot with the Irish, while his true focus remained on the books.
“I could’ve gone somewhere else on a basketball scholarship, but what would have happened it I’d gotten hurt and basketball was gone?” says Thomas. “I had the sense that Notre Dame was the place for me, but I didn’t really think that first year would be as tough as it was.”
Thomas’ four-year maturation at the college level is the typical story for many Notre Dame students. His first year involved plenty of struggles as he adjusted to being away from home, but now he feels just as comfortable in his O’Neill Hall dorm room or at some other spot on the Notre Dame campus as he does back home in Flint.
“When I think back to my freshman year, I was just a little boy. I didn’t like it here, didn’t know anybody, the classes all were hard and I was homesick all the time,” he says. “Now, I just feel so much more comfortable and confident in myself. I feel like a man and can’t imagine having gone to college anywhere else.”
Thomas credits much of his love for a “home away from home” to the close-knit atmosphere of the Irish basketball team.
“This team is like a close family and they are people that I will be close to for the rest of my life,” he says. “We always hang out together and everyone is such good friends. That’s a great thing to have in a team.”
Thomas vividly recalls one of his greatest Notre Dame memories: the day former Irish assistant coach Billy Taylor called to tell the scrappy walk-on that he had made the team.
“I was home on fall break and I was thinking that I’d have to head back to Notre Dame on that Friday for the official walk-on tryouts,” says Thomas, who already had been playing informally with members of the team.
“Then I got a call and the voice on the other end says, ‘This is B.T.’ (Billy Taylor) and he says he’s calling to let me know that I made the team and they want me to come back to school as soon as possible. I have a friend who also is nicknamed B.T., so I thought he was playing a joke on me. But when I realized it really was coach Taylor, I couldn’t believe it. That was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Thomas scurried back to Notre Dame and gradually earned the respect of his teammates for his competitive spirit, while also acquiring the nickname “Chuck.” He played just one minute during that first season (1998-99), when he didn’t even have to attend every practice due to a bloated 19-player roster that included eight walk-ons. He then appeared in six games as a sophomore and 10 last season, with his three-year totals including 20 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 35 minutes of action.
But his value to the team remains much greater than those meager statistics might suggest.
“Chuck is such a key member of this team because of his work ethic and the way he challenges his teammates in practice,” says second-year Irish head coach Mike Brey. “I told Chuck when I came here that I didn’t consider him to be a walk-on, because he’s been through everything that everyone else has had to deal with. He’s a great asset to this team and we have confidence in him when we put him into the game.”
Boosted by Brey’s confidence in him, Thomas continues to make the most of his chances-appearing in four of the first five games this season while logging quality minutes, with his highlights including a pair of three-point baskets.
Thomas’ growth on a personal and academic level was matched by a noticeable physical change, as his frame was transformed from a gangly 145-pounds to a muscular 165-pound physique.
“When I first joined the team, our strength coach Tony Rolinski used to make fun of me because I couldn’t even ‘max’ 135 pounds on my benchpress,” says Thomas. “Now, I can bench 250 and can do so much more as a basketball player because of the shape I’m in. That’s made a big difference.”
Charles, Sr., and Doris Thomas-both retired employees of the General Motors plant based in Flint-have supported their son’s college basketball career despite his limited playing time, with at least one of the parents typically in attendance for every home game while the other is keeping up with the busy schedule of their daughter Clara, whose high school activities include participating in volleyball, track and cheerleading.
From an early age, it was apparent that Thomas held an equal love for academics and athletics-whether it be winning a city-wide spelling bee while in the fourth grade or shooting hoops for hours on the full-court basketball layout that was installed in his backyard when he was 12 years old.
“That boy always had a basketball with him in the house. He’d sleep with that ball and dribble all over the house. We had those little portable rims and he’d be practicing all the time,” says the elder Thomas, who calls his only son “junior.”
“And he’s always had his nose in the books, studying whenever he can. He used to study with a book in one hand and a basketball under the other arm. That was all you needed to know about Junior. He loved those books and he loved that ball.”
Such a duality carried over to his formative years.
“In high school, the players and coaches always would joke with Charles and ask him if he couldn’t leave his backpack in his room,” recalls Doris Thomas. “He actually would be studying at the gym, before and after games. He’d be watching another team play and studying at the same time.”
According to the observant mother, Charles is most like his father in his quiet nature.
“When you first meet Charles, he is so quiet. You’d never now how smart and sweet he is,” she says. “But he’s most like me in how straightforward he is. He will tell you what he thinks and when he says he’s going to do something, he does it.”
The no-nonsense approach that Doris passed onto her son even has come back at her in dealings with her college-age son.
“During his sophomore year, Charles still was struggling at times and I told him that he should just put the books down for a bit and walk around and meet some people. I told him that’s what I do sometimes when I’m doing housework, I just go to the mall for a little bit,” she says.
“But then Charles said to me, ‘Mom, you can’t compare my future with your housework.’ I said OK. That boy definitely tells you what he thinks. On another occasion, Doris had questioned her son during a trying time, asking him, “Where’s your faith, boy?” As fate would have it, the roles were reversed sometime later-with the son playing the advisor and asking his mother, “Woman, now where is your faith?”
“After that, I learned not to call him with my problems,” laughs the family matriarch. “He doesn’t need my problems when he’s working so hard, sometimes getting one hour of sleep.”
Thomas credits his parents with helping develop his academic discipline but they are just as quick to applaud their son for being a classic self-motivator.
“Charles always has put in the extra work to find success in his academics and he’s a very dependable young man. When he says something will get done, it gets done,” says the proud mother.
“He also is a very determined individual and Notre Dame is such a great school that has made him into a strong young man. It really has made his very disciplined, but it really knocked him hard that first year. We are so proud of Chuck and God is using him as an example for others. He didn’t have a lot of money and other things, but that didn’t stop him from being a success in life. He’s given it all he can give.”
Despite his limited playing time, Thomas remains cognizant of being a positive role model.
“The coaches always tell me to be a leader and that’s why I work so hard. Little kids always are watching you and I can’t ever get mad about not playing. There are millions of kids who would trade places with me,” he says.
Thomas also has been a role model for sophomore guard Torrian Jones, with the two becoming close friends since Jones’ arrival at Notre Dame last fall.
“Torrian and I are like brothers and I’m so excited for how he is playing right now. He has so much more confidence and probably is our most improved player,” says Thomas. “Torrian and I are totally alike in so many ways. Our personalities are the same and we like the same things. We’re also a couple outgoing and funloving guys who are very competitive, but that stays on the basketball court. We aren’t the kind of guys that carry those things with us.”
Thomas brushes away the compliments that credit his academic success to simple intelligence.
“People always say, ‘Oh, you’re so smart.’ But I’m not that smart, I just work hard,” says the two-time Dean’s List student. “I’ve had great professors and they all have helped me so much. I always try to get to know the teachers and they realize the challenges I have with a tough major and playing basketball at the same time. It has been a challenge but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Thomas holds firm convictions to pursue postgraduate studies, with a particular interest in forensic science (and a possible career in the FBI). Medical school also is not out of the question for the academic all-star who once thought Notre Dame was on the west coast.
“My experience here at Notre Dame is something I’ll never forget, especially being part of the program as we began to climb into the national rankings and won the BIG EAST,” says Thomas. “My first year on the team, we had a losing record and didn’t even make the NIT, but now we are definitely a team to watch out for. It’s just been such a great experience to be part of it all.”
Nearly four years later, it appears that John Reynolds saw something special in Charles Thomas when he made that fateful suggestion.
He knew a good fit when he saw it. Now Charles Thomas knows it too.