TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a little more than a year, Matthew Thomas went from wondering if he’d ever play football for Florida State again to leading the Seminoles in tackles after three games of their 2016 season. “I am?” Thomas asked when told of his place atop the stat sheet. Yes, he is. Statistics, of course, are nice and Thomas is glad to be productive. But given everything he’s been through since arriving at FSU in 2013, Thomas, a redshirt junior linebacker from Miami, has better things to do than search for his name in box scores.
For Thomas, simply suiting up and getting out on the field is enough to bring about a smile.
“That’s what I came here for,” Thomas said Monday. “It’s been a long, long road. So I’m just happy to be at this point.”
There were times that Thomas doubted he’d ever get here.
A former five-star prospect from Miami powerhouse Booker T. Washington High, Thomas attracted attention from every major college football program in the nation before choosing FSU over Southern California.
But because of injuries and off-field issues, Thomas played in only 11 games during his first two seasons (2013-2014).
There was a shoulder injury that cost Thomas most of his freshman season and led to a redshirt year.
Then there was an off-field problem that cost Thomas half of his sophomore season.
Finally, in 2015, Thomas embarked on what was likely the most difficult year of his life.
His mother, Mariska Nyon, passed away in January. A few months later, Thomas suffered another shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery. Then, while recovering, Thomas found he also had to pull some extra legwork in the classroom before he could rejoin his teammates.
“That’s when it wasn’t really fun, because I really couldn’t maneuver how I wanted to,” Thomas said. “But that’s life.”
It was a lot to handle for a 19-year-old living 400 miles from home. But Thomas found solace in his family – he has both older and young brothers, including one in Tallahassee – and he counted on his teammates to keep him on track during his year away.
Thomas also remembered the words that coach Jimbo Fisher said to him and his mother, back when Thomas was a recruit weighing his college options.
“He said he’d always have my back,” Thomas said. “He told my mom that. And he kept his word. He’s a man of his word.”
With Fisher’s encouragement and the help of some ardent supporters – fellow South Floridians Dalvin Cook and Travis Rudolph, as well as fellow defender DeMarcus Walker among them – Thomas started his journey down that long road.
“They kept me off my butt,” Thomas said. “Whenever they’d see me with my head down, they’d talk to me. They kept me good. They told me to make sure I handle my business so I could get back out there.”
By the March of 2016, when the Seminoles started spring camp, Thomas had completed his checklist. For the first time in more than a year, he practiced with his teammates as an active, healthy player.
And, even better, he made it through the month of drills and scrimmages with his health in tact.
“I think (being away) really made him appreciate how much he really loves the game,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.
That enthusiasm has since carried over into the fall. With a team-high 20 tackles, Thomas is off to a start befitting both his blue-chip pedigree and his experience as a fourth-year player – even if he feels there’s still some rust to shake off.
Despite some admitted nerves, Thomas looked right at home in FSU’s opener against Mississippi, posting seven stops and a tackle for loss.
Early in that game, Thomas showed the Seminoles just what they had been missing when he chased down Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown for an open-field tackle 30 yards downfield.
There might only be a handful of linebackers in the country who could make that type of play, but Thomas left Orlando that night wishing he had done better.
“I definitely had some rust,” Thomas said. “… I still feel like I’m getting right.”
More encouraging than that, though, is the way Thomas carries himself on the field and in the locker room.
Teammates and coaches say that Thomas has the demeanor of a player with a new lease on his football life.
“He’s happy,” FSU defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said. “He’s in a good place. He’s having fun out there.”
Added Cook: “That’s a different dude, right there. … He’s got a different mindset. I don’t know if it’s because he didn’t play (last year) or what, but he’s out there looking like a whole new guy.”
No surprise, then, that Thomas can look back at the last three years and say, with confidence, that he’s grown a lot from the time he first set foot in Tallahassee.
Along the way, he’s learned a few things about himself, too.
“I learned that I’m a fighter,” Thomas said. “I’m not going to give up. I may take some hits, but I get back up.”