By Chris B. Bennett
The Seattle Medium
Joey Thomas, head football coach at Seattle’s Garfield High School, has tendered his resignation effective Tues., April 16. On Monday, Thomas, who has been the head coach at Garfield since 2016, confirmed that he has accepted a coaching position with a small college in the Midwest.
Thomas, who overcame his own adversities to live out his life’s dream of playing pro football, built Garfield’s program based on his philosophy of “Totally Optimizing Potential” (TOP) as a blueprint for the success his players both on and off the field.
Prior to coming to Garfield, Thomas revitalized the football program at Ballard High School guiding the team to a 12-4 record during his last two seasons. During his tenure, Thomas led the Beavers to two division titles, advanced to the state tournament and was twice named coach of the year.
At Garfield, Thomas led the team to three consecutive state playoff appearances, with his team advancing to the state semi-finals in 2017. The signature win for Garfield that season was a 13-10 double overtime victory over top-ranked Eastside Catholic in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs, which helped propel the Bulldogs into the spotlight both locally and nationally.
“I’m a builder,” says Thomas in an interview with The Seattle Medium. “At Ballard, they had won three games in three years [before I arrived]. We rebuilt that program. When I came to Garfield, the Garfield team from the previous year [was] solid. We took the team from being a good city team to being nationally recognized across the country.”
Known as a motivator with a unique ability to connect with players regardless of their pedigree, Thomas has become a hot commodity in many circles because of his skillset beyond the X’s and O’s of football.
“I’ve had several opportunities throughout the year that I have passed on because I wanted to stick with my kids,” said Thomas.
However, as fate would have it, Thomas, who was one of 15 teachers displaced from Garfield for the upcoming school year, says the fact that he no longer had a position at the school played a role in his final decision.
“Being displaced, essentially means I don’t have employment for the fall,” said Thomas. “So when I sat back and I thought about it, I looked at the opportunity and said you know, I do want to be a college coach one day, so I talked it over with my wife and my family and they gave me their blessings. So I’m taking the opportunity to go coach college football.”
“If I wasn’t displaced, I don’t know if I go,” Thomas continued. “But being displaced… made it clear to me that it is time to move on. And at the end of the day, I’m responsible for my family and I’ve got do what’s best for my family.”
“It was a very hard decision,” he added. “It hurts because I think that’s a special group of kids and Garfield is home for me. That’s where I grew up. That area, and that community has a special place in my heart.”
Expanding Washington’s Football Imprint
While no one doubts the connection between Thomas and his players, it must also be noted that football and football in the state of Washington, in particular, has a special place in Thomas’ heart as well. 13 years ago, at the age of 25, Thomas, who has since made it part of his life’s work to help establish a nationally respected football community in Washington, sent an email outlining all of the things that he wanted to accomplish through football in the state. In his email he listed the following things that were important for him to accomplish through football:
* Allow him an opportunity to give back to the community just like the community gave to him.
* Provide exposure to players that may be over-looked.
* Assist players in having the opportunity to obtain a college degree to better themselves on and off the field.
In noting these things, Thomas also outlined some of the barriers that make it difficult for players in the state to play football beyond high school.
“In the athletic spectrum, Seattle is overlooked,” said Thomas in the email. “There are no junior colleges with football programs. As a player, I’ve seen and experienced how it feels to be hopeless, to feel like you’re not given an opportunity. I know how it feels to want one more chance to showcase your ability. I know how it feels to want someone to believe in you as much as you believe in yourself.”
“This game will provide that opportunity,” the email continued. “I want to give: Seattle exposure in the athletic spectrum, the opportunity for players to obtain college degree’s, the motivation for the players to better themselves as a whole. I’d like this game to be a symbol of hope for the players. As result, I’d like to see the community grow and support the event.”
Fast-forward to today and Thomas has accomplished almost everything on the list. Coaching at Garfield allowed him to give back to his community. Through coaching he has been able to provide exposure for players that may have otherwise been overlooked, and he has helped over 116 kids get to college and obtain their degrees.
Thomas’ influence and passion to helps kids succeed stretches far beyond his own school/teams. Those who know him say that he is constantly trying to connect kids with schools and coaches in an effort to get them to the next level.
“Joey has a big heart,” said longtime friend Paul Arnold in a 2018 interview with The Medium. “I’ve seen him help kids that have graduated from other schools, and help them get scholarships when their own coaches couldn’t do it for them.”
“I’ve seen him do so many things for kids and he doesn’t ask for anything in return,” added Arnold. “For every kid that you hear about that he helps, there might be 5 or 6 kids that he helped that he’ll never tell you about.”
For Thomas, it’s more of a personal mission to help put young men in a position to succeed than the actual job of coaching that drives him.
“[Looking back at this email] really just puts everything into perspective of me walking in my calling and doing the things that God has put me on earth to do,” says Thomas. “I’ve pretty much accomplished everything on this list except for starting an all-star game for the state of Washington.”
“You can’t deny what we’ve done and the way we did it,” continued Thomas. “It’s interesting because I see coaches now use social media the way that I use social media. I see a lot of coaches around the state using the blueprint that we’ve laid. So it’s rewarding because imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.”
Off The Field Success
One thing that Thomas is very proud of is that his teams at Ballard and Garfield both bought into his focus on academics and achieved team GPA’s over 3.0.
“We had two different schools where we had mandatory academic study hall,” said Thomas. “Two different programs where the group had a 3.0-plus GPA, and we’re a city school. We’re not private, we’re not a boarding school, but those things never happen and maybe they should be the norm and not the exception.”
While he applauds the success of the young men in the classroom, Thomas gets even more excited when he talks about the things that his former players are doing today.
“Our guys are starting to graduate grad school and graduate college and get jobs,” says Thomas with a big smile on his face. “We have a lot of guys doing a lot of different things that are really phenomenal. They have businesses, one kids in med school, so we have a wide range of people that have gone through our program that are doing great things.”
“Most of our kids are productive citizens of society and at the end of the day that’s what you want,” continued Thomas. “You want young men to take something away from your program that sticks with them for the rest of their lives. We’ve had several kids who said ‘coach I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. Now I understand what accountability means and why it’s important to do the little things right.’”
“When they come back 4 or 5 years later and say that they got the message that’s always rewarding,” says Thomas.
Thomas’s coaching style allows his players be themselves, to grow as young men, and allows them to express their social consciousness in a way that is meaningful beyond the stage of football. For example, in 2016, Garfield, following the lead of the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick, garnered national attention as one of the first, if not the first, high school team in the country to take a knee during the national anthem to protest the killing of Black men by law enforcement officers across the country. It was a big moment for the school, the players, the coaches and the community.
“When those young men took a knee and stood for something that was buried within themselves that was a life changing moment,” said Thomas. “That’s something that that team is going to talk about for the rest of their lives.”
As it relates to the upcoming football season for Garfield, Thomas expects the team to do well, as they return their core group of players on both sides of the ball and the entire coaching staff, minus Thomas, will also return. Despite having a new head coach at the helm, the team will benefit from familiarity with the coaches, the system and the expectations of the program.
“I have nothing but the utmost confidence in that staff, the direction of the program and the players,” says Thomas. “That team will be very successful, the cupboards are full, its definitely not empty.”
When asked about his message to his players about his departure, Thomas says that he told them to continue to just ‘TOP.’
“I’m going to encourage them to let their passions drive them and just be the best version of themselves,” said Thomas. “Don’t get caught up in what the next person has because your journey is not the next person’s journey and the next person’s journey is not yours. Your journey is tailor made for you and if you want something go get it.”
Thomas, who says this is not a good-bye but more of a see you later, wants to be remembered as a trailblazer who did things his own way, and as someone who provided opportunities and experiences that did not exist before.
“I never got into coaching for myself,” says Thomas. “It’s a servant position if you’re doing it the right way and for the right reasons. You’re really a servant of the community, a servant of the team, and a servant of the kids.”
“I’m just truly blessed and thankful that God put me here for this time and put a lot of great people in my life to help nurture me and mentor me and help me grow to this point,” continued Thomas. “I would hope my legacy would be that it was bigger than football. That football was not first, football was the second priority and it was really about life.”