By Jason Maholy
Nate Thomas went into the offseason after his sophomore season determined to be a better football player his junior year.
Specifically, the St. Laurence running back knew he needed to work on his endurance. There were too many times during the 2018 season he was sapped of energy as the game progressed.
“There were big games where my team needed me, and I was super tired and gassed out in the middle of runs,” Thomas recalled. “So, I knew I had to work on that part of my game the most so I could be at my best for all four quarters.”
The South Holland resident’s training regimen featured long-distance runs and back-to-back-back 40-yard sprints on the on the running track at Thornwood High School. He would sometimes even run to and from businesses near his home in an effort to enhance his conditioning.
The hard work paid off. This season, Thomas rushed for 1,754 yards and scored 26 touchdowns. He had three 200-plus yard games, including a season-high 265 against Eisenhower and 238 against eventual Class 7A runner-up Nazareth. He finished the season with 193 yards in St. Laurence’s 35-34 Prep Bowl victory over Simeon, a performance that helped the Vikings to their first Prep Bowl title since 1978 and earned him the game’s MVP award.
For his excellence during a standout junior season, Thomas is The Regional-Reporter’s 2019 High School Football Player of the Year.
Thomas is a blend of power and speed, with a running style comparable to the Tennessee Titans' circular saw on cleats Derrick Henry, or going back a few years, the now-retired Marshawn Lynch. He’ll run over, around and past defenders, and if they do happen to get hold of him he’s likely to be the one who throws them to the ground.
That was perhaps best demonstrated during the Vikings’ win over Brother Rice, on a play where Thomas caught a screen pass in the flat and rumbled 65 yards for a touchdown. He broke several tackles along the way, and for good pummeled with a stiff arm the final Crusaders’ defender who dared stand in his way of the end zone.
“I still watch that play, man,” he laughed. “But that whole play wasn’t just me. You had guys running down the field blocking, everybody contributed. I didn’t expect to get that touchdown; that whole play was crazy. I thought he was out of bounds at one point, but I didn’t hear any whistle so I kept going. After that stiff arm I was like, ‘I have to score this. If I don’t score this I’m going to be so mad.’ I had to finish it.”
Strength has never been a problem for Thomas, who during last offseason focused more on getting leaner than building strength.
“I’ve always been super strong,” he said. “I didn’t sleep on working on my strength, but at the same time I felt I needed to work in things other than strength and lifting heavy weights. My goal was more to tone up while staying strong.”
Although he rushed for a season-high 265 yards in a Week 2 win over Eisenhower, Thomas said he really got rolling the following game against stiffer competition in Joliet Catholic. He gashed the Hilltoppers for 143 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-33 loss that ended with JCA blocking a potential game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
“That’s when everything started to click,” he said. “After Hyde Park (in Week 1) and Eisenhower I still didn’t know exactly what I was capable of. Even though we lost I felt that was one of my best games ever. I felt like I was unstoppable, and I realized how much more I could do if I kept working.”
And Thomas never stops working.
“I just stay in the moment,” he said. “I go 110 percent every play. There’s plays you get pumped up and feel that blood rushing, but I don’t take any plays off. Every play’s that type of play for me.”
Thomas’ never-quit attitude was on display in the Vikings’ Class 5A first-round playoff game versus Hillcrest. He accounted for all of St. Laurence’s points, and his 16-yard touchdown run and subsequent 2-point conversion reduced an 11-point deficit to three in the fourth quarter; however, the Hawks would prevail and eliminate the Vikings from the IHSA playoffs.
Thomas and St. Laurence rebounded from that disappointing loss to win their final three games in the Prep Bowl playoffs, culminating with the program’s first Prep Bowl win in 41 years.
“It was cool,” he said of the victory and being named MVP. “I just thought about the alumni that were there and I was proud to make them happy. I know how big the game was for them. I put everything I had into that game and you saw the results.”
Late in the game, Thomas experienced cramps that briefly took him out of the contest. In an attempt to alleviate the cramps, he drank a cup of mustard, which some people believe helps because it contains electrolytes. It wasn’t Thomas’ idea, and he wasn’t exactly thrilled about it, but he wanted to do everything he could to get back on the field.
“I looked in the stands saw the alumni and I knew I couldn’t come out of that game no matter what,” he said. “That was the first time I ever drank that, and I just hope I never get cramps again. That stuff was disgusting. I just held my nose and drank it.”
Thomas, who on Dec. 23 announced he will transfer to Thornwood beginning with the spring 2020 semester, has a plan for his offseason training.
“You’re definitely going to have the urgency,” he said of next year being his senior season. “I’m going to work out like never before, go to college camps, get a little bit faster. I have a whole plan, but I’m not revealing the recipe.”