This week, the Syracuse Orange will play their biggest game of the season against 15th ranked West Virginia in a battle for Big Supremacy. For all players, playing on ESPN Friday night is enough to “get up for this game,” in the words of Mikhail Marinovich.
For Phillip Thomas, this game is even more personal. Thomas is the leader of the Syracuse secondary, a unit that has epitomized a bend-don’t-break philosophy all year. “It’s a lot of motivation,” says Thomas when you consider another fact: Both he and Geno Smith hail from Miami. In fact, a good number of players will get reunited with Geno Smith this weekend. “Me, Keon Lyn, Ri‘Shard Anderson, we’re all going to go out there and be our defense and continue to play as a unit.”
But this game will more than likely stir memories for Phillip Thomas, a young man who is no stranger to tragedy. In fact, it is his past that has driven him to be successful in the here and now.
Growing up, Phillip lost a lot of people close to him. What was worse was how early he lost them. His father, Michael Byrd, was a gangster who died when Phillip was still a kid. Needless to say, being surrounded by this lifestyle meant Phil had to fight to survive.
But Phillip said he had figured it out by then.
Goes to show how street smart Phillip was and still is. He learned all of that when he ran with gangs in Miami. Phillip was frequently in trouble for starting fights, once went to a juvenile detention center for being with a friend who stole a watch and “numerous things I regret.” In fact, he had done all of this after living a stint without a home.
Things changed with a visit from Scott Schafer and a scholarship offer to Syracuse. Throughout all of Thomas’ life, his aunt, with whom he has had a hot and cold relationship ever since she adopted him, had found football as a way to channel Thomas’ anger, hurt and fight.
Thomas was a standout player in an area full of future D1 stars, and after some time, he along with players like Geno Smith made it big to play Saturdays. One of those Miami players was Jasper Howard, the former UConn player who was fatally stabbed in 2009. Once again, Thomas was faced with tremendous loss. His Facebook page is devoted to how much of an impact Taylor had on the young safety.
Through all of this adversity, Thomas has greatly matured and become a leader on the Syracuse defense. "With the opportunity Cuse gave me to come to college and make something out of my life, I had options and could say no to the bad and yes to the good." This season, Thomas’ team, which is leading 46 tackles and three interceptions, has gained national attention, earning 1st Team all Big East midseason honors, and putting him on the national radar. “I’ve tried to perfect my tackling, and I want to continue to get better as an individual and contribute to my team as a unit.”
He's even found his "lucky charm," a "girl from JMU who puts a smile on my face...been playing A++ game since talking to her."
If Thomas continues to improve and shows it on the ESPN stage this Friday night, he can continue to move on from his past and get another fateful call: This time from the NFL.