The opening weeks of August are typically a time of excitement and hope for a high school football team, with practices beginning and the season on the near horizon.
But at Central High, it’d be understandable if the mood was far more subdued. There’s a large void left on the Bears’ coaching staff and a metaphorical hole in the hearts of those connected to the program following last month’s sudden passing of assistant coach Willie Thomas Jr., better known as “Coach Buck.”
“He was huge. He ran our offseason program, he was our defensive coordinator, but he impacted these kids,” Central head coach Chris Sands said. “He was a guy who would do everything he could to motivate these kids.”
Thomas, 52, suffered a stroke last month and passed away on July 20. A 24-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force who served in the Gulf War and had tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas was laid to rest on July 27 at the Tallahassee National Cemetery near his hometown of Monticello.
He is survived by his wife of 10 years, Chanel Thomas, as well as six children: Aaron, Rhenae and Breonna Thomas, and Alexander, Tori and Brennan Evans. He also leaves behind grandchildren Melody Peoples and Aaron Thomas Jr., siblings Richard Thomas (Donetta) and Loretha Anderson (Terry), and nephews Richard Thomas Jr. and Christopher Anderson.
Having coached football at several high schools, Thomas was the defensive coordinator at Tampa-King when he reached out to Sands 2 ½ years ago about an opening on the Bears’ staff. He was residing in Spring Hill and his stepson was attending Central, so the position seemed like the perfect fit.
Sands quickly hit it off with Thomas, as both came from North Florida and played football at FAMU.
“He was not just an amazing coach, but an amazing person, and that’s what we’re missing so much about him,” Sands said.
One example of Coach Buck’s work, Sands said, is offensive lineman Lyndell Hudson, a senior receiving Division I offers after losing a substantial amount of weight with the help of Thomas.
Now the Bears must find a way to move on from tragedy, and sadly they’ve had experience. Quarterback Sebastian Rivera passed away during the 2015 campaign following a motorcycle accident.
“We always play for Sebastian, we’ve done that from Day 1. But now we’ve got a big angel on our shoulders,” Sands said. “We’ll play for both Sebastian and Coach Buck. There are going to be tough times, but we have to make this situation into a positive like he would want us to do. We’ll play this season in tribute to him and hopefully make him proud.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.