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Nov. 15, 2011

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by Chris Weinman

As the smallest defensive end on the Commodore football team's roster, redshirt junior Johnell Thomas may have trouble seeing over linemen and into the opposing team's backfield. But the Orlando, Fla., native has no problem seeing just how far he has come in his life.

Posted ImageAt 6'0" tall, Thomas is at least three inches shorter than all but one of the players within his position group, but he's never seen his size as a disadvantage.

"I see it as me having leverage on anybody that is bigger," Thomas said. "But really it's all heart. That's the mentality you have to play with. You know you put enough work into your game. So I really never worry about my size."

Besides, the challenges Thomas has faced in his life are larger than the offensive tackles he lines up against every day in practice, all of whom stand at 6'5" or above.

Before arriving at Orlando's Boone High School as a freshman, Thomas had "gone through a lot of hardships." Then he met Boone Assistant Coach Peter Kearney.

Kearney saw the potential that Thomas possessed, not only on the football field, but also in life. So the Kearney family opened their home, and Peter and wife Lisa became Thomas' legal guardians.

"There was a situation where I had a chance to be taken in by a family," Thomas said. "[Peter Kearney] has always been there for me. He wouldn't want me to stay with anyone else but him. I'm very blessed and thankful for what's he done for me."

The Kearneys provided Thomas with a stable living environment, and Peter--a constant presence both at home and at school--helped motivate Thomas to see his own potential.

"He's always been a really hard- working kid, a real dedicated kid in the classroom," Kearney said. "If anybody had the opportunity to go the wrong way, it was Johnell. He just never chose that route. He always chose the route of hard work."

After becoming a starter at defensive tackle for the Braves as a sophomore, Thomas began to realize that playing college football might be in his future.

Posted Image"I hadn't even thought about going to college until maybe my junior year," Thomas said. "Coach Kearney was the one who actually told me, `You're good enough to play in college.'"

By the end of his junior season, Kearney's sentiments were being echoed by a host of interested college coaches.

"A lot of schools loved the fact that his motor never stopped," Kearney said. "By the end of his junior year, we knew he was going to go to college somewhere, we just didn't know where."

That changed when Vanderbilt added its name to the list of Thomas' suitors.

"He always had a Vanderbilt poster in his bedroom at the house," Kearney said. "That's where he wanted to go to school."

Thomas is the first in his family to attend college, and VU's June 2011 Student-Athlete of the Month is on pace to graduate with a degree in human and organizational development.

For Thomas, the struggles that he overcame early in his life--and the support he received along the way--have helped make any future obstacles not loom quite as large.

"The way that it's helped me the most is to see adversity not as something that's negative," Thomas said. "People strive once they go through adversity. What I've been through is part of the reason I'm here at Vanderbilt right now [because of] people helping me--like Peter Kearney and a lot of other people."

-- Commodore Nation Archives --Posted Image<br/>Posted Image