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Xavier Thomas signs a poster during a visit to Phoenix Children's.
Nearly Quitting Football, Xavier Thomas Finds His Way Back
Cardinals rookie linebacker got through depression to live his dream
By Darren Urban May 31, 2024
Photographs By Tanner Pratt

The little boy told his mother more than once, "I'm going to the NFL."

Yet there he was years later, the prediction already near fact, when the pandemic helped cave in his world.

Depression set in on Xavier Thomas. He was staying in his parents' house, having been sent home with the rest of the football team from Clemson because of Covid in 2020. Then he isolated himself further, eating and playing video games. He gained nearly 50 pounds.

The kid who was a top three recruit in the high school class of 2018, the up-and-coming star who had helped the Tigers reach two national championship games and win one in his first two years, the prospect who had planned all along to play three college seasons before entering the NFL draft as a possible first-round pick, suddenly was ready to quit football.

"I always loved the game," Thomas said. "But I was so disappointed and embarrassed how I let myself get to that point. I felt like I let a lot of people down. I felt I let myself down."

As mental health awareness month ends, Thomas – the outside linebacker whom the Cardinals made their fifth-round draft selection last month – is a success story. The 24-year-old ultimately spent six seasons at Clemson, twice as long as he originally planned.

But he emerged a different person, owner of both bachelor's and master's degrees and a maturity that admittedly wouldn't have been there had he entered the 2020 draft as planned.

"Every day is not perfect," Thomas said. "You're going to go through things, some negative thoughts here and there. So it's always good to talk to people, whether it is a friend, a relative, coach or teammates. Helps to not bottle things up, which is what I used to do."

Thomas is a quiet sort, especially now. He's a rookie, and he wants to fit in and find a role. But his confidence has long returned, as has his joy with the game.

"I talked to him recently and asked him how he was doing," Thomas' mother, Tameka, said. "He said everything is so great. I told him, 'You keep saying great, great, great. There's got to be something you don't like.' But he's so happy right now. It lets me breathe and be so happy too."

Xavier Thomas was smart and athletic. He was in an IB program in high school, and later took honors and AP courses. He got his initial degree at Clemson in three years because he wanted to have it done by the time he entered the draft.

His mother preferred that he play baseball and not football – "It's so violent. I'm a mother. I'm going to be protective at all times," she said – but it was football her son was drawn to, and what he excelled at. Other than quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, Xavier Thomas was considered the best recruit – higher even than friend Micah Parsons, who now stars for the Dallas Cowboys.

He chose Clemson over the University of South Carolina and had 3½ sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman in a reserve role. Tameka Thomas said her son had a "diva moment" going into his sophomore season as his numbers dropped slightly and he began to see his NFL dream come closer.

Yet getting to the pros was on track until it wasn't. And when Covid overwhelmed the country and Thomas was sent home, he didn't deal with it well.

He acknowledged there were "some things at home" that were weighing on him at the time, but added that he doesn't think he would've ended up depressed if Covid hadn't happened.

That's when he told Clemson coach Dabo Swinney he was going to step away from the game, likely for good.

"I had never had any real adversity come my way," Thomas said.

Tameka says now she doesn't really know how she was able to help her son – the middle child, with two older sisters and two younger sisters – other than to stay supportive. Asked if she knew he was depressed at the time, she pauses.

"I want to say yes but I also say no because I'm thinking I was in denial," Tameka said. "Again, that's my baby, and I'm thinking there's no way he's gotten to this point. But I stayed in his ear because I didn't want to admit it to myself. I can say now yeah, I think I knew more than what I wanted to actually accept."

The message Tameka had always given her son was that, whatever decision he made, he needed to do it for himself and for no one else. When Xavier chose Clemson over South Carolina, the hate came out through social media, and his mother was there to remind him he was always going to have people that liked him and people that didn't.

"That's life," she said.

The same went for his decision to play. And Thomas realized he wanted to play.

Swinney stuck with his player. Shedding the weight wasn't easy – Thomas now weighs 244, and at one point he was 298 – as Thomas had to restructure his entire lifestyle. He still played in seven games that season, but by that point, going into the NFL draft was off indefinitely.

"I'm super proud of XT because he got to a place that a lot of people don't recover from," Swinney said in comments provided by Clemson. "He was in a very dark place but what he did that was so important was he communicated and sought out help and had the courage to let people know what he was struggling with."

He watched his friend Parsons get drafted and star for the Cowboys and felt the ping of regret.

But by this point, he had survived the harsh adversity and knew he was OK. He leaned into his religion, seeing his journey as a plan from God. His big season was supposed to be 2022, but that fifth year was mostly derailed by a broken foot, sending him back to school for a sixth Covid year.

"I'm glad it went the way it did," Thomas said. "I wasn't mature yet. I would've gotten drafted early (in 2020), but I wouldn't have been ready mentally and I would've found that out quick and early.

"If it didn't happen, I probably wouldn't have lasted two years in the league."

Jonathan Gannon understands the importance of the mental side of the NFL game, and the mental health. Those "five buckets" Gannon often refers to when it comes to the pillars of his team-building? Psychological is one of them.

"We embrace it because I feel it's an advantage if you do that part well," the Cardinals coach said. "I interlace those people all the time with what we do with the players, and that's aside when they have their own time with them too."

The Cardinals utilize Dr. Justin Anderson and Dr. Harlan Austin for the performance side of sports psychology. For the mental well-being/emotional side of the equation, it's Dr. Sophia Murphy.

Gannon himself has talked to the trio, as well as other coaches, staff and players. For coaches, it can help how they talk to players, how they motivate the team, how they can help resiliency and confidence.

"Everyone always says, 'Oh, the big macho sport,'" Gannon said. "I feel like it's probably the least self-confident group of any sport. You have to train your brain."

Gannon praised owner Michael Bidwill – and other NFL owners – that commit to such resources. The coach likes how the mental health doctors have been weaved into the overall plan for the players – especially for newcomers like Thomas.

"They aren't kids, but they are young," Gannon said. "These rookies … I get mad when I have to change a checking account. These guys haven't even had checking accounts yet. Just the stress of being a 23-year-old in a new profession, it's a lot and it can add up."

The Cardinals could use Thomas. The outside linebackers room is filled with multiple players who are trying to make strides forward. Veterans Dennis Gardeck, Zaven Collins and Tyreke Smith are in the mix with recently drafted BJ Ojulari, Cameron Thomas, Victor Dimukeje and Jesse Luketa.

Thomas won't have the natural security he would've had be been a first-round pick, but the path he has taken has steeled him to the work he'll need to do.

"My jaw still drops when I look at the things he's done," Tameka said. "He's been through his times when he wanted to give up, but I would tell him, 'Don't look to my opinion. That is your life you have to live.'"

These are some of the lessons Thomas wants to provide when he is open to telling his story again and again.

"There was a time where I wasn't sure if he was going to play football again, and now I look at him and he's a young man in total control of his life," Swinney said. "The fact he is willing to speak out on his platform, it sheds a great light on a real problem and encourages a lot of people that need it."

Nothing he has done as a pro over the last month has been a surprise. Once he recommitted to making the NFL while in college, he got into a "professional routine" when it came to eating like a pro, managing his body with prehab and rehab, and how much he studied the playbook and video.

"He has matured a lot," Tameka said. "His mannerisms now, I look at my baby and he really is a man, and I'm like, 'OK, yeah.' So happy and so proud."

When Thomas is done playing, he'd like to become a professional gamer, turning his love for Call of Duty into a job. He's already networked with gaming groups like FaZe Clan and 100 Thieves.

But that's well down the road, he said. He's worked too hard to get to the NFL. Thomas understands why he was drafted where he was drafted – he was told he'd be a third-to-fifth round pick, and he does turn 25 in December, older for a rookie – but that doesn't mean it doesn't sting a bit.

"In my eyes, I was a first-round pick," Thomas said. "The team that got me, they are going to be thankful they did get me."

It doesn't matter that he is saying this in 2024 instead of 2020. Not anymore.

"Everybody's journey is different," Thomas said. "It was just a different timeline for me."

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