The day Ambry Thomas learned to lead

Monday, May 11, 2020 - 9:39am

Ambry Thomas

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Ambry Thomas wasn’t supposed to be at Detroit King that day, lacing up his cleats for a 7-on-7 scrimmage, feeling the summer heat blistering up from the field.  If it weren’t for a call from his coach, Dale Harvel, the night before, he wouldn’t have been.

After a particularly spirited effort at a 7-on-7 the week prior, Harvel told Thomas to take a load off. The team was in Thomas’ hands now, with the likes of Lavert Hill, Donnie Corley, Armani Posey and Martell Pettaway off to college after a dominant 14-0 state title season. His health was too important to risk wear-and-tear in a meaningless late-July scrimmage.

But then, sitting in his room in the basement of his Detroit home the evening of July 21, 2016, Thomas’ phone lit up. It was Harvel.

“It was so weird, because he didn’t ever call me, for real,” Thomas recalled last week, months before his senior season at Michigan is scheduled to kick off. “We would talk at practice; we’d talk like that. To get a phone call from him, it was shocking, so I hopped on and answered.”

Harvel, spurred by a change of heart, told Thomas the scrimmage was optional, which gave Thomas the hint it wasn’t optional in the slightest. Thomas, a bullheaded competitor by nature, needed no convincing.

Thomas still remembers some of the little details about the following day: The schools that tried to send their JV teams, enraging the fiery Harvel; His competitive battles with a wide receiver on Dayton Dunbar named Joseph Scates, who’d go on to play at Iowa State. He sure remembers that damn heat. 

But he, like anyone around the field that day, most vividly remembers how it ended.

Harvel, who’d suffered a heart attack in 2014, spent his day in the shade, watching from afar as his assistant coaches took the reigns. As practice wound down, Harvel stood along a fence that lined the field’s perimeter, talking to a group of coaches. Then, suddenly, he collapsed.

“We were standing at the gate talking, regular after-practice conversation,” King’s offensive coordinator Terel Patrick told the Detroit Free Press at the time. “And he fell straight back. In front of all the kids.”

Screams rang out. Players darted across the street to the Engine 9 fire station, crossing East Lafayette Street in a frenzy. Thomas lingered behind, slowed by a sudden paralysis. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Spencer dialed 9-1-1. “The coach just fell,” yelled out one coach. “He just fell. Go over there and try to get somebody from the fire station.” 

“And then when EMS finally came,” Spencer said, “Ambry was one of the guys that was next to me helping us put Coach Harvel on the stretcher, and getting him up to the EMS.”

“Me, being the person I am, knowing this is my team and I’ve got more experience with Coach Harvel than all these guys, I just felt like I owe respect,” Thomas said. “I just had to. It was something I had to do.”

Thomas helped turn Harvel over and pick him up, lifting him onto the ambulance. Spencer rode with Harvel, frantically telling Harvel’s wife what had happened, holding out hope the doctors would revive him. There’s some comfort in distance now, four years removed from a day that forever altered lives. Time cushions grief. Specifics fade from memory. 

“It felt like a movie,” Spencer says now. 

Harvel, 57, was pronounced dead of a heart attack at Detroit Receiving Hospital.

When Thomas retells the story, he does so with fortitude. His voice does not quiver. His emotions do not waver. 

But the details of the moment linger in his memory.

“I remember looking into his eyes when we picked him up. I didn’t wanna believe it, but in his eyes he just looked gone,” Thomas said. “It just started to settle in more and more with me that day. And when we broke it down, we broke it down for Coach Harv. Right after we broke it down, I just thought like, I remember seeing the look in his eyes and — my four years I was at King, that’s something you would never see.

“I just felt it in his eyes he was gone.”

***

Harvel coached at King for 30 years, seven as its head coach. He was the beloved defensive coordinator under legendary coach Jim Reynolds on King’s famous 2007 team, which became the first team from the Detroit Public School League to win the state championship. 

In 2009, Reynolds retired, and Harvel became the second head coach in school history. He continued shepherding players each year into top-tier college football programs. In 2015, he won the state title as head coach, guiding a 14-0 King team to the title.

His death, naturally, sent shockwaves through the whole community. When players and coaches speak about him now, they do so with a sort of unbridled reverence for his tough-love, no-nonsense style.

Linebacker Cepeda Phillips, a co-captain on the 2016 team, recalls a time he sat out practice, nursing a hurt ankle. Harvel pulled him aside, sure to draw him away from his mother, and made clear how he felt. 

“He told me, ‘Look, if you’ve got bigger dreams and high aspirations of going to the next level, things like this, it’s not going to be tolerated or accepted at the highest level,’” Phillips recalled. “And that just stuck with me because at King I was in a position where I was kind of an alpha dog. I could get away with things if I was allowed to. And the fact that my coach let me know that there’s things bigger than just this high school football..”

One day early in his career, Thomas pulled up from Harvel’s notorious 110-yard sprints, claiming his hamstring hurt. He walked off the field, and a few other players followed suit. Harvel escorted them to the bleachers, where he issued a profanity-filled scolding. 

Thomas and his teammates got off the bleachers and re-joined practice, vowing to always push through. 

“He had a unique way of connecting with all the players,” Thomas said. “When he spoke, you listened because you knew it was the truth. He wasn’t going to sugarcoat anything. … The way he got through to us — inner-city kids — it’s crazy.”

At King, the man fit the role to a T — he preached hard-nosed defense, personal accountability, no bullshit.

“Everybody can’t come to our program and actually do some of these things,” Spencer said, with a sort of subtle pride. “Some kids leave the program. They can’t do it. That’s part of it.”

The days following Harvel’s death, in turn, were shrouded in uncertainty. The staff met with administrators. Spencer was named head coach. The school brought in grief counselors to talk with the players, asking questions about how they felt and what they were thinking. 

Team leaders and staff staged a team meeting, where they collectively vowed to dedicate the season to Harvel. Some, like Thomas and Phillips, took the loss harder than others. As the season crept closer, none of it yielded a mindset conducive to mounting a state title defense.

“A lot of the kids were like ‘Ah, it’s not gonna be the same,’” Spencer recalled. “It was looking rough.”

What’s left unsaid, but abundantly clear: they faced a choice. Either lay down and let the season go to waste or use his passing as motivation. They knew Harvel wouldn’t stand for the former.

The team returned to the practice field days later, Spencer apprehensive not to overstep his new authority. He always hoped to become a head coach, but surely under more rosy circumstances after paying his dues, biding his time. 

He had envisioned another year coaching the defense, doing his part, having more time to spend with his three-month old son. Suddenly, he was thrust into the unenviable spot of replacing a legend while keeping his team from fraying before it had played a game. 

In short, he needed help. And on the first day of practice, he got it.

“I remember that day like everybody’s on the field,” Thomas said of that day. “You could tell the energy just wasn’t right without Harv. It didn’t feel right.”

They powered through anyway, going through the motions, Spencer feeling out his own style. As things began to wind down for the day, he instructed his team to start running “gassers,” the 110-yard sprints Harvel made commonplace. Players had come to both loathe the sprints and appreciate the mentality of pushing through. It was an identity thing. 

“As we were running, you know, just sorta feeling sorry for the kids or whatever — I didn’t really know how they would respond — I kinda took it easy on them, and we did a light one,” Spencer said. “And I remember, I blew the whistle for everybody to come up.”

Players began to walk off the line to break up practice and head home.

Thomas didn’t move.

“Don’t take it easy on us, Coach,” Thomas belted at Spencer from the line. 

As he remembers it today, Spencer got chills along his arms and body. The whole team got back on the line and ran as hard as ever.

“One thing about Ambry,” Tyrece Woods, then a sophomore on the team, said. “He’s not going to cut no corners, or let anybody around him (cut corners).”

For Spencer, it was a call of affirmation. “It just assured me that despite what happened, he still wanted to work. He didn’t want the season to be over with,” Spencer said. “And he kinda just gave me his stamp of approval, like, ‘Coach, you can coach us. Coach us hard.’ ”

“(Harvel) died on that field,” Thomas said, “and I felt like every time we played, it’s so we’re going to feel that.”

***

Donning jerseys with “HARVEL” printed on the back, King stomped Southfield Arts & Tech, 39-0, in its season opener. 

The narrative began writing itself: The Crusaders’ dominant defense carried them to a 5-0 start to the season, during which the King defense allowed just six total points. Thomas led the stifling defense that Harvel built, taking charge of a young but talented King team. 

“I feel like every game was a special statement made for Coach Harv,” Thomas said.

With destiny comes an air of inevitability. It was a season with a purpose, beginning to end, But leadership ensured that destiny did not yield collective complacency.

While the soon-to-be Michigan commit was producing on both offense and defense, he was also coming into his own as a leader. He kept heads level after a red-hot start to the year. He also knew how to handle a 31-18 midseason loss to cross-town rival Cass Tech, telling his team in the aftermath, “Hey, we lost this game but we’ve been here before. It’s not over.”

When Thomas first came to King, coaches didn’t even peg him as a starter. As he progressed his way up the food chain, Thomas merely played second-fiddle to Lavert Hill — he was a talented kid they could count on, a hard-worker, but not the guy.

“I think (Harvel’s death) made (Thomas) stronger,” Phillips said. “I think it made him step up and realize the role he was in. We had leaders on the team, and Ambry was always one of them, but I think it allowed him to further come out of that cocoon and be a butterfly. He had to step up.”

Added Spencer: “I always knew Ambry was a competitor; I always knew that he was a good kid. But, you know, I don’t know how many kids would just say, ‘Push us.’ … He was just different. I looked at him, like, this is a different kid.”

It’s convenient — even romantic — to relive those days with a tone of certainty. Spencer will claim nobody, aside from Cass Tech, could match up with their talent; some cohesive combination of leadership and determination took that talent to new heights. Thomas will say he never had a doubt the team would make the state final at Ford Field. Phillips says, simply, Harvel wouldn’t have stood for anything less.

King won six of its last seven games, losing only to Cass Tech again in the City Championship. Three of those wins came by eight points or fewer. They won shootouts, they won defensive struggles. 

And maybe by the time they arrived at Ford Field on Nov. 25 to play Walled Lake Western, Harvel shirts on, it actually was inevitable.

“It’s your time right here,” Spencer told his team in the pregame huddle. “Harv led us here; let’s make it happen. Finish the job.”

Thomas scored on an eight-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, taking a 6-0 lead King would never relinquish. The Crusaders shut down a team that averaged over 43 points per game in the playoffs, winning 18-0, with two defensive touchdowns. It was a signature Harvel performance.

After the clock wound down, Spencer waited patiently for the celebration to commence. But Thomas and his teammates had some business to take care of first.

The entire team lined up in the end zone, geared up and started sprinting.