SportsMonday Column: A starter, a walk-on and a prayer
Andrew Robinson’s house was on State Street, and Dymonte Thomas’ was right behind it on White Street. So last summer, as the two were in Ann Arbor preparing for the Michigan football season, Thomas was always cutting through Robinson’s yard.
Whenever Thomas went anywhere, he walked down Robinson’s driveway, and then, because he’s Dymonte Thomas, “next thing you know we’d see him in our living room, just saying ‘What’s up?’ and stuff,” Robinson said.
That’s how the bond formed between the two men who shared almost nothing except a yard and a football team. Their friendship developed in the coming months, after softball games and bowling outings and Thursday night Pizza House dinners along with kicker Ryan Tice.
And then Thomas and Robinson blinked, and it was around 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 19, 2016, about an hour before kickoff of Thomas’ last game at Michigan Stadium. So as warmups proceeded around them, the two did what they always do at that time on Saturdays: They met in the north end zone, took a knee, locked arms and prayed.
College football gets stressful, Robinson notes. So it’s good for him to have a “jokester” on the team like Thomas, who could walk into the locker room, crack a joke and lighten spirits.
“He is the way I am,” Thomas said. “I don’t know, it was just one of those friendships that you have where you just automatically connect really well.”
That’s how the friendship developed between the two, by playful ribbing. Robinson’s younger brother would come visit, and Thomas would say to him, “Oh, the better Robinson’s here. When are you going to come here and take your brother’s spot?” Thomas would drop an interception, and Robinson would tease, “That’s what you get for not having hands.”
Their football careers have almost nothing in common. When they prayed together last year, Thomas was a senior starting safety, Robinson a redshirt sophomore backup long snapper. Thomas could be an NFL Draft pick later this month; Robinson will never have that opportunity.
Thomas was a four-star recruit in 2013, the No. 71 recruit in the nation and the No. 9 safety according to 247sports.com. He chose Michigan over Ohio State and Notre Dame. Robinson had to send out his game film in order to receive a visit from Michigan. He picked the Wolverines over Ohio and Grand Valley State.
But the two shared some connections — family was important to both, as was religion. Thomas used to pray before games with reserve cornerback Terry Richardson, who played at Michigan from 2012 to 2015. After Richardson graduated and transferred to Marshall, Robinson asked Thomas before last season’s opener against Hawaii if he could pray with him during warmups.
The free moment always came after Thomas finished stretching with the return men, and Robinson finished practicing with the kickers. Thomas would flag Robinson down — “I wouldn’t pray without Andrew,” he said — and the two found a brief moment of peace before the chaos started.
Thomas typically led. He fought nagging injuries, so he’d pray for health. He’d pray for Robinson to perform his job if called upon. He’d pray for either to be able to bounce back if Thomas dropped an interception or Robinson botched a snap.
After the prayer, Robinson would give Thomas a pep talk. The message, in Thomas’ memory: Show why you’re one of the best safeties around. Dominate the day. Know that God’s got your back, and he’s going to protect you.
After they finished, they stood up and hugged in a long embrace, and then they resumed their football duties. They did not skip a prayer last season.
Once last season, Robinson’s mother told him she saw a fan tearing up in the front row watching the weekly prayer. The Wolverines pray as a team before every game, but Thomas and Robinson also enjoyed the chance to make their ritual public.
“I look back at life and realize how blessed I am,” Thomas said. “I think it’s the right thing to do to give God credit, not only in silence but in front of people as well.”
Thomas graduated in December and is spending his final months in Ann Arbor training and preparing for the NFL. His Michigan career finished strong, yet as he looks back, the prayer meant most to him in the toughest times. His first season, he played defense in just three games and finished with seven tackles. He had to soak up the playbook and adjust to his college studies.
“When you go through (adversity) and some things that just don’t go your way, I won’t necessarily say you get away from God, but you kind of focus on trying to get better at whatever you’re struggling at,” Thomas said. “…At first, it was just hard, and I felt like God was leaving me, but then Andrew helped me realize that I can get through anything with God, and God’s never going to let me walk down a path by myself. He will always be there for me.”
As for Robinson, football returns to Michigan Stadium on Saturday for the annual Spring Game, and Thomas won’t be there waiting in the end zone.
Robinson has thought about what will happen then and thinks for now that he will pray by himself, until he and someone else find the same connection. When they do, watch for them. They’ll be in the same end zone, under the same goalposts, arm in arm, around noon.
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jakelourim.