In the week following Michigan’s four-overtime 43-40 loss to Penn State on Oct. 12, motivational speaker Eric Thomas visited Ann Arbor to address the team.
His message was simple — adversity can make or break your season.
“This is a defining moment,” Thomas said he told the Wolverines last week. “You have to decide what this game is going to do to your season.”
It was the second time that Michigan coach Brady Hoke had invited Thomas, a speaker, educator, activist, author and minister whose website promises “high-energy messages,” to speak to the team. Thomas, who grew up in Detroit, had spoken to the Wolverines after the nail-biters in consecutive weeks over Akron and Connecticut, telling them, “They weren’t playing to their full potential.”
Thomas said he was incredibly proud of the way the offense responded Saturday in the 63-47 win over Indiana, especially redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, his protégé.
“I told him, ‘When you play to the level of your game, there’s nobody out there that can stop you. You’re dominant,’ ” Thomas said. “The offense responded.”
Thomas works with sports teams at all different levels and has spent time with the Detroit Lions’ defensive backs and the Washington State, Penn State and Purdue football teams. But Hoke has carved a special niche for Thomas this year in Ann Arbor. Rather than simply bring him in for a one-time address, Hoke wants Thomas to feel like a part of the team. Thomas referred to his work with the program as being like a retainer paid to an attorney.
“Coach has really established a relationship with me,” Thomas said. “He said, ‘We want you to be a part of what we’re doing as much as this relationship will allow.’ ”
Thomas took those words to heart and began to develop a close mentorship with redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner. Thomas and Gardner try to speak twice a week, including once a few hours before each game.
According to Thomas, Gardner’s turnover woes for much of the season have been the result of mental lapses, not any talent deficiency. Since the two began working together, Thomas said he has noticed a maturation in Gardner that is “striking” even compared to where the quarterback was just a few weeks ago.
Gardner said last week that Thomas’s visit after the loss to the Nittany Lions helped the team “kill the noise” of public criticism toward the Wolverines.
While Thomas can’t diagram X’s and O’s, he hopes his presence will be felt by the team on Saturdays. He said mental preparation alone can’t win football games, but the team that has the better mentality will often come out on top.
“Let’s be honest,” Thomas said, “any Big Ten program has guys that are the same frame, play the same position, had similar success stories in high school. There isn’t a whole lot of difference pound for pound.
“The edge that you have, the way that you separate yourself from the pack, is when you have that mental fortitude, mental focus, and can bring the athleticism and the knowledge of the game.”
Though Thomas addresses the full team during his sessions, he said his ultimate goal is to reach the captains, whom he then relies on to carry his message onto the field on game days, as well as in practice. He said the last 10 minutes of his speeches are geared exclusively toward the leaders in the locker room.
Michigan’s next game, at Michigan State, will be a difficult one for Thomas to watch. Thomas, a high-school dropout, received his GED and then graduated from Michigan State, something he said he uses to motivate inner-city products like himself.
He’s currently working toward his Ph.D. at Michigan State. His son, Jalen, named after former Michigan basketball star Jalen Rose, is a freshman in East Lansing. But Thomas grew up a Michigan fan and, because he works so closely with the Wolverines, he’ll feel conflicted next Saturday.
“But I’ve got to root for the home squad,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be hard because I love Devin. I love the coaching staff and all the guys, but I’m a Michigan State graduate so I’m hoping they can pull it out.
“The only good thing is they only play once a year. Outside of that game, I’ll be able to pull for both of them.”