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As a freshman varsity player in the 1950s at Southmont High in Johnstown, Pa., Al Thomas was in so much pain from two-a-day summer practices that he could barely walk home, often stopping to rest in the grass. “I told my father I didn’t want to play,” he said. But sitting out was not an option, as far as his dad was concerned. “[He said,] ‘You will play this year.’ I always think about that because my whole life would’ve been changed. … That would have been the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.” Six decades later, Thomas, 71, has become arguably the finest and most influential coach in the history of Maryland high school football. The Clarksburg resident and Maryland Football Hall of Fame inductee has been at the helm for eight state titles, tied with Good Counsel’s Bob Milloy for the most ever by a coach in the state, and won 83.7 percent of his games. Thomas stands alone as the only coach to win a title at three different schools: Seneca Valley (five), Damascus (two) and Sherwood (one). All told, he has compiled a 242-47 record. “Growing up, everywhere me, my mom and [sister] Andi went, someone knew him,” said Marc Thomas, Al Thomas’ son and former Sherwood coach and assistant at Damascus, Whitman and Magruder. “When I go to the bar now and places everywhere in Montgomery County to Ocean City, there is usually someone connected to Seneca Valley, Damascus, Gaithersburg or Sherwood with a great story about my dad.” This fall, Al Thomas will return to a familiar sideline for the first time since 1993, returning to Damascus to become the defensive coordinator for the Swarmin’ Hornets. He will be working under former player and 1990 Damascus alumnus Eric Wallich. Fellow assistants Bucky Clipper and Jimmy Westbrook also are former players. "He was my high school coach and I've always wanted to coach with him," Wallich said in May. "He just adds another great coach to our staff." Individual accolades aside, Al Thomas has affected thousands of lives, some of whom are among Montgomery County’s football coaching fraternity. Several of the area’s most successful current and past coaches have direct ties to him as a former player or assistant. Among Thomas’ former assistants who have earned head coaching spots are Terry Changuris (Seneca Valley), Bob Hampton (Wootton, Northwest), Todd Tennell (Damascus), Dan Makosy (Damascus), Pat Cilento (Sherwood, Bullis), Mike Bonavia (Richard Montgomery Einstein, Sherwood), Kevin Bernot (Rockville), Marc Thomas (Sherwood) and Dave Carruthers (Urbana, Linganore), Al Thomas said. And other than Bonavia, who guided the Rockets to the playoffs in the early 2000s and was hired at Sherwood in April, has appeared in at least one state final as head coach. “It’s pretty neat,” Al Thomas said. Previous players Fred Kim, Wallich, Kreg Kephart and Ryan Hines are head coaches at Seneca Valley, Damascus, Gaithersburg and Urbana, respectively. Hines coached the Hawks to last year’s Class 4A state championship and Kephart guided the Trojans to the 2000 crown. Joe Rydzewski resigned from Watkins Mill’s post earlier this year. “I knew of him when I was a player at Sherwood because his teams always won,” said Bernot, who graduated from the Sandy Spring school in 1990 and served as a Thomas assistant from 2004-08 at Sherwood. “Then, as a coach, you really learn at what makes him great, because his whole mentality wears off on you. “I mean, at Rockville, we are primarily running his 3-4 defense and the guys at Seneca and Damascus are obviously using the same terminology,” Bernot added. “I try to replicate his offseason workout philosophy and attention to detail.” Kim, who played safety and running back for Thomas for the Screaming Eagles’ undefeated 1987 championship team, agreed. “Al is one of the most intense human beings I’ve been around,” he said. “No matter if it is an offseason workout or state championship game, he has every situation covered and his preparation is second to none. I’ve tried to emulate his intensity and game preparation.” Learning from the best Al Thomas has earned his spot among Maryland high school football legends, having adapted and won during several different eras. But he credits another coaching icon, John Harvill, 86, for much of his success. When he started his coaching career, the veer, wishbone and option-style football were in vogue. Now, offenses are more likely to throw the ball out of the spread formation. Defensively, he has always embraced a 5-2 or 3-4 philosophy. Additionally, Thomas said, football has become much more of a year-round proposition and coaching staffs have tripled in size. “We feel now we can take the talent we have and fit it into the [defensive] scheme,” he said. “On offense, we kind of feel we have to change the scheme to fit the players.” In the fall of 1964, Thomas was searching for a teaching job and was recruited by Montgomery County Public Schools for a math position. Thomas then joined Harvill’s staff with one other assistant, Fred Joyce. “They paid the most, $4,200,” Thomas said. “[The vice principal] at Gaithersburg High School came and talked to me and said, ‘We are looking for a math teacher and a football coach.’ “Probably next to my father and high school coach, [Harvill] had a big influence on me. … John showed me what it was all about.” Thomas quickly rose through the coaching ranks during his 10-year apprenticeship under Harvill. He spent his first year as an assistant junior varsity coach and was the Trojans defensive coordinator by his fourth. “I learned a great deal of what I do and how I plan and organize my team from both of them,” said Kephart, a linebacker on the Trojans’ 1972 undefeated team. “John influenced Al in how he prepares and does things. Al is tremendously intense. .. He is still bringing it in 2011 the same way he did to me in 1971 and ’72.” Harvill retired from a 49-year coaching career at Gaithersburg following the 1999 season with the most victories in state history, two state championship teams and two other squads that went undefeated before the beginning of the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association playoffs in 1974. “He was a smart kid and one hell of a defensive coach,” Harvill said. “It’s always nice to see someone you’ve dealt with go on to have a good life. “When Seneca Valley was getting ready to open in 1974, one of their principals wanted to talk to me about who they should hire as their coach,” Harvill said. “The only person I recommended was Al Thomas. That worked out pretty well, I think.” Thomas was hired at Seneca Valley to build the fledgling program and was an almost instant success. Just two years after opening, it had its first state title. All told, Thomas coached the 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1987 championship teams. One of Thomas’s first hires was Terry Changuris, who would become a coaching legend in his own right. Changuris, who owns 12 state titles — seven as a head coach and five as an assistant under Thomas — graduated from Frostburg University in 1974. Two years later, he was brought onto Thomas’ staff as quarterbacks coach and was eventually Thomas’ offensive coordinator at Seneca and Sherwood. “We are all in a family tree,” Changuris said. “Football is Al and I don’t think he can be happy without it. His attention to detail, down to how warm-ups should be conducted, was uncanny. “We never actually played a game against each other and that is probably a good thing,” Changuris said. “Playing against a close friend makes the competition even worse. “Having said that, we may hang out all night and share stories, but the next day when we scrimmaged or practiced against each other, it got intense pretty quick.” College days When Marc Thomas graduated from Damascus in 1992 and began his collegiate football career at Salisbury University, Al Thomas stepped away from the Montgomery County coaching scene and took a job as a vice principal and assistant coach at Cambridge-SD and helped it to the 1995 state title. After watching his son through college, Al Thomas moved back to Montgomery County following the 1995-1996 school year and secured his first and only collegiate job: an offensive coordinator at Western Maryland College, now known as McDaniel College. Two years after coaching the offensive side of the ball, Al Thomas switched to his coaching specialty, defense. His units ranked second in the nation in scoring defense Division III during the 1997 and ’99 seasons. In the spring of 2003, Al Thomas stepped down because of a “very humbling” fight with prostate cancer, which included a 22-day stint in the hospital. “He’s tried to stop coaching twice and play golf,” Marc Thomas said. “That was a disaster. … He’s had his health problems, but he’s healthy enough. He realized he needed to get back into football because it is what he absolutely loves.” Going out in style By the time the time the 2004 season was set to begin, Al Thomas had recovered and was determined to coach. He was hired as Sherwood’s coach, and in five years, got the Warriors to three state finals, including winning it all in his final year (2008) with a perfect 14-0 mark. When he briefly retired, Pat Cilento was promoted from within and headed the Warriors for the 2009 season before leaving for Bullis last August. Marc Thomas, the offensive coordinator at the time, then received his first head coaching job. And, like any good father, Al Thomas, embraced the opportunity to help his son as an assistant. The pair led the Warriors to a title. “Having him on my staff last year and winning the state championship with him at Sherwood was truly special,” said Marc Thomas, who resigned after just one season to spend more time with his family. The elder Thomas agrees and particularly treasures a photograph hanging in his basement of the duo sharing a postgame hug on the turf at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. “It hit me a year ago when I was helping,” Al Thomas said. “Sometimes when things aren’t agreeable, the head coach has the last say. Sometimes Marc and I would disagree on things and I’d have to let it go. That’s not how life had been.” When Bonavia was hired to replace Marc and Al Thomas earlier this spring, it was an unexpected and pleasant surprise for the former Richard Montgomery and Einstein coach. “Al’s been so supportive of my career and the only coach I’ve ever spent time working for,” said Bonavia, who got his start as an assistant to Thomas in the late 1980s at Damascus and Seneca. “I can say there is nobody who prepares more or better than him. He watches more film than anybody and breaks it down better than anyone. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that he has a winning record against every person he’s ever coached against.” Back to his roots Al Thomas has come full-circle in his return to Damascus this fall, but his influence also reaches to the children of a handful of his former players. George Vinson Sr., a 1990 Damascus alumnus, was a standout nose guard for Thomas during the 1989 season. This fall, his son, George, Jr., a member of the Class of 2013, is expected to start at outside linebacker. “This is a dream come true,” the elder Vinson said. “I never envisioned this, but I’ve been talking to little George about Coach Thomas’ coaching methods since he was 5 years old. He’s the best, smartest, most efficient and toughest coach.” Added George Jr.: “The entire team is very aware of everything [Thomas] has done. From the state titles to making complete defensive systems, it’s all very awesome to be coached by a legend. … I hope we don’t let him down.” kzakour@gazette.net