By Jean DePlacido
---- — For a long time Johnny Thomas has known he wanted to play football at Penn State.
The St. John’s Prep senior from Peabody, who is currently rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that ended his season during a game last month, had verbally committed to attend the University Maryland last May. But Penn State and the University Wisconsin continued to recruit him heavily, and Thomas told Maryland late Sunday night that he had changed his mind.
In doing so, he told Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien, a former St. John’s Prep player (Class of ‘88), that he would accept his scholarship offer.
“Ever since I started watching football on TV I knew I wanted to play for Penn State,” said Thomas, the reigning Salem News Football Player of the Year who rushed for 762 yards and 7 touchdowns (plus a 107-yard interception return for a TD) in three-plus games this fall. “I am excited and blessed to have this opportunity.
“Coach O’Brien called Coach O (Prep head coach Jim O’Leary) after I rushed for 262 yards against Brockton and said ‘I’d love to get this kid.’ When I watched the Penn State-Michigan game (a 43-40 win in 4 overtimes two Saturdays ago), I thought ‘It can’t get much better than this.’ I want to be a part of it, not just for football but because it’s a great academic school.”
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Thomas said he made up his mind, but had to tell Maryland he wasn’t coming. It was very difficult, especially since they called St. John’s the Monday after Thomas was hurt against Everett High to say they would honor his scholarship.
“Decommitting is very hard to do,” said Thomas, who rushed for 1,812 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior, when St. John’s Prep won the Division 1 Super Bowl. He also runs the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds. “At the end of the day I’m not living my life for Maryland; I had to do what is best for me.
“Penn State is an amazing school, and even if coach O’Brien wasn’t there I would want to play football there. It’s an extra bonus for me to do it under the Bill O’Brien era. They’re very happy I decided to accept their offer; when I talked to coach O’Brien he was ecstatic.”
Recently Penn State (4-2) had some sanctions imposed by the NCAA reduced and scholarships gradually restored, increasing from 15 to 20 next year and to 75 the following season.
“Johnny walked in the door as a freshman wearing a Penn State cap,” said O’Leary. “He visited early last spring before seeing other schools, but they had already committed to a running back. He has been firm to Maryland and (Penn State) wasn’t an option for him at that point.
“John Strollo, the (Nittany Lions’) recruiter for this area, flew into Beverly Airport to see the Everett game. If he didn’t get injured that day Johnny might have committed to Penn State earlier, but because of the surgery he waited.
“He’ll be back and ready to go before next season; that’s why he had surgery so quickly,” added O’Leary. “Now with ACLs most people come back as strong or even stronger afterward. He’s planning to visit before Thanksgiving for the Nebraska game.”
O’Leary said that a verbal commitment is always taken very seriously at St. John’s, but this situation was unique because of NCAA sanctions at Penn State.
“Because that changed recently they were able to offer Johnny (a scholarship),” said O’Leary. “The nature of college recruiting at this level is they still keep recruiting after a commitment; it’s not a good process for kids or schools, but that’s the way it is. What it still comes down to is a family decision. Johnny watched that Michigan game with his mother. It was a great win in front of 106,000 fans (at University Park). The spotlight is on football in Happy Valley, and this is a great fit for him.
“It helps that we know the coach and that the sanctions will be over and gone when he’s there. Playing on national television is exciting for him. I’ve talked to Billy many times, and he knows our program. He said he knows this kid is a tough, hard nosed, physical back and that he’s getting the best in Massachusetts.”
Thomas said his rehabilitation work is progressing well. He’s getting stronger every day and in three weeks he’ll be able to walk without crutches.
“The goal was to have 90 degrees flexibility back, but I now have all of my flexibility,” said Thomas. “(Yesterday) I did hamstring curls 127 degrees with my good leg and 124 with my right leg that was operated on. I’m working hard and can’t wait to start walking on it.”
In less than two-and-a-half seasons with the St. John’s Prep varsity, Thomas had 3,709 rushing yards and 42 total touchdowns (37 on the ground) to go with 254 points.