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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

Grandmother and aunts helped Rockets' Thomas escape mean streets

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
When University of Toledo linebacker David Thomas plays in the Motor City Bowl in his hometown, aunts Felicia Fenderson, left, and Ann Fenderson will be watching over him - just as they always have. When University of Toledo linebacker David Thomas plays in the Motor City Bowl in his hometown, aunts Felicia Fenderson, left, and Ann Fenderson will be watching over him - just as they always have.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

DETROIT - They don't show the decaying apartment buildings and the seamy street life around Van Dyke and I-94 in the glossy promotional brochures touting the charm of Michigan's largest city.

The Motown most of the world sees is the towering Renaissance Center, the glitzy casinos and the plush new sports facilities.

But for David Thomas, the real Detroit is that East Side neighborhood where he grew up, and Kettering High School where he was a football star. It is also a place where values can be skewed beyond recognition and lives can easily cascade into drugs, despair and darkness.

Thomas would have no part of that.

The hand life dealt him might have appeared an impossible one, but faith and family and a resolute spirit have kept him in the game. He climbed out of that urban minefield in pursuit of athletic achievement, education and, ultimately, personal salvation.

The junior linebacker for the University of Toledo football team

will play in the Dec. 27 Motor City Bowl at bright and shiny Ford Field, not all that far from where the gangs and pimps and pushers prowl, snaring young men like him every day. In the stands will be the people who brought him there - a distance of only a few miles - but a mission that started 20 years ago.

By the time Thomas was 1, his father was in prison. Thomas does not know what put his dad away, and family members say only that it was "something bad, something very bad." He remains incarcerated today.

"I don't really know my father that well, because he has been in prison my whole life," Thomas says. "I've seen him a few times, always at the prison, and always for a real short time. That's just the way it's been, so I accept it."

With his father out of the picture, someone had to fill that void before the evils of the streets swallowed up another young man and flushed his potential down the sewer. In David's extensive support network, that labor of love was done by committee.

As Thomas' immediate family grew, his grandmother, Sallie Fenderson, and aunt, Felicia Fenderson, took in David and his brother Leon, the oldest of the now 15 children in David's family, before Thomas reached junior high. His mother cared for the younger children.

"She just could not handle all of them, so my mother and my sister took on the responsibility of raising David and Leon," says Ann Fenderson, another of David's aunts. "They were not going to let those boys get pulled the wrong way. There's too much trouble out there."

So what from a distance would appear to be an irreparably broken family in reality turned out to be something altogether different.

"I consider myself blessed," says Thomas, 21. "I have had some very strong and loving women raise me and care for me. In a lot of respects I am a lucky man."

Thomas sees his mother once in a while, and says he still loves her a lot and understands the circumstances that separated them.

"She had to make some difficult choices, and I can't ever fault her for that. She's my mom and she brought me into this world. I think she's probably pretty proud of where I've ended up."

Felicia Fenderson, a tiny woman whose deep faith and indomitable spirit make her an imposing presence in any room, said no one in the family considered it a great sacrifice when she and her mother took the boys in.

"We gave them the love and the family they needed," Felicia says. "We wanted them to be decent young men, and growing up in Detroit it is hard. Especially on the East Side, and especially on young men. The crime is there, everywhere. The wrong path is so easy. But we refused to let the streets have these two boys."

David grew up excelling in a number of sports, but when Leon focused on football, that is where David centered his energies.

"He wanted to be just like Leon," says Felicia, who provided the majority of the care for the two boys. "They were very close all along."

Until an injury ended his career Leon played football at Saginaw Valley State, where he is still enrolled. David had a number of big-time programs pursuing him after he was an all-state running back at Kettering. Nebraska, Michigan State and Iowa all came calling.

When it became apparent that Thomas might have to sit out his freshman year in college to get his academics in order, some of the other schools backed off. But Toledo did not. Rockets coach Tom Amstutz, then an assistant at UT, stayed in touch with Thomas.

"Coach Amstutz was always there, and always talking with me about coming to Toledo," Thomas says. "I remember one time he was running down the hall at school, trying to catch up to me. I felt like he really meant it, like he really wanted me pretty bad. I felt real comfortable with him, and with my decision to go to Toledo."

Amstutz became the head coach a short time after he recruited Thomas, who is now part of the heart and soul of the Toledo defense.

"David Thomas is an example of why I want to be in coaching," Amstutz says. "To have the chance to work with young men like him, and help them develop and help make their lives better than they were before they came to the University of Toledo.

"His life wasn't perfect, but he had a loving family that cared for him, and he took advantage of an opportunity to get an education and play college football."

Amstutz said Thomas spent that first year at UT working hard on his education - he's a business major - and when his time came, took his talents to the next level on the football field.

"I wanted to bring him here, but David has done the rest," Amstutz says. "He has accomplished everything in the classroom and on the football field. His life is a great example for other kids who come from rough backgrounds that they can make it if they put their mind to it."

Felicia Fenderson saw to it that Amstutz got not only a football player, but a solid citizen.

"There was never a major problem with David growing up," she says. "Once David had let things slip a little in school, so I took his football away and got his attention. He jumped right back in line. That next progress report was perfect."

She said the family made things work and never let the absence of a male role model diminish opportunities for the boys.

"I didn't know anything about football, but David loved football so I had to go out there and throw the football with him. He didn't have a father around, but look how he turned out. He learned how to be responsible. He always knew where the line was, and what happened if he crossed that line. Nothing is impossible. David is living proof of that."

While David and his brother Leon matured into accomplished athletes, the real power in their world was flexed in the collective spiritual muscle of that holy trinity of women - grandma Sallie and aunts Felicia and Ann Fenderson - and the rest of his aunts.

"We are proud to say it took a lot of prayer - a whole lot of prayer - to get David to the University of Toledo and the Motor City Bowl," Felicia says.

"It was a daily trusting and believing in God. We tried to instill in David the values of being a model citizen and a good adult. We wanted him to understand that if you are to amount to anything in this world, that comes from hard work."

Thomas came to UT with a steely determination that smolders inside to this day. He tapped into that as he worked his way into the lineup, first on special teams in 2002, and then as a starter in 2003. He broke his arm in the third game of the 2003 season at Marshall, ending his season, and he had to navigate a long road back.

"A lot of players struggle with how to deal with injuries like that," Amstutz says, "but David seemed to become even more focused and determined. He lived in the weight room and got stronger and faster. He came back this year healthy and a better football player."

The women in Thomas' life would accept nothing less than him returning to the football field stronger than he was the day he was injured. Meeting their expectations has always been a top priority. They raised a warrior, and a humble, God-fearing young man.

"We always taught him that the good things in life come from hard work, no other way," Felicia Fenderson says. "When you face adversity, you pray and you fight through it. David knows that."

She said dealing with the ups and downs of a football season might seem monumental for some, but that Thomas was better prepared than most to be resilient and stay on course.

"Growing up, he was tested every day, because that is the world around us," Felicia says. "The East Side of Detroit is a tough place to live, but right and wrong are the same no matter where you live. I told David that if you get involved with gangs or you get involved with drugs, then you have no future. It is all darkness. I thank God every day that David stayed away from all that."

The Fenderson women say the onus is now on Thomas to pass on that family legacy of making the right choices no matter what the temptations are, and no matter how enticing the siren's song of the streets might be.

"David and his brother were blessed with an opportunity to make something out of their lives, so they have to be role models," says Felicia. "He was raised predominantly by women, but we worked hand in hand, and what we see now is the result - a good young man. When I see him like that, I just have to thank God. He instilled in us just how to raise him, and I was just passing it on. I want David to pass that on to his children some day."

David Thomas beams with pride when he talks about playing in the Motor City Bowl in his hometown. He knows the glitz and the gutters of Detroit, and he has seen the hope and the despair the city cultivates.

"It was bad where I grew up - gangs, violence, drugs all around. I have watched people pull guns, and I was shot at once after a game. People probably think that is the worst, but I always had people looking out for me. They kept me in church, they pushed me every day, and they kept me on the right path."

Amstutz said Thomas brings a different perspective to things, when you consider where he came from and what it took to get him to where he is now.

"He's been through a lot, but David has always managed to rise above whatever adversity was out there," Amstutz says. "You don't want to hear any excuses from anybody after you learn what this kid has been through. He could have thrown his life away hundreds of times, but he always made the right choices and stayed focused on his goals. He's a solid citizen, a good student, and a great football player, but beyond all of that, he is just a quality young man."

Thomas remains philosophical about his past, and how it prepared him for what he might face on the football field, in the classroom or in the world that lies beyond the UT campus.

"I have never felt like life was unfair to me or that I didn't get a chance. I thank God for what I have and the people around me. The way I look at it is, if I can make it growing up in the inner city of the East Side of Detroit, anything I face in football I can overcome. Adversity makes you stronger, and I feel an incredible strength from inside."

When the Rockets face Connecticut in the bowl game, the Fenderson women will be there. They are proud and humble, gentle and tough, loving yet demanding.

Anywhere else, those contradictions might not make sense. But when your task is to take a young man and help him rise up out of the chaos and reach the top of the mountain, those qualities are your allies.

"The Bible says that old men will have dreams, but young men will have visions," Ann Fenderson says.

"David has been taught to visualize what he needs to do, then do it. The temptations of the street made that hard sometimes, and we had to run off some of his friends along the way, but he has always had our trust. He has never failed us, and he has never let us down."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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