Ex-JSU player Brandt Thomas ready to teach football in Portugal
by Al Muskewitz
amuskewitz@annistonstar.com
Jul 27, 2013 | 4793 views |  0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Brandt Thomas with some literature on Portugal where he is going next month to coach football and do missionary work. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Brandt Thomas with some literature on Portugal where he is going next month to coach football and do missionary work. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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Every August for as long as he can remember Brandt Thomas has been on a football field toiling in the summer heat to get ready for the long season ahead.

The month is almost here and once again Thomas is headed to the gridiron.

Only this time, the land, the mission and definitely the language will be different. A lot different.

In a few weeks, the former Wellborn and Jacksonville State lineman will jet to Portugal where he'll be teaching the finer points of defense to an upstart semi-pro team in a country where most of the football they know is spelled with a "u," involves a round white ball and is called "o jogo bonito" (the beautiful game).

This, however, is football, American style. And although the game that is revered by millions in this country is in its formative stages on the Iberian Peninsula, those who play have embraced it hard. That’s despite scarce resources, limited practice time and personal financial sacrifice.

So when Thomas was given the chance to take his expertise and experience overseas through a program sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he jumped at it.

"I just felt this opportunity would be good not only for my personal growth, but in coaching and branching out and seeing what the international game has to offer," he said.

The former all-state and All-Ohio Valley Conference nose tackle had a chance to go last September, but turned it down to stay with the Gamecocks as a graduate assistant.

Even as this latest opportunity came around, he was preparing to serve as a defensive line graduate assistant on new JSU coach Bill Clark's staff. He did catch some flak for his decision, but he said he was moved by a higher calling. In addition to his coaching responsibilities, he will conduct bible study for those interested.

"I ran from it for almost eight months and then realized it was something I had to do," Thomas said. "Doing this type of work involves a long process and the only way to make it happen was walking away from the great staff at JSU.

"Leaving JSU was by far one of the hardest decisions I had to make, but for me to become the man I needed to be, this was a step I needed to take.

“We live in an age where so many coaches across the country are using their faith as simply a recruiting tool instead of a way of life. I couldn't sleep at night knowing I had this opportunity and turned it down. ... I may never get the chance to coach again, and that is fine, but one will never be judged for wins and losses, only the lives we changed."

Among those Thomas said played a "big factor" in his decision was current Gamecocks offensive coordinator John Grass. Thomas said they've even talked about Grass, the former Oxford High head football coach, going over next spring to conduct some clinics.

"It's 100 percent American football. There are no differences whatsoever," Thomas said. "The players are just as good athletes. They know how to run, how to be athletic. It's our job to teach them to be physical, put them in a football mindset."

Most of the 37 players on his team, the Maximinos Warriors, are former soccer players. Only a handful have any experience in American football, so the learning curve is about what you might associate with a youth league team -- only these guys range in age from 18 to 26. They pay monthly dues to participate and buy their own equipment.

"They just don't have the knowledge," Thomas said. "They want to learn and that's why we're going over — to get the ball rolling."

The Warriors play in the nine-team LPFA (Liga Portuguesa de Futebol Ameticano — Portuguese American Football League) and is based in Braga, a city about the size of Huntsville in a country of about 10.6 million people.

Their coach, Michael Andrzejewski, is a Homewood product who earned an appointment to play football at West Point. However, he blew out a knee his freshman year and never played a game. Two seasons ago, in the team's second year of existence, he took the Warriors to their version of the Super Bowl, where they lost to the only champion the league has known in its four previous years of existence — the Lisbon Navigators.

In fact, the Navigators have lost only one regular-season or playoff game in their existence (31-1).

Andrzejewski relishes the chance to bring some American insight to his players, who he said are "like sponges when it comes to learning the game." He recently took an eight-man group to a nationwide camp conducted by American coaches and observed a couple of his players made "phenominal improvement" over their five-day stay.

"They constantly want to learn," Andrzejewski said. "Developing our players as American football players has been and continues to be a compelling challenge. We've had some bumps along the way because the soccer culture is different from that of American football, but they've grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years."

On this trip, Thomas will be overseeing workouts and chalk-talks and helping install a strength and conditioning program during what essentially is the league's spring training period. He hopes to return later this year as a defensive coach for a season that runs from about the week of the Super Bowl through April.

"While Brandt is with us, I'm looking forward to raising the football IQ of our team," Andrzewski said. "A lot of what we don't get here in Portugal is the technical stuff that happens in the meeting rooms before and after practice in the States.

"With a guy like Brandt coming over, it will help us grow in the understanding of different philosophies and concepts that don't always make it to such young American football leagues around the world. ... I believe he could really add a lot to our team in terms of knowledge, character, enthusiasm as well as experience."

Thomas has been to Europe before. In the summer between his sophomore and junior years at JSU, he traveled with his father Tim on a mission trip to Germany and operated sports camps there. He predicted that assignment was nothing like the experience he is about to undertake.

He said the most difficult part is the language and in recent weeks he has been "brushing up" on his Portuguese. All the coaching and football language within the team will be in English, but there is a life to live outside the white lines.

"I'm trying to learn the bare necessities I need," he said.

Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.
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