Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
MILLVILLE – To understand Millville’s award-winning football coach Dennis Thomas, one only has the look at the headline of his LinkedIn profile page, which says, “Teacher and Head Football Coach.”
While his football duties keeps him in the headlines during the fall season, the former Rutgers star and Kansas City Chiefs running back, said it’s his role as a teacher in molding his football players into young men that gets him up in the morning.
“That’s my ‘why,'” Thomas told Front Runner New Jersey.com before his 2019 campaign, his fifth season at Millville, got underway. “That’s the reason why I coach, to see that they are better educated and more aware. I want to help them have a better future.
“If I’m not doing this for those reasons, then I’m failing them. I’m not doing this to win football games. I’m doing this to create better stand-up individuals, better citizens. That’s what the game of football did for me. I try to give back in that way,” he added.
Football Changed Things
Thomas grew up not far away in Salem, where he admits the game of football gave him a vision of life and hope that he saw beyond the city. He returned to Salem and quickly turned around a struggling football program that had not won any games the year before to a Group I South Jersey state finalist two years later.
That’s when he was snatched up by Millville. Thomas said then while it was hard to leave his hometown, he had a calling to take the Thunderbolts job.
“I’m a Christian, and I believe this is something God wanted me to do,” Thomas told NJ.com then in taking the Millville job. “It’s probably the toughest thing I’ve had to do in my life, letting those kids at Salem know I wouldn’t be their head coach. It was so hard, explaining how I felt, I was at a loss for words.
“I was fixated on staying at Salem, retiring there. But this came up. There are aspects of the Millville athletics program that played a huge part, and academics played a huge part. They’re both really (important) there. Being around the program and facilities, you definitely appreciate what they have.”
Still Making an Impact
Five year in, Thomas he can see areas where he has been able to make an impact.
“We have a lot more kids coming out now. We have a lot of support,” said Thomas, who also serves as the boys track coach. “Millville football and been doing a phenomenal job for decades and I just happen to be a piece of that history and I’m so privileged to be in a position to help the community and bring about awareness of different things.”
Now, Thomas has won football games at Millville. He is 31-13 (.705) in his first four seasons. In 2016, he led the Thunderbolts to their first Group V South Jersey state championship in 41 years with a 22-16 victory over Toms River North.
The Millville football influence is being felt in colleges around the country.
“Developing these young men to be better individuals is key,” Thomas said. “We have kids playing all over the country. We have two in California, two in North Dakota, one in New Mexico, we have a few in Iowa, a few in New York, one in Massachusetts, we’ve got one going to Pitt next year.
Educate, Help, Assist
“My job is to educate, help and assist our kids in being the best they can be. If they move on to the NFL then that is a blessing because not many people get that opportunity,” he added.
Thomas said he knows being in a position of head football coach, a lot of people are watching his actions, particularly African-American youth who may not come in contact with others blacks in such high profile jobs.
“When you look at the situation, an African-American coming from the inner city may not see many (successful) people or have a lot of guidance to be successful,” Thomas said. “For our young men to see me and other coaches in that light, it gives them hope.
“I hope they say, ‘If coach Thomas can do it, I can be productive and contribute, I can make my community better.’ That’s the reason why I love coaching in high school and coaching young men,” he added.
AD David LaGamba Praises Thomas
Millville Athletic Director David LaGamba said that Thomas’s reach at the high school has extended far beyond the football field, where his heartfelt efforts are making a difference.
“Dennis is a very passionate, energetic and caring individual,” LaGamba told Front Runner New Jersey. “He’s accomplished a lot during his four years with our program. Throughout his career as a head football coach, Dennis has won many games and his teams have won various championships (ex. WJFL Division Championship in 2017 and a Group 5 Sectional Championship in 2016).
“However, these accomplishments only tell part of the story. Dennis is also a good role model for the young men he coaches. He uses football as a tool to help develop young men as they prepare to graduate high school and become adult members of our community. Dennis continuously stresses the importance of doing well in the classroom, not just on the athletic field,” he added.
LaGamba said to help reinforce this belief, Thomas instituted an after-school study hall session for his players during the football season. Players attend the after school study hall session prior to the start of practice.
“This gives players an opportunity to stay on top of their school work but it also gives our coaches an opportunity to interact with the players off the football field, LaGamba said.
Thomas is married to his wife Shonta and they have three children: Dennis, 9, Xavier, 8, and Marshall, 6. He counts his pastor
In 2017, Thomas won the prestigious Award of Honor from the NJSIAA. He also won the Semper Fi Coach Award that year, an award by the U.S. Marines Corps and Glazier Football Clinics that presented to a football coach who not only wins games on the football field, but exhibits the leadership and devotion needed to help mold young boys into men.
Thomas said while some may see him as a role model, he sees role models all about him in Millville and one can find inspiration and guidance in many places.
“I look up to other men in the community, men who are doing positive and productive things,” Thomas said. “I also look up to my children because I think you can learn from anyone. I never look at an individual I and think I can’t learn from them. You need an open mind to realize that.”
Thomas has opened many minds at Millville.
Feature Photo by Ron Vinick
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