Scott Barnwell kept telling every college football coach who stopped by his office at Hollywood Hills High four years ago they were making a mistake passing on Thurston Armbrister.
A kicker for the Miami Hurricanes in 1993, Barnwell kept pleading with recruiters to watch Armbrister’s game film. He told them to take note of his athleticism (4.5 speed), large frame and potential, and look beyond the fact so-called recruiting experts didn’t think he was worthy of even one star.
“In the end, the same question would always come up from college coaches: ‘Who else is [recruiting] him?’ ” Barnwell said. “I know everybody is kicking themselves now.”
Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio isn’t one of them. He saw the potential in Armbrister and signed him in June 2011, when Ambrister’s only other scholarship offer was from Northern Colorado (a Football Championship Subdivision program).
Armbrister (6-3, 241) has rewarded D’Onofrio’s faith. Since being switched from safety to linebacker after his freshman season, Armbrister has grown into the team’s second-best option at linebacker behind Butkus Award candidate Denzel Perryman.
Armbrister made his 12th career start in Saturday’s win against Florida A&M. In two games this season he already has three sacks and two forced fumbles. That’s among the nation’s leaders and nearly as many as Tyriq McCord had all of last season when he led the Canes with four sacks and three forced fumbles.
“I haven’t really asked him what gets him going, but if I was a kid coming out with no stars and I got my chance to play, I’d probably be the same way, running around with a chip on my shoulder,” Perryman said. “It’s been great seeing his transformation from his freshman year to now. He reads offenses well. He plays middle, weakside and strongside. He does it all.”
Said Armbrister: “At first I didn’t think I was going to last long, but after getting here, putting in the work, things started going my way. I had Ray Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque in front of me when I got here so I wasn’t even thinking about playing safety. Once I started getting a little praise and starting on special teams, I started to believe I could work my way up.”
Thurston’s mother, Thalia, always believed her son would make it even when many college programs didn’t.
A former basketball player herself at Carol City High, Thalia Armbrister had five children. Thurston, whom the family affectionately refers to as “Head” because as a child his head was big in proportion to his body, was her third child. She gave birth to him on Christmas morning 1992 and named him after Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island.
The athletic talent, she said, was always there. It’s definitely in his bloodlines. His older brother, Terrence Ebagua, 24, was a walk-on tight end at Florida State and spent last season playing in the Professional Indoor Football League. Their cousin is University of Florida redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jay-nard Bostwick.
“Every mommy wants a son like Thurston,” Thalia said. “I don’t have any money in the bank, but I feel like I won the lottery.”
Thalia says her children are “the poster family for the wonders of God.” Pain and struggle have long been a part of their lives.
One of her daughters, born a year after Thurston, died at age 3. There’s not a day that goes by, she said, that the family doesn’t think of her.
“She and Thurston were close,” Thalia said. “I remember after the funeral we went back to the church and Thurston [then 4 years old] was so happy. He thought we were going back to pick her up. He didn’t understand what death was.”
Thalia herself is battling an illness that the family prefers to keep private, and she no longer works.
Her husband, Daniel Charles, drives a taxi and works as a dispatcher for a local cab company in Hollywood. Thalia says he rarely takes time off from work, but when he does it’s usually only to go watch their son play for the Hurricanes.
Thurston said he’s in line to receive his degree from UM in exercise physiology in the spring. He said his goal, if he doesn’t play professional football, is to be a physical therapist.
That makes his mother happy. On game days, when the Hurricanes are playing at home, Thalia said she squeezes into one of Thurston’s old football jerseys and heads to the stadium. She said when she watches Thurston play, “the pain momentarily goes away.”
Last Saturday night against FAMU, Thalia said she brought a homemade sign she held up during the game. It read: “I gave birth to a King.”
“He says to me he just wants to make me proud,” Thalia said. “I tell him, ‘I could never be more proud.’ ”