Ahmad Thomas wears No. 13 at Oklahoma so he can always remember how far he has come.
It’s how old Thomas was when he lost one of the people most responsible for making him the man he is today.
“My grandma died of cancer when I was 13, and that’s why I got that number,” Thomas said. “I still can hear her voice calling my name from across the house. I loved her, and she died when I still didn’t understand what death was so it hurt a lot. I had a great relationship with her.”
Thomas’ grandmother, Shirley, helped raise Thomas along with his mother, Marvice, and aunt, Donnis, and kept him on a steady path to success that took him from the rough neighborhoods in Miami’s Liberty City to the University of Oklahoma.
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Thomas became a standout defensive back in high school and starred for more than three years at Miami Central, where he was a part of state championships in 2010 and 2012.
At Central, Thomas starred with a number of players who have since gone on to play and star at other colleges such as Dalvin Cook (Florida State) and Joseph Yearby (Miami) and scored some of notable victories against neighborhood rivals at Sun Life Stadium.
Thomas is hoping for another Thursday when the No. 4 Sooners face No. 1 Clemson in the Capital One Orange Bowl — a College Football Playoff semifinal at 4 p.m.
“[Playing in Miami] nothing new to me,” Thomas said. “I’ve played big games all my life. Ever since I was in Little League, I played semifinals, Super Bowl games, and now I played state games, and I’m back in the Orange Bowl. I just want to make the best of it and come out with a win.”
Thomas enrolled early at Oklahoma his senior season and progressed into one of the top players in the Sooners’ secondary over the following two years.
Thomas enters Thursday’s game with 68 tackles (44 solo), which ranks third on the team, and has three interceptions this season. He’s part of a defense that ranks seventh nationally in interceptions with 19 and is 12th in defensive pass efficiency.
This season, Thomas has played both at the free safety and strong safety positions. As a sophomore, he started every game at free safety and totaled 75 tackles and an interception.
Thomas said the choice to leave Miami and go to college out-of-state became clear when he started heeding the advice of family and his high school coaches.
“I had to be wise, because you know, in Miami, there are a lot of things you can get into, a lot of wrong decisions you can make,” Thomas said. “I’m not saying I made all the right decisions, because I didn’t, but I made good decisions more than I made bad ones. I listened to people. I did what I had to do to get out of here, because if I didn’t really want to play football, I could have been in the streets.”
Thomas reflected Sunday on all the people he knew growing up that weren’t as fortunate.
“I built a lot of friendships and then I started surrounding myself with the right people, and I started listening to them,” Thomas said. “It’s real hard to raise a kid in Miami because you’ve got drug dealers on the corner from your house. You’ve got people robbing people. My cousin’s husband’s friend just got killed in front of his kids. I saw that on Facebook.
“I can’t even count with one hand how many people I know that ended up dead or in jail. When I’m up at Oklahoma, I’m thinking, I’m glad I left, because I could have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m glad that I met the people that I met when I left. It’s just crazy.”
Thomas said the outpouring of support from friends and family has been overwhelming since the Sooners clinched a spot in the playoffs — as have the ticket requests.
Thomas’ biggest problem this week might not be how to slow down Clemson’s offense.
“I was sleeping when I found out who we were playing,” Thomas said. “When I woke up I had like 120 text messages from people I never even heard of, from friends I didn’t even know I had. I’m looking for tickets for people that I know and people that matter.”