It has been 37 years since Jack Yates High School won the last of its four state championships.
The Lions haven’t even won a playoff game since 2011.
But new Yates head football coach Rafael Thomas says he’s eager to return to the program located in the Third Ward to its storied roots.
“Yates had a streak of 38 straight appearances in the playoffs [from 1977-2014],” Thomas said. “Those are big shoes to fill, but I’ll walk in any shoes. I have no fear.”
When it comes to coaching, Thomas said having an impact on the lives of his players away from the field is just as important to him as their success.
“It’s not about Xs and Os and all that stuff,” Thomas said. “It’s about the lives you impact. That’s why we get into coaching.”
And although Thomas isn’t from the inner-city, he said his time spent growing up in the blue-collar town of Lufkin allows him to relate to the struggles his players face on a daily basis.
“I grew up a lot like these kids. My mom worked two to three jobs,” Thomas said. “These kids are just looking for somebody that believes in them. I’ve done everything they want to do and came from the exact background as a lot of them.”
It’s not lost on Thomas either that the Third Ward community is often overlooked by outsiders.
“These kids deserve what other kids get too, but nobody wants to put in the work with them,” he added. “It’s easy to chalk it up, ‘It’s Third Ward. That kid is disadvantaged.’ Well, what if you didn’t have those opportunities just because they wrote you off because of your background? I just don’t think that’s fair, and that’s why this job is perfect for me.”
Yates is coming off a 5-6 season, which saw the Lions finish 4th in District 11-4A Division I.
That was good enough for their second-straight playoff berth, but El Campo promptly dismissed them 63-18 in the first round of playoffs.
Looking forward to this season, the Lions got off to a later start than most with offseason conditioning since Thomas wasn’t hired until halfway through the summer.
At his first practice with his new team on Monday, Thomas quickly got to work on his players’ discipline and toughness. In the blazing Houston heat, Thomas ran his team through a series of conditioning drills before ending practice with a fierce tire wrestling competition.
Despite the fact that Thomas has been at Yates for less than a week, his players are already seeing the impact he is making with the program.
“He’s a very good coach. He’s already got good discipline on us,” said senior receiver Marquise Settiewhite. “It’s a totally different mindset. I’m looking forward to this upcoming season.”
With its offseason conditioning program now underway, Yates has just over six weeks to prepare for its big season-opening game against Dallas’ David W. Carter High School that will take place at Prairie View A&M University on Aug. 27.
And although Thomas doesn’t have any head coaching experience after serving as an assistant at Conroe, Lufkin, and Marshall over the past seven years, he has the utmost confidence that he is the right man for the Yates job.
“What I tell people is that the President of the United States don’t have history being the President of the United States until he’s the President of the United States, and he runs the free world,” Thomas said. “So why can’t I do this? I genuinely feel like I was born to do this.”