HOUSTON – Growing up in Lufkin, Texas, Rafael Thomas learned about work ethic from a young age.
Lufkin is a place that loves its football. They love heading out on Friday nights and cheering on the Panthers. It was how the Lufkin community embraced the game of football that drove Thomas to want to be a head football coach one day.
That day has finally come.
“I always wanted to be a head football coach just based on how my town treated football,” Thomas, who was named the newest head football coach of Jack Yates this week, said. “I wanted that feeling. I wanted that vibe on Friday nights. I wanted to be responsible for kids going on and being better. I was that kid back then that always wanted to make it out. I thought the only way for me to pass that on to kids was to become a coach and it is here.”
After Lufkin High School, Thomas went on to play baseball at Oklahoma State before finishing up at Southern Arkansas, where he played football and baseball.
Once done with college, Thomas dove right into coaching in 2015, getting a wide receiver coaching job at Conroe High School. Then he went back to Lufkin for two years and to Marshall for five years, where he served as a wide receiver coach, special teams coordinator, co-defensive coordinator and freshman head football coach.
“Without some of that valuable experience I probably wouldn’t be in the seat I am today,” Thomas said.
With a chance to get his first shot at leading a football program, it wasn’t so much about just becoming a head football coach but of what program he would be taking over.
Just like Lufkin football, Thomas will lead a tradition-rich one in Jack Yates.
“Yates is a place that is full of tradition,” he said. “That was one thing that was very evident on day one of interviews, to talking about the job to yesterday and being here for the first day. Trying to get back to what Yates was. The name Yates still resonates but being able to get these kids back to understanding the tradition and what they are really playing for every day as far as practice, classroom, weight room and so on. That’s my main focus here.
“My big deal is getting alumni back involved. You have so many people that are Yates alumni that want to be a part of it … I think that will help these kids understand the story and create their own path in the midst of understanding the tradition.”
Once it was official that Thomas would be the next head coach of the Lions, his phone buzzed with a text message.
It was his old high school teammate shooting him a congratulations message – Dez Bryant.
“For some people it would be a shock, but I grew up with Dez,” Thomas said with a laugh. “Dez is my brother, he is my friend, and I knew it was coming. We rode to school together, we stayed at the house together, we grew up together. That was just normal.”
Bryant, who lives in Dallas, is someone that Thomas will lean on as an example. A guy that went from Lufkin High to Oklahoma State to eventually starring with the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL.
A prime example to the young guys in Thomas’ new football program.
“Dez is a great resource for me to have for my kids,” he said. “He comes from the same situation as me and a lot of these kids I’m going to be working with. He’s a guy that I can reach out to anytime and he’ll come show his face and give these kids somebody that they can look up to outside of me and people in this community.”
With Thomas being hired in the first week of July, that gives the new head coach very limited time before the Lions play their first game.
“We’re short on time, we can’t make up for lost time but we can be effective with the time we do have,” Thomas said. “Getting kids in here, getting them to work, believing in the system and first and foremost we have to teach discipline and mental toughness first.”