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Oct 01, 2023

Making Them Proud

By: Ross Taylor

Running back Domonique Thomas has turned tragedy into purpose in chasing his dream at Clemson

Note: The following appears in the October issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.

When running back Domonique Thomas rumbled into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown run against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 16, the destination was not necessarily new for him.

In the spring of 2021, Thomas was a standout freshman at NAIA Union College in Kentucky. In that COVID-delayed season, the powerful back reached the end zone seven times — six on the ground and one through the air — en route to Mid-South Conference Appalachian Division Offensive Freshman of the Year honors.

His journey to Memorial Stadium’s end zone on that September Saturday night, however, was both inspiring and tragic.

On March 25, 2021, Thomas was on his way to a game when he received word that a tornado had passed through his hometown of Ohatchee, Ala. After attempts to reach his mother and grandparents were unsuccessful, he received news that forever changed his life.

The tornado had claimed the lives of his 38-year-old mother Ebonique Thomas, his 73-year-old grandfather Willie Harris and his 67-year-old grandmother Barbara Harris. His sister, Ontarriah Braxton, a seventh grader at the time, suffered a fractured spine that required vertebrae surgery. It’s believed that his sister’s decision to put on one of Domonique’s football helmets amid the storm may have saved her life.

In an instant, three central figures in his family — the people who helped foster his love of football — had passed.

“When I was born, my granddad put a football in the incubator with me, and I think my love for football started that day,” Thomas shared, adding that “hut hut” were his first words. “It felt like I was born to play this game.”

Prior to the tragedy, Thomas had discussed with family the possibility of departing Union College to chase his college football dreams at the FBS level. In part because of the leadership of Head Coach Dabo Swinney, the family’s collective wish for him was to pursue that dream at Clemson.

Thomas spoke his dreams into existence. Before he ever enrolled at Clemson, he found Swinney at one of Clemson’s summer camps and shared both his story and his intention to walk-on. By January 2022, Thomas had enrolled and joined the team for offseason strength and conditioning in advance of spring practice.

Thomas, whom the team nicknamed “Quadzilla” for his prodigious thighs that Swinney once compared to Earl Campbell’s, quickly garnered both attention and respect from his teammates and coaches. In August of 2022, before he ever played a snap at Clemson, Swinney announced in a team meeting that he had earned a scholarship for the 2022 season.

It was another chapter in a story so powerful that it took Clemson running backs coach C.J. Spiller aback the first time he heard it.

“In the moment, it made me want to just call my mom, honestly,” Spiller said. “Because here you’ve got a young man that’ll never get the opportunity to hear those words ‘I love you’ again from his mother.”

The story grew in the fall of 2023. Clemson’s scholarships for walk-ons are typically awarded by Swinney on a year-by-year basis subject to both scholarship availability and performance in all areas of the student-athlete experience. Swinney, however, announced in front of the team during a training camp practice that Thomas was being placed on scholarship for the duration of his remaining tenure at Clemson.

“He’s beyond earned a scholarship here — ‘until graduation do we part,’” Swinney said. “So that was a really cool moment to be able to do that for him. And he’s earned it. This kid is a really good football player and nobody deserves it more, and his teammates know that.”

Thomas shared his story with ESPN’s Jen Lada in a feature that ran on ACC Network’s ACC Huddle prior to Clemson’s game against Florida Atlantic. Hours later, Thomas punctuated that feature with his first rushing touchdown as a Tiger.

“It was something I always dreamed about doing as a little kid,” Thomas said of his first Clemson touchdown. “The feeling after it actually happened was surreal.”

So why did Thomas share such a painful and personal story to such a broad audience?

“I just felt like it gave me an opportunity to fulfill my purpose,” Thomas said. “My purpose is to inspire people through my journey and football, and that was a great opportunity for me to be able to do that by sharing my story.”

Two weeks before the tragedy, Thomas had completed an assignment on the biblical book of Job. Little did he know he quickly he would identify with the book’s eponymous subject, and Thomas now credits that story and the lessons within for helping him weather and grow through the tragedy that followed.

“I had to do a report on the story of Job and that talked about how he lost everything,” Thomas said. “He lost his wife, his kids, his wealth, his health, but he still remained faithful to God and he still continued to be a good person and continued to believe God has perfect timing. I needed that. I feel like if I didn’t know that story then I don’t know if I would’ve handled losing my family. I don’t know if I would’ve handled it the same.”

To know Thomas is to understand juxtaposition. His powerful running style and intimidating physique contrasts his soft-spoken, humble demeanor off the field. On the field, he has carved out a role as Clemson’s No. 3 running back behind one of the nation’s top running back duos in Will Shipley and Phil Mafah.

“When you talk about the definition of someone who is never going to let an opportunity go to waste, Domonique is someone who has taken what he’s gotten from Clemson University and tripled it,” Shipley said. “You don’t see Phil and I where we’re at right now without Domonique Thomas. I know for me, I can confidently say he and Phil are the ones that have pushed me to be where I am.

“I’m just so thankful for him and his story and what he’s been able to do at Clemson and the impact that he has and will leave on this university,” Shipley continued. “Nobody deserves the opportunity more than him and I love him to death.”

Each game, Thomas inscribes “#LL3” on his wristbands and towel, signifying “Long Live Three” in the honor of his three lost family members.

“Losing them, I just thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to make them proud,’” Thomas said. “Everything I do is for them. Everything I do is to make them proud. I know they’re still watching me, and I just want to make sure I’m still chasing my dream and doing everything I can to make them proud.”