DaMarkus Thomas has heard it all before. He's heard the criticisms that plague Central High in Prince George's County. He's heard how the environment isn't conducive to academic or athletic achievement; how the student-athletes aren't motivated enough; how the coaches don't provide the best leadership; how the chances of earning a scholarship are nil.
Yes, Thomas has heard it all. And he chooses to ignore it.
"It is hard at Central, but I wanted to prove that I could succeed there," said Thomas, a supremely talented linebacker-fullback who has been labeled a potential Division-I player. "A lot of people said I should go someplace else [for school], but I wanted to prove that if you're good, it doesn't matter where you go to school. I felt like I could be the first one to make it big out of Central."
Thomas (5-feet-11, 215 pounds) didn't have to go this route. He could have gone to a private school, which would've offered him a scholarship and plenty of recruiting exposure. Riverdale Baptist, which produces college football players every year, reportedly wanted him when he was in the youth leagues.
But Thomas never considered leaving Central.
"Damarkus never said, 'I should be playing at this big private school' or anything like that," said Central defensive coordinator Jesus Lee. "He told himself, 'This is where I am and I am going to do my best.' He never felt entitled or like he was better than anyone else here."
Granted, there are times when Thomas wonders if he should have left. Central's football team has had just one .500 season this decade. It's a moral victory if they reach four wins; the last two seasons they've won two games.
"It can get to you a little bit," Thomas said. "Not everyone worked hard enough to win and not everyone cared about their grades."
It's not that Central doesn't have talent. Quite the contrary. They've had a number of athletes over the years who've been tabbed D-I players, including a few who were recruited by some of the nation's most renowned programs, according to Lee. But those athletes didn't have the grades to qualify, nor did they have the character upper-tier programs desire.
"That's where DaMarkus is rare," Lee said. "He has that combination of athletics and academics to be a Division-I player."
Thomas' physical attributes are obvious. He has a thick, muscular frame reminiscent of a young Ray Lewis and a strong, low base. He has the speed to roam sideline-to-sideline and the athleticism to play anywhere from fullback to tight end to linebacker to punter.
"I got to see him play when Central played Crossland, and he was just tremendous," said Crossland athletic director Eric Knight. "You start watching film and DaMarkus is the one who stands out, the one keeping his team from getting their butts beat."
The athletic gifts are tremendous, but what sets Thomas apart from the average jock is his ability and desire to learn.
On the field, Thomas was Central's designated field general. As a middle linebacker he understood the value of proper positioning, deciphering an offense and helping his teammates with blocking schemes.
In a midseason game last year, the Fairmont Heights offense lined up in a trips bunch formation. Thomas, who studied Fairmont's pass-happy offense on film, knew they liked to run bubble screens out of three-wide sets. The flanker would corral the quick pass while the other two receivers would immediately block down, hoping to spring the runner.
With that in mind, Thomas asked Lee if he could move outside and fire into the backfield when Fairmont showed trips.
Lee gave him the OK.
It worked to perfection.
"I dropped the guy for a 5-yard loss," Thomas said. "That was all from studying film and knowing what the play was going to be before it happened."
Fortunately for Thomas, his football IQ extends to the classroom. An honor-roll student, he can't stand the sight of a 'C' on his report card. He's been known to seek help and spend his nights studying to keep his GPA above a 3.0.
"I have to give it to him -- he really understands the value of being a student-athlete," Lee said. "He's a great example for the other students."
He's an example for the other athletes on the field, too.
Thomas started from Day One his freshman year when he awed the Central staff with his unreal athleticism and unmatched passion. He openly challenged seniors during one-on-one drills in the preseason.
But Thomas knew his spot was tentative. It wouldn't be difficult to yank a freshman in favor of a more experienced player if he started to slip.
"That was a lot of pressure, but I played hard every game and had to work extra hard to prove I belonged there," Thomas said. "All that work helped me become a better player down the line."
Three years later, the PG Gazette named Thomas to its All-County team. Last season he recorded 81 tackles, nine sacks and 22 tackles for loss. To boot, he added on 850 rushing yards of offense. Moreover, most of those numbers came against playoff-bound teams with superior talent to Central.
"It was obvious when we played better teams that DaMarkus was as strong, as athletic and as smart as everyone else," Lee said. "DaMarkus went against those guys at Roosevelt and Forestville and showed he deserved to be on the field with them."
Thomas' signature play came against a talented contingent of Crossland receivers. The score was tied at 14 late in the fourth quarter, and Crossland decided to go for the kill on fourth down from the Central 20-yard line.
The quarterback lofted a 15-yard out with Thomas covering the receiver. Even though his man was a step faster, Thomas had him beat. He read the play, broke on the ball, intercepted the pass. No one touched him as he raced 80 yards in the opposite direction. Touchdown.
"He's the main reason they beat us," said Knight, who watched Thomas take his team apart from the stands. "The interception return put the game on ice, but all game [Crossland] couldn't tackle him and couldn't stop him. He basically put Central on his back and won the ballgame."
Ironically, Thomas will be suiting up for Knight's team next season.
Yes, the boy who wouldn't leave Central, who refused to go to a private school, will be heading to rival Crossland next year.
But not by choice.
Thomas was forced to transfer due to a complicated family situation. The details are a little vague, but basically Thomas' grandmother grew ill and he and his father moved in to take care of her. Unfortunately for Thomas, his grandmother didn't live in the Central school district.
"Things happen, but I never wanted to leave Central. I didn't get to accomplish all my goals there," Thomas said. "But I did have good years there and showed you could have both good grades and be good at sports."
Now, he's out to finish the job. Can he earn a scholarship coming out of a school (Crossland has many of the same problems Central does) that rarely - if ever - produces a scholarship athlete for football? Can he prove the doubters wrong?
"I have no doubt DaMarkus can play at the Division-I level," Lee said. "He has the heart, he has the skill and he has the potential. He's one of the best I've ever coached."