Edison High Football Star Makes a Great Escape

Philip Thomas dodges the tackles of a crime-ridden childhood.

He transferred to Miami Edison Senior High, a largely Haitian school that has long been under threat of closure from the state for dismal standardized test scores. Since the FCAT began in 1998, Edison has failed seven times and received a D grade thrice.

That sophomore year, Philip also moved back into his mother's house at the Victoria Homes projects in Liberty City. Sylvia had been released from prison clean from drugs.

Her salvation proved momentary. Mom was back on the pipe within months. Philip lived on fast food and, when the electric bill didn't get paid, in darkness.

His grades plunged. With a GPA below 2.0, he was barred from playing football for the Edison Red Raiders. He skipped his FCAT exams.

Before Philip's junior year, Marion, who still received his report cards, reclaimed the young man. "I just went there unannounced and said, 'Pack your clothes, put them in the car, and let's go,'" the aunt recalls. "He knew at my house, he would be on lockdown."

His home life was in turmoil, and school was beginning to resemble prison — in very literal ways. In February of his junior year, hordes of riot-geared cops suppressed a student protest at Edison. Police would claim students threw chairs and textbooks, and the kids would counter that the officers used excessive force. Philip, who was set to participate in a track meet that day, was locked in a gymnasium with the rest of the runners.

But the junior had begun a turnaround, encouraged by family members. Clevan hounded Philip to get his grades back up so he could hit the field again. His cousin Len, a Broward County Corrections officer, invited the boy to spend every other weekend with him and his wife, a public schoolteacher, at their suburban home in Lauderhill. "I wanted him to see that Liberty City is not the world," the cousin explains. "There's so much more out here that he can have."

The message got through. Philip found a tutor and devoted himself to his homework. In the summer before his junior year, he attended night school to make up for failed credits. "I realized that football is what I want to do," he says. "And without an education, I wasn't going to get that."

His senior year, having pushed his overall GPA to 2.4 (it's now 2.7), he was cleared to play football again. He passed his ACT college-entrance exam with a 22 — in the 62nd percentile.

He started for the Red Raiders and, having plucked eight interceptions, was a bright spot on a team that finished with a mediocre 5-6 record. After he was named to the All-Dade County First Team, Division 1 scouts became intrigued. "He has a real nose for the ball," says Luke Stampini, publisher of SoFLAfootball.com. "He has the speed and knack for making big plays. If he had played his junior season and passed his FCAT, he would most likely have a [University of] Miami offer or a Florida State offer."

Philip did receive scholarship offers, from three universities: Central Michigan, Western Michigan, and Syracuse. He made his first trips out of Florida to visit those schools and caught a glimpse of a phenomenon called snow. "We were coming down in the plane to Michigan when I saw it," he says. "I just started smiling."

In January, he received a jolting reminder of the peril of the environment he was poised to escape. A neighborhood friend, Derrick "Termite" Gloster, was shot dead in a drive-by during a Liberty City dice game. "That could have been me," Philip reasons. "If I had made a couple of different decisions, I would have been there."

Instead, he committed to the Orange, a team in flux after a string of losing seasons but alma mater to NFL greats such as Larry Csonka and Floyd Little.

And in May, Philip was awarded a spot on Team USA in the Junior World Championship, a tournament held by the International Federation of American Football. He'll join 45 other American college-bound seniors who will train and stay at Walsh University in Canton, Ohio. "He right away struck me as a good kid," says Team USA and Christopher Columbus High coach Chris Merritt, who led Philip's Dade all-star team. "The kind of kid who could spend three weeks in Canton, Ohio, and not get in trouble."

Philip, who was unfamiliar with the inaugural tournament, initially thought he had been selected to play in the Olympics. USA's first opponent will be France on June 27.

He makes no secret of harboring NFL dreams. "He wants to make it one step further than Clevan," says cousin Len. "He's overcome a major hurdle, but he's got so many hurdles to jump."

For now, the once-troubled kid fairly beams. "I made my mom proud; I made my aunt proud; I made Clevan proud," he tallies the day before the prom. "Basically, I made everybody proud."

"I'm going to be so glad when July 5 comes," Marion says of the day Philip will report to Syracuse. "I won't believe it's happening until the day."

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