By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Philip Thomas often speaks so fast he seems to interrupt himself, but his soft, light brown eyes keep earnest contact. The muscular six-foot, 185-pound teenage athlete wears red-and-black Jordan-logo everything, including toothbrush-scrubbed sneakers, and a brand-new haircut . A tattoo of a Psalms passage adorns his massive left bicep.
Philip's senior prom is tomorrow. And with a formality bordering on daintiness, he extricates a suit from a wardrobe bag and lays it out on a leather armchair in his aunt's immaculate living room. The ensemble is a four-piece mesmerizer, full of sharp angles and featuring a flashy black-and-gray checkered pattern that pro-football fashion eccentric Deion Sanders might appreciate.
Philip's aunt and adoptive guardian, Marion Cooper, a lean, strong-boned woman in an Obama inauguration T-shirt, provides the financial narration: Everything, including tie and matching leather shoes, cost her only $279 at Peter's Sportswear in downtown Miami.
It's the 18-year-old's first suit, and it represents something truly unlikely: a future far away from this primer-white duplex on the northern outskirts of Liberty City, far away from the Miami violence that claimed a friend in a drive-by, far away from a troubled childhood spent visiting prisons to see his oft-arrested mother and his half-brothers locked up on murder charges.
His prom is tomorrow, followed by graduation. He'll need the formalwear for a schedule that will soon include game-day dress codes. In June, Philip will travel to Canton, Ohio, where he's been selected to play football for the U.S. team in an eight-nation youth tournament. The next month, he'll report to orientation at Syracuse University in New York, where he's received a full football scholarship worth $250,000.
For a hyperactive kid who was banned from playing high school football for bad grades, and nearly dropped out of one of the state's most troubled high schools, it's a turnaround bordering on miracle. "A year ago, I never would've thought I'd be going to college," Philip says, now perched on the edge of a brown leather sofa. "Once I get that diploma, ain't nobody can take that away from me."
It's difficult to imagine a less promising beginning in life than Philip's. He was born November 19, 1990, to a 30-year-old crack addict named Sylvia Thomas. He was the eighth of nine children she had by four men.
He barely knew his father, a man named Michael Byrd, who succumbed to AIDS. At age 3, Philip began living on and off with his Aunt Marion. She had fours sons, two of whom — Pierre and Harvey — were no role models. In August 1995, 16-year-old Pierre and three teenage cronies wearing ski masks descended on a convenience store in Allapattah. Pierre, armed with a .35-caliber Magnum, shot the Indian-born storeowner in the chest and back and then cleared out the cash register. The owner survived. Pierre went to jail.
On an afternoon just seven months later, 17-year-old Harvey ambushed a street rival sitting on a milk crate and opened fire with an automatic pistol. The victim, a 20-year-old Haitian man, collapsed and died in a nearby front yard.
Both brothers are still in prison and will be up for parole next year.
Philip's mom, Sylvia, legally lost her right to raise him after she was arrested for trying to sell four Valium pills to undercover City of Miami vice cops in Liberty City the night before Christmas Eve 1997. She'd been arrested twice before that, for coke possession and trespassing.
So Philip's sternly protective Aunt Marion adopted him. "Philip is family," she says. "I chose to keep him from going into the system."
Philip found someone in the family to look up to: his half-brother Clevan, ten years his senior. The older boy's father had been shot and killed by his best friend in a drunken argument in 1983. Clevan had been a standout defensive back at Miami Jackson Senior High and received a full ride to Florida State University. He quit school before his senior year to enter the 2001 NFL draft, but then tested positive for marijuana use. "I fired my agent; I blamed my girlfriend," says Clevan, who later became an arena football star. "My mind wasn't right, nor was my heart."
So Philip didn't need a D.A.R.E. class to understand addiction and crime. He had family history and jail visits. "The hardest part is when you get up to go, you realize they're not coming with you," he says.
As an adolescent, Philip was a handful — a deeply lonely kid at turns unrestrainable or sullen. "He was just so destroyed about his family," Marion says. "He would act out at school. Every three days, I would get a call from a teacher or a principal."
She refused to medicate him. "They wanted to put him on Ritalin because they thought something was wrong with him," Marion says of school administrators. "I told them: 'Yeah, something's wrong. He never knew his dad until he was lying in the casket, and his mom's got her own demons.'"
In 2005, Marion enrolled Philip in Miami Norland Senior High School. A natural athlete who had played on organized teams throughout his childhood, he made varsity as a freshman. The defensive back adopted Clevan's jersey number 8 and his specialty: making interceptions. But he began getting into fights with other kids, and at year's end, his aunt yanked him from the school.
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."
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."