COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)
After moving from project housing to a higher income city when he was 9 years old, Morris Thomas, now a 50th Space Wing Safety Office staff sergeant at Schriever Air Force Base, started a new school and was thrown into a world of discrimination and prejudice.
“I was made fun of a lot for either being poor or being black,” Thomas recalled, noting he was told he didn’t belong at the school.
“More specifically,” he said, “I remember my sixth-grade teacher told me I ‘should have just stayed in the projects where I belonged.’”
While trying to deal with this adversity, Thomas started getting into fights, was suspended from school, and was even put into handcuffs once or twice.
“I was in a very dark place and seeing nothing but violence most of my life; I reacted the way I thought I should have,” Thomas said.
Luckily for Thomas, his school’s wrestling coaches took notice.
“My story would have likely ended there if I hadn't found wrestling,” Thomas said. “Coach (Kevin) Mattarelli and the Edwardsville Wrestling Club coaches saved me from myself.”
Thomas was invited to join the close-knit team, and although he couldn’t always afford to attend the tournaments, he was able to compete with the help of his coaches.
“My coaches made that opportunity available if I did yard work for them,” Thomas said. “I winded up being on Team Illinois on three occasions, as well as qualifying for Illinois wrestling state (competition) on three occasions and nationals twice. I left Edwardsville with 100 career wins.”
As his wrestling career came to an end, Thomas realized wrestling was more than a sport -- it was his passion.
“Wrestling to me has multiple meanings,” he said. “It means triumph; it means revealing character. It means finding out what is deep down inside of you as a person. It gave me the confidence I never had before. It gave me a level of strength that I didn’t even know I had. It didn’t build necessarily character; it revealed what was inside of me.”
With his new confidence, Thomas joined the Air Force and for the last nine years with each assignment, from Florida to Texas to California, he stayed involved with wrestling as a coach.
Passing on life’s lessons
“To pass on (lessons I’ve learned) is a phenomenal feeling,” Thomas said. “Watching the kids when they step on the mat for the very first time and they’re at a loss for what they’re doing, and to watch them grow and change from the very basic technique to the intermediate is just phenomenal to watch.”
Now, as a Schriever AFB member, Thomas has become even more involved by creating a wrestling club for the base’s children.
“It isn’t something that has been established here; I’m building it from the very ground up with my investments and my knowledge,” Thomas said. “We (went) from basically busted rubble in a room to being among the top five for the rookie division for the state out of 191 teams, and that is a great start to a year.”
Thomas currently has 15 children on his team, Children of Valor, who range in age from 4 to 15 years old. Of his 15 team members, 13 went on to compete at the state tournament and five placed during the competition.
“The biggest fulfillment for me was actually seeing (the wrestlers) work hard the entire year, struggle and go through everything that they’ve gone through in practice,” Thomas said. “It finally comes to fruition when you see their faces and they know they’re in the finals or they’re getting a trophy because they’ve worked hard and earned it.”
Jadon Janaros, a Children of Valor wrestler, said that Thomas always looks out for them.
“He’s not only become a coach to me. He’s become a father figure,” Janaros said.
Making a difference
Thomas hopes to make a difference in the lives of the wrestlers he coaches and finds joy in their successes. However, it isn’t only the children he is impacting.
“Staff Sgt. Thomas is a phenomenal Airman, but he’s an even better person,” said Col. Jason Janaros, the 50th Mission Support Group commander and team parent. “Professionally, he embodies our Air Force core values, and personally, I trust him with my children … I don’t think you could pay someone a higher compliment.”
Thomas works with the Schriever wrestlers three times a week to prepare for competitions.
“Watching them I feel first and foremost, nervous,” he said. “I wonder if I’ve done all I could to set them up for success and it’s a rush -- it’s a great feeling. Even if they try as hard as they can and go through and get defeated, it’s still good to see them grow because they’re learning from that.
“The great thing about my kids is they’ve seen defeat -- they know what it is like to lose and they’re humble,” he continued. “They’re humble in victory and they’re humble in defeat. No matter what the outcome of the match, I’m still proud of them.”
Thomas plans to keep coaching throughout his military career and hopes to inspire more kids to wrestle.
“Everything you do in life is up to you,” he said. “It’s your own journey and it’s how much effort you put in that determines the outcome. There’s a saying that says once you wrestle, everything else in life is easy, so I hope (my team) takes that with them.”