Bryan Lee and Cam Thomas go way back — before the NFL

North Carolina's Cam Thomas was drafted by the San Diego Chargers on Saturday. And his high shcool was there.

Interviewing for his first head coaching job, Bryan Lee was shown around the North Moore campus. Wanting to get a look at some of the potential players he might be coaching in the fall, Lee was brought to the gym to witness a few kids playing hoops.
That’s when he first saw Cam Thomas.
A mountain of a sophomore, Lee knew Thomas would be the foundation of his Mustangs program. He knew he would have a monster on the defensive line, one even the Albemarle and Thomasville coaching staffs would salivate over.
Lee also knew he had found a way to get North Moore into the end zone a lot more than the handful of times the Mustangs hit paydirt the year before.
One problem — Thomas’ mom wasn’t so sure about her son playing football.
Lee can be persuasive, though, and after getting the job and employing some careful conversations, Lee got his man among boys in pads and onto the practice field.
On Saturday, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Lee, in person, heard that player’s name announced over the public address system at the NFL Draft.
“That was a pretty amazing moment,” Lee says. “A once-in-a-lifetime moment, actually.”
A moment, it must be said, didn’t have to happen.

Thomas was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Chargers, a team with serious Super Bowl aspirations this coming season, with the 146th selection overall. The 6-foot-4, 330-pound rock of a nosetackle from North Carolina told Lee when the two talked not long after the announcement that he’ll report to the team on May 6.
“He’s said all the right things, the things he’s supposed to say, but it’s still just Cam being Cam,” Lee says. “He really put it in perspective. He said that when he got the call, a door opened for him, and now anything’s possible. And now it’s time to go to work.”
Lee said Thomas understands the odds he’s up against. Not every fifth-rounder makes the team, even ones like Thomas who rank among the top of their class as a run-stopper.
But Thomas knows all about long odds. He’s been over them with Lee before.
“We never really talked about Sundays when Cam was in high school,” Lee says. “Look, I was a first-time head coach. I didn’t really know what a Division-1 college player looked like, much less a professional athlete.
“But we talked about football getting him to the next level so that he could get an education, and what he could do with that.”

Two years ago, Thomas came to see his coach one more time before Lee moved closer to his hometown in southern Illinois.
It was a happy reunion, one that started when Thomas unfolded himself out of his $800 car.
The truth is, Lee and Thomas have talked about a lot of things over the years, and well before Lee moved on to Southern Lee to build the Cavaliers program while Thomas battled through a coaching change in Chapel Hill to play in all 27 games his last two-plus seasons.
As a lineman and a running back, Thomas starred under Lee at North Moore, though Lee likes to point out that it was really the other way around. Whatever. Southern Lee fans have a pretty good idea what Lee was about, moreso now that he’s gone.
But none of that, really, had anything to do with why Lee felt like he had to be in New York to hear his former player’s name called.
Lee can remember driving Thomas to his official visits to colleges. He can remember taking Thomas to the site of his ACT test.
He can remember the same short-sleeved white shirt and clip-on tie that Thomas wore each and every time he needed to dress up.
“This wasn’t a kid who had a lot of steaks in the freezer,” Lee says of Thomas’ upbringing. “To say he came from humble beginnings is an understatement. But he has an amazing mother and a great stepfather, and he was more fortunate than 90 percent of the kids out there because he had parents who kept him on the straight and narrow.”
And Thomas has already talked about what he hopes to be able to do for his family now.
“The financial door is open now, and he knows that,” Lee said. “It’s another door opening for him, one that he can open for his family.”

Another story stands out on this day for Lee.
The summer of Thomas’ senior year at North Moore, there was talk of a playoff appearance in the fall. Thomas was being heavily recruited in his home state, and the word was out about the rising Mustangs.
And so on the morning of North Moore’s first summer scrimmage, the team gathered at the school to board the buses to take them to the big-deal scrimmage at Catawba College.
No Cam.
And so they waited.
And waited some more.
And then Lee couldn’t wait anymore. He drove to Thomas’ trailer, and found his star there.
“Cam, what’s going on?” Lee recalls in telling the story. “We’ve got to go.”
“I can’t, Coach,” came the reply.
“You can’t?”
“Mom says I can’t go anywhere this weekend.”
“Geez, Cam, what did you do?”
“I didn’t clean my room. Mom says I can’t doing anything this weekend. I was supposed to clean my room.”
And so Lee left — without Cam Thomas.
“His mom had said no,” Lee recalls now, “and nobody changes her mind.”
On Saturday, perhaps because of all the times his mother or stepfather said no, the NFL said yes to Cam Thomas.
And Lee made sure he heard them say it.


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Filed under ACC, Alex Podlogar, Designated Hitter, NFL, North Carolina Tar Heels, Prep sports, Southern Lee High School, Sports, Sports columns, The Sanford Herald, UNC Tar Heels

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