It’s a few days before the 2020 NFL draft and University of Georgia lineman Andrew Thomas is immersed in his other passion. He’s playing Beyoncé’s “Halo” on a piano, while his girlfriend Ashley-Ann sings the sublime love lyrics of the 2008 power ballad. Thomas plays the song effortlessly, his massive 10 1/4-inch hands tickling the keys.
He says he’s also working on another song, Stevie Wonder’s 1982 classic, “Ribbon In The Sky,” for his parents. It’s their song, one he’s heard his mom and dad singing and playing countless times.
“It would mean a lot to play it for them. My parents have been married 25 years now,” Thomas said. “One day, hopefully, I could have something as beautiful as that.”
Thomas is on the cusp of realizing the fruits of his labor as a first-round NFL draft pick; he is projected to be one of the first offensive linemen selected on Thursday. But it’s his other passion, and the foundation beneath it, that defines him.
Thomas grew up in a Christian household in Lithonia, Georgia. His parents, Andre and Belinda, leaned on their faith in raising their children. The church, in particular the praise and worship ministry, played a significant role in Thomas’ life. His father played the drums, his mother sang, his younger sister sang and played the flute and his extended family was part of a traveling family choir.
“Everyone in my family either sings or plays an instrument,” Thomas said. “We were always singing. Always in church, and around music constantly. Always at choir rehearsal.”
Thomas’ father was a jazz band drummer in his younger days and a member of the family’s traveling choir. His percussion skills were sought by many churches in DeKalb County. Thomas grew up wanting to emulate his father.
“The first set I got, I was, like, 4 or 5,” Thomas said. “I remember seeing him play when I was little, and I wanted to play, too. I wanted to be just as good as him.”
Thomas learned the “family business” under the tutelage of his father. His skills as a percussionist developed and they formed a strong relationship that would only grow deeper over time. But music and the church weren’t the only passions in his life.
Thomas loved sports. He played baseball and basketball in grade school, and it so happened that his baseball coach also coached football. Noting Andrew’s size, he asked the 9-year-old to try out for the football team. Too big for his age group’s weight limit, Andrew would have to play up a level.
As his sports prowess grew, so too did his proficiency in music. A member of the school band, Thomas won solo spots in talent competitions and performed in front of the entire school. When he was in the seventh grade, he was playing snare drum on the drumline with the high school band. He wasn’t quite a prodigy, but music was a realistic pathway to continue his education after high school.
“I was pretty good,” he said. “The percussion instructor at the high school told me he wanted me to quit football and come over and join the band permanently.”
During his high school years at Pace Academy, however, Thomas continued to play all three sports until his sophomore year. By then, Pace Academy head coach Chris Slade, a former NFL linebacker with the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, saw a lot of potential in his young lineman. And he knew if Thomas was going to go all the way in football, he needed to make a choice on his other activities.
“It was actually hard for me to stop playing baseball, not basketball as much,” Thomas said. “I had a deep love for baseball. But I understood that my coaches were telling me I had a real chance to play at the next level.”
Thomas decided to get serious about football and continued to play in the band.
He earned multiple All-State honors as an offensive and defensive lineman and was an All-American his senior year. He had his pick of big-time college football programs to attend on scholarship. He chose the University of Georgia so he could stay close to his family.
As a true freshman, Thomas stepped onto campus in Athens, Georgia, and started at right tackle immediately. But while he was enjoying early success, Thomas would receive news from home that would test his faith.
It was just the second game of the season, a Saturday evening matchup at Notre Dame, and Thomas’ parents were supposed to attend. They never made the trip.
After the game, Thomas received a phone call from Kevin Johnson, his former offensive line coach at Pace who had become a mentor.
“I remember him telling me that my dad had a stroke. It hurt me a lot,” Thomas said. “My dad is a hardworking man used to providing for the family. It was tough seeing him not be able to do that. It was really tough on my mom and my sister.”
The stroke left Andre Thomas, a carpenter, unable to work. Although he received a disability check, the financial burden on Thomas’ mother was tough. Thomas did what he could to help by sending money from his Pell Grant home to his family. But mainly he leaned on his faith.
“I was impressed with the way he handled it,” Johnson said. “People don’t know the pressure these kids go through. Sometimes parents get sick, or this happens or that happens … and the kid went through a lot. I’m not going to share it, but the kid went through a lot. For him to stay focused, man, for me as a coach and as a mentor, I’m so proud of him because of that.”
Pastor Thomas C. Settles, Georgia’s team chaplain, saw the strength of the family’s bond through this trial.
“I saw a young man who was more concerned with his dad being healthy than NFL dreams or playing on Saturday,” Settles said.
“And during that process, his parents, mom in particular, were so good about making sure he kept his mind on school and football and not to worry about his dad’s health.”
Thomas would go on to start all 15 games that season and didn’t surrender a sack. His play earned him freshman All-American honors and helped Georgia reach the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2018. And as a sophomore, he moved over to left tackle and earned first-team All-SEC and first-team All-American honors.
As a junior, the accolades kept rolling in. He was awarded the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, an honor bestowed upon the SEC’s top blocker. He is now viewed by several NFL experts as the No. 1-rated offensive lineman in the draft.
“It’s very easy to drift, and forget about the things that are important,” Settles said. “You have so many things pulling on you at once. The guys that are able to deal with the praise and pressure of college football are the most successful. Andrew was able to handle it because of his foundation and anchor.”
Playing left tackle might be the hardest position in the game outside of quarterback. Between the various protection schemes, terminology and adjustments, a rookie could become overwhelmed.
“It’s tough. What they’re asking us to do with offenses being so pass-heavy. You’re going against pound for pound the most athletic player on the field [defensive end/offensive linebacker] every snap,” Thomas said. “We play every down, the D-line rotates and we have to be ready for those adjustments.
“You have to have physicality, athleticism and technique. But it’s your mindset. You’re going to get beat. You might mess up or forget a protection. But having that competitive mindset that you’re going to learn and get better every play is what separates the good from the great.”
It’s a mindset that was instilled in him growing up playing music. As he reflects on two of his great passions, the similarities are obvious to him.
— NFL (@NFL) April 20, 2020
“I remember being in the concert band and we’d have to go perform in front of these judges and one of the components was sight-reading,” Thomas said. “They give you a piece of music you’ve never seen before and you’d have to perform it. They’d give you five minutes to read it and then perform.
“That translates to football. You have a script, you have a play, things you watch on film and practice. But in a game, things happen that are unexpected and you have to be able to react to that.”
Thomas doesn’t yet know which city or team he’ll be playing for, but the foundational values he brought from DeKalb County to Pace Academy to the University of Georgia will certainly be with him in the NFL.
“I’m excited, man. I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life,” Thomas said. “Playing professional sports and being able to take care of my family has been a dream for a long time.”