The first time Levar Brown met Donivon Thomas, the Brainerd High School boys' basketball coach and athletic director walked away with one thought in mind.
"I knew as soon as we spoke that that kid is going to make something of himself," Brown said. "He was in middle school, and I didn't know if he could walk and chew gum at the same time, but there was something different about how he carried himself.
"When we met, I asked his name, and he said, 'I am THE Donivon Thomas, sir.' Having a kid that confident and respectful, you just knew he would be special."
As it turned out, Thomas had good reason to be confident in his potential. He has grown into a 6-foot-5, 220-pound two-sport star, earning all-state recognition in basketball — he has per-game averages of 14 points and 13 rebounds this season — and all-region recognition in football. Last summer, he was a member of the Times Free Press' preseason Dynamite Dozen as one the top 12 college football prospects in the Chattanooga area.
On Wednesday, surrounded by family, coaches, faculty and teammates inside a packed library at Brainerd, Thomas followed through on an earlier commitment to the University of Toledo and signed a scholarship with the Mid-American Conference football program. He is Hamilton County's only public school athlete to sign scholarship papers with a Football Bowl Subdivision program on this year's national signing day.
"Toledo's staff were the ones who really spoke to me since early in the process about wanting to help me succeed," said Thomas, who finished his senior football season with the Panthers with 35 solo tackles, 11 tackles for loss and three sacks, plus 23 catches for more than 200 yards. "I spoke with some of their professors and really liked them, and from what I've watched on their defensive scheme, I think I will fit in great in their system. I believe they will prepare develop me to be the best I can become, and if I work at it, I can go professional from there.
"For me, to have all these people here to support me taking a big step in my life, my journey, just knowing all of these people are here to help me on my way, it really means a lot."
Thomas chose the Rockets — who finished last season 9-5 with a win over Liberty in the Boca Raton Bowl — over offers from Bethune-Cookman, Miami (Ohio) and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He also had an offer from Southeastern Conference program Vanderbilt to join the Commodores as a preferred walk-on player.
"Defensively, Donivon is a future NFL outside linebacker, no doubt about it," Brainerd football coach Martels Carter said. "He's got unreal athletic ability and is 6-5, 220 pounds right now, so imagine when he puts on good weight in college. Guys who look like him and have his athletic ability are early-round draftees in the NFL. That's the opportunity he has now.
"Something that could go unnoticed about him is just how unselfish he is. He was willing to sacrifice for the good of the team as far as knowing he wouldn't get the ball thrown to him as much but still contributed in other ways on offense. Defensively, he can just wreck the other team."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.