Riley Thomas, 23, a 2011 graduate of Foundation Academy and a former linebacker for the Lions, died July 21 in a motorcycle accident.
Brad Lord still remembers when the Thomas brothers — Riley and Gary — arrived on the campus of Foundation Academy.
“They just brought a toughness that our team didn’t have before and a can-do attitude,” Lord said.
Lord, the head football coach at Foundation Academy, remembers the 2011 season, when Riley Thomas was captain and starting linebacker of the team during its first season in district competition after previously playing in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference. Where many thought the Lions would flounder after leaving the SSAC, they went 5-4 that first season, and Lord credits Riley Thomas on several levels — whether it was 24 tackles in one game against Mount Dora Bible, his single-season, program record of 141 tackles or his leadership.
It was with great sadness, then, that Lord learned that Thomas had died July 21 in a motorcycle accident. He was 23.
In an email to the program’s players, families and supporters, Lord remembered Riley — who became an electrical lineman after graduation and remained in the West Orange area — as “an outstanding human being and an outstanding football player.”
It is not the first time the coach has had to come to terms with the passing of a player — he was an assistant at Olympia when the shooting death of Dereck Parker, 15, rocked the community and also coached J.J. Warmus at Foundation, a former player who died in 2015.
It’s not something that gets easier, and Lord said that although he cannot imagine what the Thomas family is going through, it is a wrenching thing as a coach to know a young man he watched grow up on the football field is no longer with us.
“As a coach, you sort of feel like a parent — you never want to bury your kids before yourself, you know?” Lord said.
With fall practice for football having begun July 31, Lord said he hopes his current players — many of whom had not met Riley — would learn to play the game with the passion he did.
“He didn’t come off the field; I couldn’t get that kid off the field,” Lord recalled. “He just came from a great family — awesome people.”
In honor of Riley, Foundation Academy will retire his number — No. 62 — during the team’s first home game Aug. 25 against Cambridge Christian.
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].