Football Chuck Wasserstrom

Phillip Walker and Jahad Thomas: The Brotherhood

Phillip Walker let the question sink in, took a couple seconds, and literally wrote the opening lines of his own tale.
"Not a lot of people get the opportunity to tell this story. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to say that they get to play college football with someone you've been good friends with since you were little kids. A lot of people don't get to tell that type of story – and we're fortunate that we can."
The story Walker – who is in his fourth year as Temple's starting quarterback – is referring to is the longtime relationship he has had with senior running back Jahad Thomas. Their bond is atypical for Division I athletes; they have been teammates since their elementary school days.
The two of them are like siblings; they live together on campus, they room together on the road, they're close to each other's families – having grown up just minutes apart – and they share the same goals.
"He's like a brother to me," Thomas said. "I've known him since I was 7 or 8 years old. He's a laid-back, down-to-earth type of guy. He works really hard on-and-off the field. He definitely leads by example. He just wants the best for himself and everyone else around him. He definitely demands a lot from me – and I also demand a lot from him. We've pushed each other through our careers thus far, and we hope to continue this for one more year.
"You can ask him the same questions you just asked me, and you'll get a lot of the same responses. I'm sure he'll answer them just about the same way I did."
Walker was asked some of the same questions. As Thomas predicted, the answers typically mirrored each other.
"He's a good dude. He's like a brother to me," Walker said. "We're pretty much the same type of guy. We're both laid back. We like to enjoy ourselves and laugh. But when it's time for business, we put everything aside and get ready to go to work."
"We Were Kind Of Destined To Know Each Other"
The Phillip Walker/Jahad Thomas story began in Elizabeth, N.J. – a city with a population of approximately 125,000 located just over 80 miles northeast of the Temple campus.
Walker grew up in the Bayway Circle uptown area, while Thomas lived downtown. Their houses were only about 10 minutes apart.
Although they didn't attend the same school until their prep years, they immediately hit it off in athletics – playing Pop Warner football and AAU basketball together from an early age.
"We were on the same teams growing up. We started out as teammates – but teammates that became more like family," Thomas said. "Both of our parents knew each other when they were kids, so it's not like me and P.J. were the first generation to meet each other. We definitely liked each other from the first time we met. We were kind of destined to know each other."
Walker echoed those sentiments.
"Throughout the years, our families have gotten closer and closer," he said. "Our dads knew each other for a long time. Our moms knew each other for a long time. We grew up around the same people. We grew up with the same friends. Anybody who played football or basketball with us, we grew up pretty close."
Different parts of town became the same part of town when the two entered Elizabeth High School in the fall of 2008.
"Elizabeth is different, it's unique," Walker said. "There were 1,500 kids in our senior class. It's a big high school. It's surprising how many people don't have the opportunity to play college football with a school that big. It's easy to get sidetracked there. It was unfortunate that more kids couldn't play Division I, but when it came to school, they didn't put the same effort into the classroom that they did on the field. We were fortunate."
The two played together in a solid Elizabeth basketball program. Thomas was the point guard and a great defender. "He wasn't really a scorer; that was my thing," Walker said. "I was a shooter. That was my side of the game."
"My job was to get guys the ball and let them do what they do," Thomas said. "We took basketball seriously during that time of the year, but football was always the No. 1 priority when it came to sports."
And it was on the football field where they were leaving their mark.
Truth be told, during their freshman year, Thomas didn't play football. "Honestly, there wasn't anything to play for," he said. "There wasn't a playoff. There wasn't any championship. So I stayed in Pop Warner."
Walker played freshman football – seeing action at quarterback and cornerback for a 1-9 squad. Sophomore year, he was joined on the varsity by Thomas; both were two-way players, and the team went 5-5. As juniors, the two continued to progress – and were getting the attention of Division I schools. Their Minutemen team was progressing, too, with Elizabeth advancing to the state finals.
During that junior campaign, Walker was being heavily recruited as a dual-threat quarterback. Thomas was starting to get noticed, too, but was being looked at as a defensive back. Walker got a lot of distractions out of the way early, committing to Temple prior to the start of his senior year. Thomas had to let the season play out while figuring out his college options.
"P.J. was recruited before me and had already committed," Thomas said. "I had a pretty good game in the playoffs, and that's when the recruiting process started for me."
By "pretty good," Thomas was referring to a four-touchdown affair. Then, in one of those legendary movie-like moments, he capped off his high school career by catching a screen pass from Walker – and taking it to the end zone for a game-winning 49-yard touchdown against Piscataway for the state sectional championship.
Temple's coaches had been keeping tabs on Walker all year. Walker made sure to keep Thomas on their radar, too. He also made sure to keep Temple on Thomas' radar. He didn't want to see his good friend playing somewhere else.
"I had committed during the summer, and I had told the coaches about him," Walker said. "And I talked to Jahad about coming here. I knew he would come because of the opportunity they would give him. We talked going into the year – the different schools, the different opportunities we might have. The next thing you know, we're together at Temple. It was a great thing.
"With a guy like him … just give him the opportunity to play. He was a defensive back, running back, wide receiver-type guy. Any time you could get the ball into his hands, he'd do something good with it. They said he'd have a chance to play as a freshman, and he did. We were both given an opportunity. Just like in high school, he took it and ran with it."
For his part, Thomas fully credits Walker for helping him become an Owl.
"I guess you could say he was helping me non-verbally by being on our team together," Walker said. "They were watching him, so they were able to watch me.
"Honestly, if it wasn't for him being the quarterback – the ratings that he had coming out of high school – there's a good possibility I wouldn't be at Temple. The percentages are pretty high that they wouldn't have seen me. In a way, he was – and has – been a big reason for why I'm here now. If it wasn't for him,
I don't know where I would have ended up. I just love that we got the opportunity to play together for another four years."
"Just Give Him A Shot"
It didn't take long for Walker to make his presence known at Temple, as he became the starting quarterback midway through his freshman year.
Thomas arrived on campus as an "athlete" – seeing action at defensive back and on special teams.
After their freshman campaign, Walker approached the coaches about his lifelong friend. He wanted Thomas to get the opportunity to play a role on offense.
"I asked if he could play receiver or running back … any chance where we could put the ball in his hands," Walker recalled. "My sophomore year, I knew we were going to be throwing a lot of bubble screens. I said, 'Jahad can help us offensively. We have to get the ball to him in space.' They gave him the opportunity week two of training camp – and he ran with it. He picked up the offense really, really fast.
"The things he does with the ball … he's never tackled one-on-one. If it's one-on-one and you think you've got him, guess again. He's real elusive. He really makes people miss."
Thomas acknowledged that he had talked to Walker about playing running back – but it wasn't something he would suggest to the coaches. Nor was it something he expected the quarterback to do on his behalf.
"He did that on his own," Thomas said. "We always talked about me playing offense; it's something I wanted to do. But I didn't tell anybody else. He put it out there, 'Just give him a shot. He'll do some things if you put the ball in his hands.' Summer camp, they made the change – and it's never been the same."
Sophomore year, Thomas played running back in a reserve role and kept improving. Last season, he moved into a full-time role – and led the Owls with 1,262 rushing yards and 1,677 all-purpose yards while scoring 19 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Walker passed for 2,972 yards and ran for an additional 215 – while accounting for 21 touchdowns. In the process, Temple cracked the Associated Press Top 25, went 10-4 overall and made a trip to the Boca Raton Bowl.
Just like in high school, Walker and Thomas have seen their football team improve each year.
The plan is to go out on a high note – the same way they did at Elizabeth High.
"We Take It One Year At A Time"
Is this the final hurrah for Thomas and Walker as teammates? Certainly, that's a question only time will tell.
What is known is this will be a big year academically. Both are on pace to complete their undergraduate coursework this December. Walker is majoring in adult organizational development, while Thomas is a sociology major.
With his future in mind, Walker has taken the added step of asking that he be referred to by his given name – Phillip – after years of going by P.J.
"It's just a maturity thing," he said. "The older I get, I don't want to be known as P.J. I'd rather be called Phillip. That's where it all comes from. Just me … growing up."
On the football field, their goal is simple: Keep up the hard work.
"We take it one year at a time, but we do talk about the future," Walker said. "All this hard work we put in every year, man, it's coming to a point where it's going to be a business. We've done all this work for this big moment, and now we have to keep showing people all the hard work we've put in."
But off the field, the goal is always the same: Be there for each other.  It's always good to know you have somebody in your corner.
"It doesn't matter what it is," Thomas said. "To have somebody like that … in life … in football … when you're going through something. It's always good to have people like that in your life. Those are the kind of people you always have around for support. There's not that many things you can get through without that kind of help or encouragement or enthusiasm. Having somebody like that has definitely been a blessing."
"Any time I need him, any time I need to talk – he's always there," Walker said. "We hang out more than normal people hang out. We're always around each other. But it's like family; we always have each other's back."
They've had a heck of a story thus far. They can't wait to see how it's going to play out.

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