First, Thomaz Whitford wanted to be a baseball player. Then basketball took center stage. Then football became the future, even if it required a detour.
The dream changed along the way, but Whitford’s willingness to work for it did not.
The former Narragansett High School standout signed a national letter of intent last week to play football at New Mexico State of the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s highest level.
“It was a dream come true,” Whitford said. “It was just like, wow, you can really do this as long as you put the time and effort in. You can work to achieve something.”
Whitford spent the last two years doing just that in the junior-college ranks at Monroe College, outside New York City. He took a redshirt season in 2018, then played in six games last season as a tight end. This year’s fall season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Whitford put enough on film last year to get noticed by the Aggies. They made a scholarship offer in September, and Whitford verbally committed in October before making it official during football’s early signing period last week.
It was a moment years in the making. The goal has been in his sights for a long time, but there were forks in the road.
“I was probably 6 years old and I started playing Little League baseball. I remember saying, ‘I want to be a baseball player,’” Whitford said. “I started playing football after that, then basketball. I didn’t really know where I wanted to be or what sport I wanted to play. After a while, I wasn’t liking baseball as much. I started playing basketball and I felt like I got good at it fairly quickly. That was when I basically said, ‘I want to be a Division I athlete,’ but I didn’t know if I wanted to do football or basketball.”
His success at Narragansett High School made the choice harder.
Whitford was a key player on both sides of the ball for the Mariner football team from the time he was a freshman. He helped lead the program to a resurgent season in 2017 that culminated in a trip to the semifinals. His 6-foot-4 frame made him a unique weapon in Rhode Island Division III high school football, cornerbacks unable to match up when he played wide receiver and linemen having trouble blocking him off the edge.
On the basketball court, his exploits were even more visible. He was a key part of two championship teams, and he joined the school’s 1,000-point club as a senior. Few teams had an answer in the post for his bruising style.
At graduation, he still wasn’t sure where he was headed next. He had basketball options, but Division II or Division III were his likely landing spot. Six-foot-4 big men can dominate high school basketball, but Division I basketball has 6-foot-4 guards, not big men.
Football emerged as Whitford’s best chance of making his dream a reality, and he saw Monroe as the entry point.
“I focused on basketball a lot more than the other sports, but I still loved football and played all four years,” Whitford said. “I felt I had a better opportunity to play Division I – which was my dream, my goal – in football. I took the JUCO route because I felt that would help develop me and put me in the position to go Division I.”
In his redshirt year, Whitford added strength and learned a new position. He had modest numbers in his debut season – four catches for 26 yards – but his blocking helped power a successful offense that lit up the scoreboard, averaging 50 points per game. He also punted for the Mustangs.
“I’ll be honest, from high school to playing at a completely different level and playing a different position, it’s hard,” Whitford said. “Football is a complicated sport. More goes into it than just running the play. It’s different. High school, I played wherever, any position. In junior college, I was a tight end, and you’ve got to learn different techniques. It was tough at first, but I got the hang of it. The next level is faster. You play against dudes from anywhere, all over the country. They might be bigger than you, faster than you, stronger than you. You’ve got to adjust.”
Whitford concentrated on sports management in classes but got a crash course in marketing thanks to the recruiting process. He used Twitter to post highlights, connecting with coaches every chance he got.
New Mexico State assistant coach Chili Davis was looking for a tight end and discovered Whitford thanks to a highlight post by his coach at Monroe.
“Just about every football player I played with at Monroe uses Twitter,” Whitford said. “Follow as many coaches as you can, programs you think you can play at, and just reach out.”
Whitford had grown accustomed to a slow process when dealing with schools. Davis moved more quickly, connecting and talking a few times and then making the offer.
“Other schools, I would talk to them for a week or so, whatever the case may be. They would talk about what they want, what they would expect, how I could help their team,” Whitford said. “But in this case, it was different. The coach reached out to me. I talked to him that first day. The next day, I talked to him again. And then they offered me a scholarship. I wouldn’t say it caught me off guard, but it happened faster than any other recruiting process.”
The pandemic meant no campus visit. But any trepidation about moving 2,300 miles from Narragansett to Las Cruces, New Mexico, was outweighed by the opportunity and the connection with Davis.
“In the process, after I got offered, I built a very good relationship with my position coach,” Whitford said. “Just talking to him was big. He was really welcoming. He got to know me as a person and I got to know him and understand him as a person. I felt like I built a connection. I decided that would be a place I would want to go, based on the school and the program, as well. I believe in that coach and he believes in me. I feel like that’s the key.”
Earning a shot at the highest level is a rare feat for a football player from Narragansett. Several Mariners play at the FCS level – including Whitford’s former teammates Jordan Riendeau (URI) and Brian Vaganek (Holy Cross) – but the FBS level has been a hard-to-reach destination for many a Rhode Island football player, let alone one from the state’s smallest public school.
“It certainly has to be one of the biggest signings in school history,” Narragansett coach Matt Blessing said. “I know he’s worked very hard the last couple of years on the field and especially in the classroom to achieve the opportunity to compete at the Division I level. I know it hasn’t been an easy path, but Tom earned his way, no question.”
Whitford will start living out the dream very soon. Home for the holidays, he’ll travel to New Mexico and enroll in January. The Aggies are set to play an abbreviated spring season after their fall campaign was canceled.
“I’m super excited,” Whitford said. “I can’t wait to meet my new teammates, learn the system and just contribute to the team in any way possible.”