Roc’s reunion: Former Auburn running back joins old high school coach at JSU

(WIAT)

JACKSONVILLE, Ala. (WIAT) – It didn’t take long for John Grass to realize he had something special. Then the head coach at Oxford High School, Grass saw a junior high running back that would soon be joining the varsity. “First time I ever watched him play,” Grass, now the head coach at Jacksonville State, said of when he knew Roc Thomas was a special player. “He’s an explosive player, a tremendous athlete.”

Thomas and Grass forged a trust the five star running back valued. “He doesn’t really let his foot off the pedal when it comes to trying to better someone,” Thomas said. One of his favorite memories of their time together at Oxford was a trip to a 7-on-7 camp in Georgia. The game got rained out and an impromptu backflip contest ensued. Thomas stole the show, but when the team got on the bus he thought he had dropped the ball. “Coach Grass came and got us off the bus and he’s like, ‘Come on,  we’re about to run.’ We were like man, dang; What we done did now,” Thomas laughed. “He was like, ‘Naw I’m just kidding,’ and that was like the most hurtful moment of my life because I really thought I was about to die!”

Picture Courtesy: Kristen Stringer/Krisp Pics
Picture Courtesy: Kristen Stringer/Krisp Pics

 

The two parted ways after Thomas’ junior year. Grass took the offensive coordinator job at JSU under then-head coach Bill Clark. Thomas signed with the Auburn Tigers where he was thought to be a plug-and-play cog for Gus Malzahn.

Their paths would cross again shortly. The Gamecocks came to Jordan-Hare to face the Tigers in the second game of the 2015 season, which was Thomas’ sophomore year. In what became a national upset-alert, the Tigers needed overtime to top their FCS opponents, and Thomas played a major role in his team squeaking out the upset with a 51-yard touchdown reception. The score was the highlight of Thomas’ Auburn career, but his mind was not on celebrating after the win. “I couldn’t wait until after the game to give him [Grass] a hug…because there was a lot of built up emotions inside me.”

Jacksonville State head coach John Grass and Auburn running back Roc Thomas after the Jacksonville State at Auburn football game.   Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star
Jacksonville State head coach John Grass and Auburn running back Roc Thomas after the Jacksonville State at Auburn football game. Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star

 

One of those emotions was frustration. Thomas was in the midst of a second season with less than 45 carries on the plains. “I knew I was talented and they knew I was talented, but I still wasn’t getting the ball,” Thomas explained. “I just stuck it out at Auburn for as long as I could.”

The patience ended following the ’15 season. Thomas decided to transfer. He announced his decision in May. Because of NCAA rules, Grass could not contact his former pupil before being granted his release; however, it didn’t take long for Thomas to make his decision. “Pretty quickly because it was just a trust factor between me and Coach Grass and an established relationship,” the new Gamecock explained. Despite the winding road it took for the two to be reunited, it won’t take nearly as long for Thomas to make a mark on his new team. “Our running backs are going to get to run the ball. We like to run the ball,” smiled Grass, backed up by the fact that his team had two 1,000-yard rushers last season.

Thomas’ journey has been one filled with ups and downs, but Grass wants him to live in the moment and not worry about the past. “Enjoy the season that you’re in,” Grass said. “The moment. Because life is ever-changing. Life never stays the same.”

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