Monday another Sonny day for longtime assistant high school football coach
As Sonny Thomas rummages through his mind to retrieve an extensive list of his coaching stops — a list that spans five decades and carries with it a playbook with enough X's and O's to kiss and hug every person who has impacted his career — the modest football coach pauses and gently chuckles.
“Whew ... wow,” he said. “That is a long time.”
The man whose real first name is Charles, about as foreign a moniker to those who know him as the short-lived Steagles, is still at it.
Training camp opens Monday morning and it will be another Sonny day.
Thomas, 73, will start camp as an assistant to his son at Connellsville, kicking off year No. 50 of a coaching career that began in 1966, in the days when nicknames stuck and WPIAL teams had to finish unbeaten and untied to play for championships.
There have been years off and forgotten names, but Thomas keeps coming back to what he knows best. And coaching his favorite aspect of the game: defense.
“I must be a glutton for punishment,” the low-key Thomas said with a laugh.
Nearly half of his tenure was spent at Penn-Trafford, where several on-and-off stints spanned 22 years.
Thomas, a retired science teacher who taught for 36 1⁄2 years at Woodland Hills, has been a defensive coordinator for all but two of his 50 seasons. He has seen hundreds of games, thousands of faces and perhaps hundreds of thousands of plays.
• He coached with the late Fran Rogel at North Braddock Scott High School.
• He was WPIAL Hall of Fame coach George Novak's first hire at Woodland Hills.
• He coached NFL Hall of Famer Jason Taylor when Taylor stalked quarterbacks at Woodland Hills — “I remember the day Jason walked on the field and George introduced him to me,” Thomas said.
• He coached former Penn-Trafford standouts Tony Zimmerman and Matt Gavrish.
• He also coached defenses at Geneva College — when his son, Marko, played — along with other high school stints at Gateway, Hempfield, Yough and Southmoreland; 11 teams in all.
“I like seeing kids learn the game and I enjoy their reactions to the game,” said Thomas, who lives in Greensburg. “It's nice to be in a position to teach them. Football got me a college education and a job for 50 years.”
Once a standout running back at North Braddock Scott and then Bucknell and Cal (Pa.), Thomas, still as wistful and spirited as he was when he began coaching the North Braddock Junior High team at age 22, became hooked on coaching because it ran in the family.
“From the time I was 7 years old I had a football in my hand,” Thomas said. “My dad lived and breathed football. He ingrained the game in me.”
The late Charles “Yakey” Thomas coached in the North Braddock Midget program.
And Sonny's coaching repitoire caught his son Marko's attention. Marko is beginning his first season as head coach at Connellsville. The former Penn-Trafford and Geneva standout receiver said he owes it all to his father.
“When you're a kid you want to be like your dad,” said Marko, the youngest of three boys (Brad, Jeff are the others). “He had me on the field when I was 3. I was on the sidelines. He's 73 and he still looks for something new to put in; He'll say, ‘I was watching Wisconsin. You see what they're doing?' ”
Sonny said, “You can always pick up something someone has tinkered with. You never stop learning.”
Thomas, who has been married to his wife, Joanne, for 42 years, said the secret to his longevity in coaching is equal parts love of the game and a plain approach.
“I really like what I'm doing,” he said. “I have been lucky to work with so many really nice people and good coaches who have enabled me and energized me. When you work with people like that, the time goes fast.
“I like to keep things simple and basic,” he said. “You build from that to the level the kids can handle. If the kids pick up on things faster, we'll move faster.”
Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane had Thomas on his staff from 2011-13 and when he coached at Gateway.
“Sonny is calm, quiet and a great teacher,” Ruane said. “But he's as competitive as anyone. Sonny really helped us get to the next level. His first season with us we went 10-1, and we did it with a great defense and run game. His first year at Gateway, we went from good the year before to Heinz Field. He is outstanding with kids, and they really look up to him.”
Novak, who received praise from Taylor at last Sunday's NFL Hall of Fame inductions in Canton, Ohio, called Thomas “one of the best coaches I have ever had.”
“We developed a defense the first year (at Woodland Hills) and I let him run the show,” said Novak, who coached for 40 years and won six WPIAL titles. “He has a lot of energy. I just saw Sonny. Our grandkids played baseball against each other.”
Thomas points to Penn-Trafford's run to the WPIAL championship game in 1997 as his fondest coaching memory. The Warriors scored with 18 seconds left but missed the extra point and lost to Upper St. Clair, 28-27.
“My favorite was the trip to Three Rivers (Stadium),” he said. “That was a thrill. If I wish anything for our kids today it's that they get that trip. And being there with my kids was great.”
Former Penn-Trafford wideout Tim Cortazzo was a ball boy on the 1997 team but remembers Thomas's impact.
“He was a great defensive mind,” Cortazzo said. “That whole defensive staff was great. I remember they called their defense ‘The Freak Show.' They wanted to kill you with every hit.”
Fellow coaches marvel at Thomas' longevity. He has witnessed the game change, and has changed with it; from old, straight-T offenses to the advanced spread, from base 4-4 defenses to more modern 3-3 stacks.
“He's as enthusiastic and intense as the first day I met him,” said another Connellsville assistant, Mark Crovac, who had Sonny on his staff at Yough. “He taught me so much. He has so much patience and wants to teach you.
“I'm 53 and I have been coaching for 31 years. Unbelievable what he's done.”