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Triumphs From Notre Dame: Dr. Charles Thomas Jr.

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The story of Dr. Charles Thomas Jr.

Photo: Matt Cashore

As you may or may not know, I’ve been busy putting the finishing touches on my third book (working title): Triumphs From Notre Dame: The Echoes of Her Loyal Sons and Daughters. My first two books focused primarily on former Notre Dame football players and their journeys to, through, and beyond the University of Notre Dame. The new book will have a similar theme, however, this time I have included other sports: football, basketball, baseball, hockey, golf, women’s track, women’s basketball and women’s soccer. I love football, but it has been very exciting to expand beyond football and tell some stories from men and women who played other sports at Notre Dame.

Seeing as we are heading into the height of March Madness, I thought I’d give you a snippet of one of the basketball chapters from the new book - Dr. Charles Thomas Jr. I hope you enjoy this sneak peek at a portion of Charles’s story, and that you’ll check out the book when it comes out this fall!

Triumphs From Notre Dame: Dr. Charles Thomas Jr.

In the iconic words of former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz, “I can’t believe God put us on this earth to be ordinary.” I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who walks through life in such a way that he proves the validity of this quote over and over again like Dr. Charles Thomas Jr. does. Dr. Charles Thomas Jr. is a man who challenges the thought processes of others in his daily encounters, who provides those who cross his path with a sense of hope in moments where all hope seems to be lost, whose selfless acts of community service help to mold and shape those who so very much need a sense of purpose and direction, and who strives to not only enrich his own life, but the lives of others as well. How does a kid from Flint, Michigan, end up playing Division I Basketball under the hue of the Golden Dome at Our Lady’s University, and go on to become a pillar not only in his career path but in his community as well? This is Dr. Charles Thomas Jr.’s story.

Dr. Charles Thomas Jr.

“My journey to Notre Dame was actually pretty interesting. At least it is to me. I knew nothing about Notre Dame until my senior year of high school. I grew up in Flint, Michigan, surrounded by ambitious and intelligent young black men. Although we had big dreams, many of us lacked exposure to the realm of probable. Many of us didn’t know anything about Ivy League schools, or schools such as Notre Dame…at least I didn’t. I only really knew about the schools I could ‘see,’ such as Michigan, Michigan State, Central Michigan; and I certainly never thought, ‘I want to be a Golden Domer.’”

“I went to this summer basketball camp and met some coaches from several different schools, one of which was Notre Dame; and so I put ND on my list. I literally thought Notre Dame was located in California. My counselor called me into his office one day and said,

‘Have you ever thought about applying to Notre Dame and Princeton?’

‘I don’t know where Princeton is, and I don’t want to go to California.’

‘Notre Dame is in South Bend!’

‘South Bend what?!’

‘Indiana!!’

“During my senior year of high school I got the itch; and I just had to go to Notre Dame. When Mr. Reynolds planted the bug in my ear, my entire focus shifted to getting into Notre Dame. And then, once I got accepted, the only thing on my mind was playing basketball at Notre Dame. I knew academically I would be okay, but athletically I was so small. There was no reason I should have thought I had any chance to play basketball at that Division I school, with players of that caliber.”

“When I arrived at Notre Dame, I went to the basketball office (Coach MacLeod was the head coach at the time), and I introduced myself. ‘Hey, I’m Charles Thomas, and I’m from Flint, Michigan. I want to speak with someone regarding the process one must go through to play basketball here.’ One of the coaches came out to meet me, and the coach looked at me and he asked, ‘Charles Thomas, how do I know that name?’ And I answered, ‘I’m from Flint, Michigan.’ And he emphatically replied, ‘You’re not 6’1” tall!’ My coach, Ray Jones, had made me out to be much bigger than I actually was!”

“My AAU Coach, Ray Jones, had written letters about me, and filmed me working out in the gym, and had bombarded the Notre Dame Basketball office with information about me. He told me if I ‘work, work, work, work, work,’ we’ll figure out a way to get you to Notre Dame.”

“One of the coaches at Notre Dame’s basketball’s office told me the process that I needed to follow in order to try out for the basketball team. He told me I couldn’t ‘officially’ practice with the team, but informed me that I could work out at ‘The Rock’ (workout facility and basketball gym for students on campus) in order to get ready for tryouts. He also told me that I could play pick-up games with the guys on the team, if they decided to pick me. ‘You just have to keep showing up,’ he said. With the stringent NCAA rules, as a prospective walk-on, you aren’t allowed to practice with the team before tryouts, and so I would go sit in the gym and watch them practice. I would keep going, day after day. I wanted them to see my commitment, and know how much I wanted to play with the team.”

Unbeknownst to them, I’m not afraid of the sharks, and I’m not afraid of living in the jungle, because I’m quite used to living in that space.

“One day as I sat and watched them practice, one of the guards twisted his ankle, and so they called over to me, ‘Hey Chuck, you want to play?’ What kind of question was that? Of course I wanted to play. And from that day on, every day they picked me to play with the team. It was such a challenge for me, because I was little, compared to the rest of the guys. Everyone told me I was too small, not strong enough, not fast enough; but unbeknownst to them, I’m not afraid of the sharks, and I’m not afraid of living in the jungle, because I’m quite used to living in that space.”

“I practiced every single day … 1,000 shots a day. I wasn’t going to give up on my dream.”

“At this point, I’m practicing with the team every day. When fall break rolls around, Coach Billy Taylor tells me, ‘go home for break and we’ll call you and let you know when tryouts are.’ When the call came during fall break, that epic phone call, that moment of joy on the phone; at first, I thought the call was a joke. Coach Taylor called and said, ‘there’s no need for you to try out, the fellas love you, come on back.’

Me: ‘Is this a joke?? Are you serious??’

I handed the phone to my mom, and then she said, ‘it’s no joke!! They are serious!!’”

“We drove back to campus the next day, and when I walked into the gym, the lights felt like they were so much brighter. The team was standing there in the middle of the court, clapping for me.”

“Academically, classes at Notre Dame were so hard. I knew it was going to be hard, but I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was going to do. The conversations were just so different from what I was used to. We never talked about economics or any of these topics at home. But my parents had instilled this tremendous work ethic in me, and told me that even though I didn’t have all of the resources that many of my peers had, if I worked hard I could make it happen. I called home and told my parents that I did not belong at Notre Dame, and my mother quickly told me that I needed to stop my ‘woe is me’ act. My mom sold her car so that I could stay in school. I may not have believed in myself, but she absolutely did.”

“My teammates, however, were so cool. They told me told me to keep coming to practice. The focus that I had from my senior year of high school, straight through to October of my freshman year at ND, it was a singular focus to play basketball at Notre Dame. Months and months of the same routine every day, run, workout, shoot, eat, study, sleep, repeat; had finally paid off with that moment in the gym when my teammates were applauding me as I walked in. Easily the most memorable moment I had during my time at Notre Dame.”

“I wasn’t one of those kids who had always wanted to be an Irishman, but once the opportunity presented itself to me, I knew it was where I wanted to be. Before Notre Dame came onto my radar I looked at Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Princeton, UNC – Chapel Hill, Hawaii, and some smaller schools such as Akron and Grand Valley. I went to a private high school in Flint, Michigan, but many of my classmates were looking at schools local to Michigan and Ohio. Only one of my classmates came to Notre Dame with me. Schools like Yale, Cal Berkeley, Vanderbilt, Duke, and Brown … none of those schools were on my radar.”

Every student arrives at Notre Dame with visions of grandeur. The sky is the limit, the dreams are endless, and the confidence to reach the summit fills each and every cup. But then life happens. The journey along the Notre Dame Value Stream is not an easy one, and every student and student-athlete who roam the halls of Our Lady’s University will have their ups and downs during their years under the Golden Dome. But the beauty of the Notre Dame Value Stream is this; She knows the journey will not be without strife, and She is always there to show you the way, so that when you come out on the other side, you are a stronger person than you were when you went in. Charles’s journey was no different.

“When I arrived at Notre Dame, I decided to study both science and business in the collegiate sequence program they offered (which was pretty new at the time). I liked science because of the process nature of it, but I also enjoyed business. Paul Rainey, one of my teammates, was in a similar collegiate-sequence program and told me to check it out. He told me, ‘you get the best of both worlds!’ So I went and talked to my counselor and he told me it was a great program. I completed all of my major classes in three-and-a-half years, so during my last semester I was able to expand my horizons and take classes outside of my major.”

“I was absolutely the definition of a ‘student-athlete.’ I studied, studied, studied and then played sports. I didn’t have the luxury of playing sports first and then studying as an afterthought. I wanted to be ready to play, but I knew academics was my focus. Initially, I thought the NBA was in my future. As college progressed and my game times experiences were limited, my NBA aspirations also decreased. This change in thought did not occur because I lost confidence in myself and my abilities. I simply began to accept the nature of my situation. At the point in which my focus started to shift, I knew that I was not an NBA caliber player. Maybe overseas, but not NBA level. My focus and desire shifted. My goal was to leverage sports to acquire the skills and education necessary to prepare myself for life after college.”

“I haven’t found anything that has replaced basketball for me. The teamwork, commitment, absolute pursuit of excellence, the crowd cheering you on; nothing else in life has replicated that for me. Not at that same level. However, I take that same focus and hustle mentality into my daily life. That four year experience at Notre Dame has prepared me for the next 50 years.”

Just when it seems that you are starting to get comfortable with what it takes to be successful both on and off the court at a big time Division I college program, your journey draws to a close, and your next adventure is about to begin. That first step on a new path may be scary and somewhat intimidating, but this is exactly where the Notre Dame Value Streams shines. It is where She lifts you up, and sends you out into the world prepared with everything you need to face the challenges ahead.

“After my academic and athletic career at Notre Dame, I was recruited to work within the Intelligence Community. Working in that community was an awesome experience. To know that my academic background from Notre Dame set me up for such a prestigious job was incredible. I was just a kid from Flint, Michigan. Opportunities like that didn’t exist for kids from Flint, Michigan … or at least I thought.”

“Then I changed course and got a job in the corporate space doing organizational dynamics and IT. I also went back to graduate school and earned my MBA at UTSA, and then went on to Creighton University to earn my Master of Science and Doctoral degrees. I’m back working in the intelligence community, as CEO of a technology company. When I was in school, I had always talked about being a forensic scientist, but then I decided to try something else. We all have to decide where our aptitude and abilities are going to take us.”

“The interdisciplinary training that I acquired at Notre Dame prepared me for interdisciplinary aspects of life. The success that I’ve achieved so far, it’s not because of pure talent; it’s because I put in significant effort. No one can ever say that I don’t work hard. That will never be on my tombstone. You don’t have to be the most analytical or the most intelligent, but you do have to put in effort. I know so many people who may not be the smartest one in the bunch, but they work extremely hard. Take your aptitude and abilities and align that with your future.”

“The adversity I felt in my dark days, when I wasn’t playing on the team, wondering if I was ever going to be able to do this; became I’m going to turn this into what I want it to be. I am going to stop being mad and start working harder, to study harder, and to keep at it. You’re going to have adversity in your life, you need to be able to figure out how to solve it. Coach Brey told me, ‘if you can shoot, you can play anywhere in the country. Now I’m not telling you to leave, but I am telling you no matter where you are, if you can produce, you can play.’ I used this philosophy in the work force as well; if you can create produce, and perform, you can work anywhere. You need to be able to take nothing, and turn it into something. Be an artist and create.”

“The people in life who are the most successful are the ones who are able to produce something. They are no longer purely consumers of knowledge, but are producing something worthwhile. The sports journey that I traveled allowed me to become confident in telling stories. Not only in the books I’ve written, but even in my executive work, I have to tell stories. We have a business objective we’re going after, and we need to be able to explain why we want it, how it fits with us, how our employees fit with it. It’s all story telling.”

In addition to his work in the government and corporate space, and his collegiate level teaching activities, Charles also writes. He is a soon-to-be four-time published author. I asked Charles to tell me what prompted him to become an author, and what the writing experience has been like for him.

I didn’t want to be an author, but I needed to release my demons, and writing was my way of releasing them.

“For starters, I don’t consider myself an author. I just consider myself someone who wrote something and got it published. I also don’t consider myself an academic, I just consider myself someone who likes to learn. I didn’t want to be an author, but I needed to release my demons, and writing was my way of releasing them. I was in shambles internally, and the only way I knew how to get rid of the negativity was to write about it. Kind of like that song from Hamilton, I wrote my way out. I had to deal with my demons one way or another, and so I started writing to get them out. I sent the manuscript (for ‘Scars, Exile & Vindication: My Life as an Experiment’) to one of my graduate school professors, who told me I had a strong voice and that I needed to get it published. And that’s what I did. Now, I have published a second book, ‘Breakthrough,’ and a third book as well, ‘Leading Through Difficulty: The Darker Side of Workplace Behavior.’” My fourth book is on the way. It’s about the walk-on journey.

“My grandmother always told me, ‘don’t die with the stories inside of you.” I have so much inside of my head, and I need to get it out. There are so many of us going through things in our life, and we feel like we are alone. I hope that through my writing and speaking I can be a voice in the ensemble of choices that can resonate with someone. One of my philosophies is to try to be the best I can, while I can. I don’t necessarily think it was me deciding that; that I wanted to be an author. I wanted to tell stories, and to be of value, rather than to be an author per se.”

“After I wrote my first book, I let it sit for two years. I happened to send it to a friend, and he said, ‘this is a real book! You actually made it flow and it tells a story!’ I’ve always been able to tell a story, but I had no idea I could write a book. My desire to let my negativity go was my first desire. I was in a bad headspace. Before I started, my coping mechanism to deal with my negativity was to reach for the bottle. Even though I was drinking a tremendous amount of alcohol, I was still functioning well and performing at a high level in graduate school. It was pure intellect and instinct that carried me through those dark moments.”

“I was in a downward spiral internally, for several years, but externally you would have never known. I was still wearing three piece suits, and going to the gym; but at night I’d drink a bottle of tequila and read a book. It all seemed to be working for me until I walked into the liquor store one day and the guy said to me, ‘seriously? You were just here yesterday.’ But I didn’t feel anything was wrong. After I would drink a bottle, I should have felt something, but I didn’t. I’d drink, write, work out, and feel perfectly fine. Get up the next day, go to class, and repeat the whole process the next night. I wrote my way out of a very dark place.”

“In elementary school and high school, sports kept the negativity out of me, but as an adult, writing helped me deal with the negative situations I was facing in life. Something bad would happen and I would go home, write about it, get it out of my system, delete it, and feel better.

You might think that a successful government consulting career, along with writing books, would be enough to keep one more than busy; but not so for Charles. He is also a keynote speaker, a co-host of the Divergent Thought radio show, an educator (Charles is an Adjunct Professor of Leadership, Civility, and Personal Responsibility, Organizational Behavior, and Organizational Development and Transformation at the Undergraduate level. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Leadership Theory & Practice and Consulting Management & Practice at the Doctorate level. And within the local jail system, Charles teaches Life Skills: Communication, Financial Literacy, Decision Making, and Mental Health; to men who are incarcerated and preparing for societal re-entry), and has committed himself to service before self through his many community service endeavors. How did Charles get involved in so many different things?

When you learn, teach, when you get, give. ~Maya Angelou

“I’m not the most profound person in the world, but I do things because I think they can get done. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I strive to meet and exceed the ideals and standards of the best of those that came before me. I teach at the county jail in Northern Virginia, I teach students at the University level, I work with the homeless, I have a radio show in which we talk about social justice; I believe that education and community engagement are so very important. Growing up in Flint, Michigan was a magnificent upbringing. As a teenager, I became very aware of the power of community. I didn’t understand the magnitude of how much value people were offering, however, until I became older and more self-reflective. Although there were plenty of role models, external to my parents and some relatives, I mainly looked up to athletes and entertainers. Now, that I am older and have the opportunity to do so, I want to represent a different narrative for kids growing up in situations like I did.”

“I was giving a speech not too long ago, and a young black man came up to me after I was done. He told me, ‘I’ve seen President Obama speak and that’s cool, but you, I know you. I’ve seen what you have done, and I know that I can do it too.’ President Obama did just that for me. To see an educated black man achieve that level of success shows me that opportunities like that exist for me, and that maybe I can become something like that one day. I am constantly in a state of self-exploration, asking, can I do it myself? And who can I bring with me if I can’t. As a demonstration of human potential, I want to show people something that they may not otherwise see.”

“We do intellectual, mental, and spiritual rehabilitation at the county jail to give men and women tools they need to successfully re-integrate into society. How do I respond to this situation? Not react to the situation, but respond. Not everyone is going to like me, but I’m out there shooting and catching arrows. You can’t be afraid of success, failure, or of what people think of you. ‘When you learn, teach, when you get, give.’ Maya Angelou”

“At the very least, I’m trying. I want everyone to know I did my best. I want me to know that I did and am doing my best. You can’t do that if you just sit at home. You have to offer value to other people. I want to use whatever talents, gifts, wisdom that I have. In order to get in the game, you need to be near the game. That pattern of life has propelled me, even into the community. If I want to share and/or solve a leadership problem, or a mass incarceration problem, I have to be involved.”

“As an adult, I’ve won two leader of the year awards, an outstanding service to the community award, two 40 under 40 awards, a rising star award, and several other accolades. Those awards were bestowed upon me based on the dealings I’ve had with people, and the impact I’ve had on people at the micro level (jail, community, and university work). Those acts of service are just as important to me as my corporate work.”

“I try to be involved and offer insights to others based on my experiences and the lessons learned from other people. When you talk to so many people, you get so much insight on how to better live your own life. When you capture the life experiences of others, it gives you real insight as to whether or not you are living your life well. In the process, you learn that there are things that are an option that you never knew were a possibility before.”

“I try to at least offer something of value, so that someone who is listening to me can take something away with them; one thing at the very least. They may not take everything away with them, but I want them to at least take one thing away with them. On our radio show, we try to offer something to counteract all the negativity that is in the world.”

Charles currently lives in the Washington D.C. area with his wife, Manthanee, and their two children.

The full version of Dr. Charles Thomas Jr.’s chapter (including what it was like to play for three different head coaches, and his favorite memories from his time at Notre Dame) will appear in my new book, Triumphs From Notre Dame: The Echoes of Her Loyal Sons and Daughters.

You can also check out Charles on his radio show, Divergent Thought, and if you’re in need of a fantastic keynote speaker, you can reach out to him via his website: https://charlesthomasjr.com/

Cheers & GO IRISH!