S MICHAEL THOMAS
"Before we get started, I don't even know if Coach (O'Brien) is still on. Coach, that was very encouraging to hear from you and say that. Just looking back at 2016-17, being in Miami with Kenny (Stills), to hear a head coach say that, you don't know how much volume that speaks. I just want to say as a man, personally, thank you. You hit on all the points, and it means a lot. As a young African American male in this country, it means a lot. So, thank you, Coach."
What are your thoughts on playing in your hometown and why have you dedicated this season to your family?
"One, coming back to play for Houston, I can't even really fully explain it but I never even thought this would be a dream come true for me until I actually signed. Just seeing all the love and appreciation I got from my family, friends I grew up with, people who might have known me just from following my career from when I was playing at Nimitz, it was overwhelming. Then it just started to hit me, like, wait, I'm really going to get a chance to play for the hometown team and get chance to help this team win. It's overwhelming. I'm super excited for it to try to bring wins to this town. I know how much the Texans mean to the city of Houston. Houston, the culture that we have here, everybody is ride or die for them. I'm excited to help bring that joy to the fans and to the city of Houston. Dedicating this season to my family because we were going through a lot of hardships these last few years. We lost my sister, NnZinga Thomas, and she was only a year and three months older than me to breast cancer last September. We're still mourning but it was tough for me because I wasn't here in Houston with my family. I came down for the funeral but had to leave and go back to New York. It was tough seeing that hurt and still dealing with my mom who has been struggling really my whole career with post-stroke symptoms. She had early Alzheimer's disease. It was just tough and the last two years it took a turn for the worse and she ended up passing away a couple months ago. We buried her the day before Mother's Day, and that's been tough, but to actually be here with my family in Houston, I think that's going to be something that helps the healing process and I'm going to dedicate this season to them. Everything that I can do to help my family cope with it. I know by playing in Houston that's going to bring them joy, just to be around me, to be around everything. I'm going to use this season to uplift my family."
What has the communication been like amongst you and your teammates since the murder of George Floyd?
"First I'd say, there's so many teammates, ex-teammates, current teammates, who have reached out to each other, just showing support. Those especially who aren't African American and aren't black, to see them reach out to myself or players that they know have been trying to use their voice or their platform to speak out against police brutality or trying to speak for justice. That's been heartfelt, that's been touching because I know it's genuine. To see the players behind the scenes like Kenny Stills and myself – we can't be face-to-face all the time so it's like 'look, there's a march today. These people are speaking. Do you want to help speak? Do you want to just be a part of it, be a part of the hurt and the healing process and just being with the people?' That's been what it's like behind the scenes, everybody reaching out to each other, showing love, showing support and just saying what can we do to help lean in on it. Especially for the current players on the Texans – I'm new, so I'm getting a chance to learn everybody and meet everybody for the first time virtually. It's been a great process because even though we can't be face to face, we're still trying to build that bond."
What was it like giving the commencement speech for your former high school and what did you tell them?
"It was a huge honor for them to ask me to speak to not just my high school but the whole school district's 2020 graduates. It's an honor for me, just 12 years since I graduated from Nimitz to be asked to come back and speak. For me, I was like all right, that's pretty cool to have all the students want me to come back and speak. I was like, let me try to address them and speak on with everything that's going on. I just let them know, look, y'all are facing something that nobody else has faced in our lifetime, but don't feel discouraged, don't feel like you're missing out on something great because you'll be remembered forever. This 2020 class, there will never be another graduating class like you, and use this. When you go on to your interviews and you're writing your papers and stuff in college or you're applying for jobs, speak on this experience, speak on the adversity that you've had, that you've faced even trying to finish your senior year, trying to graduate, trying to still create memories your last couple months even though you couldn't be face-to-face with your friends. Speak on those experiences because, trust me, people want to hear your story and people will probably be willing to help you or hire you because they know you've faced adversity in life and overcame something. That's the message I tried to portray to them or get to them and I think they received it well. I always have love for Aldine. I always come back and do my summer camps and speak to the kids all the time and they receive it well."
Can you talk to us about your role on special teams and what it's like to cover kicks and punts in the NFL?
"It takes a different mentality. You're going down there and going against a bunch of guys that might be their only job, to go down there and try to block you for the whole game. So, you have to be fast, you have to be strong, but you've also got to use your mind and understand this guy that's probably returning the ball when I'm covering a punt or a kick, it's probably like a Tyreek Hill, it's probably like a (Mecole) Hardman, it's probably somebody who is very fast, very gifted and talented. I got to, one, defeat my block, I have to get in position to even make an open field tackle – open field tackles are super hard – and then I have to find a way to get him down. Just understanding that was going to be my ticket to playing a long time in the NFL and to have longevity and a long career, I understood I had to perfect that craft. I didn't just want to do it to be one of the guys out there, I want to master it and I want to be one of the best. I know I can play on defense and I can contribute in any type of role, whatever the team needs me to do, but if I can perfect that craft and make tackles all the time, put myself in position, feeding off my teammates – and I'm going to love being out there with (Brennan) Scarlett, Pete (Kalambayi), A.J. Moore, being out there with those guys now because they did it at a high level last year and we're going to continue to try to do it this year. Just putting myself in position to make those tackles and feeding off my teammates."
How has Defensive Coordinator / Defensive Line Coach Anthony Weaver been handling his first year as defensive coordinator with all the meetings being done virtually?
"It's been an adjustment for all of us but I think Coach Weave has handled it great. He's been very open about, 'hey, look, we're all adjusting to this but there's no excuses for it. We're all going to make these adjustments. We expect y'all to still learn it. We expect y'all to be engaging, speak with each other when we're on here.' He allows us to clown around like we're still in the locker room and still in the team meetings, to get on each other and hold each other accountable. We even do quizzes on an app called Kahoot to make sure like, 'OK guys, we're going to see right now in front of everybody who knows it, who knows their information.' He keeps it fun, he keeps it fresh. It's been a great experience. I've learned a lot being new coming into this defense. You wouldn't even be able to tell that this is his first time being a DC. He's handled it well, guys have responded to it well and guys are excited to play for him."
Can you give us a little bit of the temperature of the NFL right now and hearing Head Coach and General Manager Bill O'Brien speak so passionately about for what's going on right now in this world, and what that means to a new player?
"Even Coach O'Brien said it, this is like the first time me and him have like met face to face. We've seen each other on the Zoom calls, so to be new and them understanding my background, what I've done in the past as far as social justice and taking a knee back with Kenny (Stills) back in Miami. Being new here and hearing Coach O'Brien say that compared to what we've heard in the past, the past couple of years when we tried to use our voices and our platforms to speak about these social injustices and unjust murders because and police brutality, I mean, it's so encouraging, because now I don't feel like I have to hide who I am, I don't have to suppress my anger, my frustration which coincides with the rest of the black and the African American community that's been going on for, like he said, over 400 years. Traumatized by seeing videos after videos, murder after murder, pleading for justice, pleading for just empathy. Now it's like OK, the temperature has changed, the tones have changed. You can hear it in their statements. I was not expecting Bill O'Brien to be that thorough, to be that spot on with all the comments he made. I mean, he touched on everything. I don't even know if I could've said it better today, right now, in this setting with everything he said. That means a lot as a young African American man playing in the NFL. It's encouraging. He touched on something else that is very important, admitting when you're wrong. Admitting the wrongs that have been done. I think that we've all asked for change and real change in the NFL. From 2016 until now, we see that with these new statements, but we're probably going to still have to have a conversation about what happened in 2016, 17, 18 and 19 with the players who have protested in the past. I think people are still going to call for at the very least a conversation about that and how players were treated when they tried to do this the first go around. But, the great thing about it is, and I want to emphasize that, is we wanted great change and I think we're getting to that place now. It's encouraging to hear Coach Bill O'Brien to speak the way he speaks, the Texans to speak the way they speak and the rest of the NFL, it seems like they're echoing the same message."
How have you evolved from your days back at Nimitz High School through now? How have you changed as a leader as far as what you've done in the world and in the community?
"I'll say this, even back at Nimitz, I've got to attribute a lot of me being involved in the community to my mom. That's something she preached all the time, education and being a community leader. I think the way I've evolved is understanding that as an athlete, a student-athlete at that time to now a professional athlete, my voice probably carries a little bit more weight than the other students and as a professional it's carrying a little bit more weight than a regular – not a regular, but a non-professional athlete, a citizen. I have a duty in my mind, this is where I was raised by my mom, to speak out if there's social issues that are going on and that need addressing because people listen to us regardless if we're talking about cancer awareness or anti-bullying and stuff like that. Our voices amplify those causes, so when it comes to social justice issues, our voices can amplify them as well and I saw that. How I've evolved is OK, I never saw myself as an activist, but when it came time for athletes to step up and use their voice and use their platforms to speak on this, I was doing it because I thought that was the right thing to do. That was just who I am because of who my mom raised me to be. That's probably how I've evolved on that front. With education, that's something that my mom instilled in all her kids, all of us growing up, and I think that's a great way for anybody, an athlete or non-athlete to have upward mobility in life. So, giving out those scholarships, always speaking about SAT and ACT prep, financial literacy, those are the types of things that I will continue to do even probably after my career is over with because I know that's what's going to help these kids who grew up in the same communities I grew up in, the Aldine area, and neighboring cities in Houston, that's what's going to help them have upward mobility and it's going to carry them a long way whether they're playing sports or not."
It seems like the NFL doesn't want to mention the name Colin Kaepernick, which is where this place started. Can you speak on that? Also, can you talk about some of the concerns you have about moving around this country as a black man?
"I think those are two great questions. One, it has to be addressed. Players feel it. Before it might have been, not might have been, it was frowned upon to speak on this topic about Colin. We saw what happened to Colin, we saw what happened to other players including myself who used their voice, their platform, who might have taken a knee and were no longer on teams. They were traded, cut, released, not signed as in Colin's case. Players felt like, OK, I have to make a decision. Unfortunately, that's how it was or that's how it is and now you see it come back full circle. The statements, and they are powerful – hearing Coach Bill O'Brien speak is powerful. Other coaches have done the same. But, we have to address if this is how we truly feel moving forward, which is great. We want to see real change. We have to address at some point, the players who tried to speak on this before, and I'm trying to use the right word – persecuted or exiled, whatever you want to say, for doing the same thing that we're saying we care about now. Players are going to call for that conversation to happen because the people are going to call for that conversation to happen. We can't just act like it didn't happen. I hope that answered the first part. The second part of the question, as a young African American male, playing in the NFL or not, just right now, me speaking from Mike Thomas, it's frustrating to say I chose to take a knee back in 2016 and in 2017 with Kenny (Stills) in Miami. We wanted to shed a light on these situations and back then it was the back-to-back unjust murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in probably less than 24 hours and that's what sparked me saying, look, I don't care. I didn't have any type of guarantee in my contract, I don't even think – I hadn't even got to my second contract yet, but I said I don't care what happens. I have to do something. To see it four years later, OK, boom, Breonna Taylor, boom, Ahmed Aubrey, boom, George Floyd – it's frustrating. There are lot of people just like back then felt hopelessness, felt anger and for me that's how it feels when you see it, but we've got to do something about it. You've got to keep calling for justice. Make no mistake about it, that's what it is. It's about justice. That's what people want to see. I love the fact that – I'm not going to name any – but so many non-black, non-African American players have reached out to me. 'Mike, what can we do moving forward? How can I help? How I can be involved? I want to understand' and just want to have conversations. I've loved it. I love y'all. I love everyone who's asking that question, who feels that way. The way that you can help and I've told them and I'll tell anybody is, moving forward, call for justice. How do you do that? You do that by putting pressure and holding accountable our elected officials on a state and local level to have swift action whenever police brutality happens. Those officers can't just get slaps on the wrists. It needs to be charges, convictions, firing. It can't be paid leave. Putting pressure on the government to actually have swift action for justice. We see far too many times and African Americans, as a young African American male we feel the hopelessness because we see people who aren't African American commit crimes way more egregious and get slaps on the wrists, get non-guilty convictions and stuff like that and then we see African Americans time and time again on videos getting murdered but there's no conviction, there's no arrests. So, that's the issue. That's what I'm feeling right now and that's what a lot of people are feeling right now. So, moving forward, I hope that answers your question. Call for justice. That's a way people can lean in and help."
You already have relationships with some of the leaders in this community. What is your confidence in those leaders that change will get done?
"Absolutely, especially here in Houston. I want to take the time and say this, to see what the city of Houston has already done from hearing from the Mayor (Sylvester Turner), from hearing from the police officers and officials and chiefs that I have relationships with to say, "We stand by the people in the city of Houston. We're walking with them, we're protesting with them. We're fighting for change right along with them." Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is like, "there are already bills on the floor." I've interned with her. I know the work her and her staff, her chief of staff, they do on a daily basis to try to get real, sustainable change done through the bills being passed. I love what Houston is doing. Houston is already on the forefront of that, but it's one city. Now it's up to us to try to call for change in other cities, and I think that with the Texans, me getting to know Bill O'Brien and just immersing myself in there, Deshaun Watson, Kenny Stills – I heard J.J. Watt and what he said last week, that's amazing. Just keep pushing, keep trying to get everybody else not (just) in the city of Houston, to understand that our city is doing the right work, we're on the right path, but we need to put pressure and try to hold all of the other cities accountable as well."
What do you think about the owners, general managers and a lot of the white players speaking out now when a lot of them refused to say anything when Colin Kaepernick was undergoing so much controversy?
"It's a deep one. That's a great question. What I will say is real change is what everybody wanted to see, right? So, admitting that in 2016-2017 that's where we were, just admitting that and saying that, that's where we were. Come 2020, there has been change of hearts, change of mindsets. Now, can we ever recover from what happened in 2016, 2017, 2018, can we ever recover from that? I don't know, but I know moving forward if these statements are genuine and true, I love the fact that these players are speaking out and reaching out now and there's stuff we can do for it, great. I think that it does speak volumes to where we were, though, and we need to have real conversations and address that. Like Coach Bill O'Brien said, admit to the wrong that was done. Colin, myself, Kenny (Stills), Eric Reid, all the players around the league who chose to take a knee, it wasn't for us, it wasn't for our gain, it was for the people. It's for the pain that we've been experiencing, like coach said, and we just want justice. That's the goal. I love the fact that, like you said, the GMs, the owners and the head coaches that are speaking out now, let's not co-opt the message, let's not muddy the water of what it's all about, it's about justice. The thing I think I heard from what the reporter before you was trying to ask, what can be done moving forward? It's calling for justice. Equality for all, yes, speaking out for understanding and having conversations, great, but the end goal is justice, and that's what all these players who are reaching out, the GMs, head coaches, teams, the league, they can call for actual justice when it comes to police brutality, and then we can start talking about equality and all and conversations for all."
What is it like for you to be home in your community with everything going on right now?
"It's always great to be able to be with the people who are in the grassroots level doing the work every single day, because then you really know what's needed. If people ask, "What can I do?" I know that this branch and this organization has been doing it for a long time and this is how you can help. You can either donate time or monetary donations and stuff to this organization, because that's who's really going to help try to create real change. Being on the ground here in Houston, I know that Congresswoman Jackson Lee is pushing for this bill, and this bill is going to try to bring about change towards police brutality. So, I can tell the people, "Look, on this level, this is what we have to do to vote, and this is what we should vote for, this is the bill or the legislation we should be voting for." That's been how I can help right now in Houston. I've got my daughter, she's five years old, about to turn six, just graduated from kindergarten and she sees it every day. As a parent sometimes you're like when is the right time to have those conversations with your kids, and you can try to shelter it because you want them just to be a kid, just to live their life, but at the same time they see it, and you've got to have those real conversations. Sometimes they're uncomfortable. Being in the thick of it, being home, it's being able to help with the grassroots level and saying hey, for everybody who is looking for something to do, how they can give back, I can help facilitate like look this is where we need to go to try to actually have sustainable change and a sustainable impact in this community, and also understanding my personal family, we're in the thick of it. I got to explain to my kids this is what's going on and this is why."
What was is like to watch what the people of Houston did yesterday in peaceful protest?
"It was amazing. I had overwhelming pride for Houston. I felt like, OK, my city gets it. Our culture is so diverse and to see everybody leaning in, like you said, from officials to regular citizens to all the people who have influence in the city of Houston, the police officers, everyone to lean in and go to the march and be involved with it, that just shows how much the city of Houston cares for what's going on. We care about our own. We're consciously aware of what's going on in the country and we want to see real change happen. I love being a part of Houston and I'm looking forward to being a part of the change that's going to come. Whatever the role the Texans want me to have in their process of creating real change, that's the role I'm going to take. I'm going to try to bring in ideas, I'm going to speak with Kenny (Stills), I'm going to speak with the rest of the teammates and say, "Look, these are some of the things that I've seen from working with Congresswoman Jackson Lee that we can do." I'm going to listen to things that they have and ideas that they have on how we can try to help and be a part of this change, be a part of real change here, calling for justice."