Noel Acton remembers grabbing Ian Thomas from behind during his angry outbursts, wrapping him in a big hug and reassuring him.
As director of The Tender Bridge — a nonprofit supporting marginalized, inner-city youth that manages the Baltimore Banners ice hockey team — Acton provided the calming, steady presence Thomas needed with so many dark clouds surrounding his life outside the Mimi DiPietro skating center in Patterson Park.
“You just kind of whisper in his ear, ‘I’ll take care of you. Don’t worry. You’ll be okay. You’re safe. We’ll look out for you. We’ll make sure nothing happens to you. We’ll be here for you.’ Those kinds of things,” Acton said. “The kids that are misbehaving and having a lot of anger issues and attitudes, those are the ones you know have a bad home situation. They’re the ones that will benefit the most from our coaches working with them.”
Thomas never forgot how Acton, the Banners, and The Tender Bridge helped him get through his own hardships. And Thomas — now a tight end for the Carolina Panthers — is giving back. He’s raising money for the organization in connection with the Panthers’ game against the Ravens on Sunday, his first NFL game back in his hometown.
He realizes how important the program is to kids struggling through turbulent times. The Ian Thomas who first found his way to the Banners program had every right to be angry.
His mother, Martha Thomas, passed away on Ian’s eighth birthday in June 2004 after an abscess in her mouth led to an infection. His father, Earl Thomas, suffered a heart attack in fall 2005. Their deaths turned Ian from an active kid who enjoyed playing sports into an orphan whose living arrangements frequently changed.
“It was tough on him, from what I remember,” said Antoine Green, Ian’s uncle. “He didn’t speak much for about a year after that. He went into a slumber after his mom passed.”
Ian Thomas moved around often before his 21-year-old brother, Clif Farmer — the oldest of nine children — took him in. Some of the other siblings moved in with their grandmother. As Thomas started at Digital Harbor High School, Farmer became his legal guardian.
Thomas still loved sports like he did before his parents passed away. Sports — and, especially early on, the Banners — became a safe space for him from outside troubles.
As he grew from the kid Acton still recalls as ”Little Ian” into a football player who now stands at 6 feet, 4 inches and weighs 260 pounds, his talent on the field became apparent. Green remembers the first time he watched Thomas play football at Digital Harbor, at wide receiver, and quickly realized his nephew was the best player on the field. When he drew the same conclusion during an all-star game at Poly, he realized Ian could have a bright athletic future.
Thomas was named Digital Harbor’s most improved player and team MVP as a senior. He remained an overlooked collegiate prospect, largely because of academic concerns, so he went to Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. Even though he hadn’t played hockey in several years, Acton still helped him get into college and drove Thomas to New York.
Thomas’ junior college success led to several Power Five offers, and he wound up playing for Indiana in 2016-17. After earning All-Big Ten honorable mention honors as a senior, the Carolina Panthers drafted Thomas in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Nobody could have imagined that outcome when Thomas first joined the Banners. Acton found Thomas the same way he’s found many of the roughly 2,000 kids he says he has worked with over the last 20 years: just driving around neighborhoods.
He’d simply find kids on their streets, and ask if they wanted to play whatever sport was in season. Kids are usually interested, he said, even if only because it’s better than doing nothing. Acton would drive them to the rink or field, and drive them back afterward. That’s how he said The Tender Bridge differs from similar nonprofits, by removing the impetus for kids to show up on their own.
Thomas first got involved by playing baseball and football while his parents were still alive. He didn’t take up hockey with the Banners until after they died. It became an important part of his life — an activity to look forward to during a time with little else to get excited about.
Thomas didn’t know how to ice skate when he started playing hockey, but he had experience using rollerblades and picked it up quickly. Green said Thomas looked smooth on the ice pretty quickly.
And that adaptability, Green added, sums up Thomas as a person.
“My gosh, losing your mom and then your dad, a year apart, then having to deal with moving around a lot from house to house, trying to find a place, and to still excel in what he’s been able to do in his life is phenomenal,” Green said. “He definitely has a knack for adaptation.”
Hockey was foreign to most of the kids, Thomas recalled. Acton said most of them acclimate to ice skating seamlessly, with no fears of falling or slipping. But they didn’t know much about the sport when they started.
However, they knew one key thing that created a wild environment on the ice.
“At first, it was out of control, because all we knew about hockey was, ‘You can fight in hockey.’ One of the biggest things they [the coaches] were trying to do was get kids to stop fighting,” Thomas said. “I think everybody had that moment when you wanted to fight, you got upset because someone pushed you over, you can’t slow down fast enough and you run into someone, or you can’t do a drill good enough so everybody’s clowning you about it.”
Thomas wasn’t a standout player. He remembered lining up at left wing, and picking up some basics of where to be to make plays. But, Acton said, hockey is an intricate sport that takes time to become proficient in.
Thomas gave up hockey to focus on football when he got to middle school. But he remained involved in other TTB activities or events, such as dinners out. Thomas got his cousins — Green’s two sons — involved, and he’d come back to watch them play. Green later started volunteering with TTB, and he’s now chairman of its board and has spent 15 years with the organization.
Thomas describes Acton as a father figure and says it is meaningful to have his uncle now heavily involved in that same organization.
“You take those lessons you learn from the coaches and my uncle and family, and you apply it now. I learned a lot there,” Thomas said. “Even going back and talking to younger kids, just letting kids know that you’ve heard the same thing and it’s not the wrong thing. It may be annoying to hear 20 to 30 times a week, but it’s definitely the right thing that you should be listening to.”
Thomas will have around 45 people in attendance at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday. He’s never had that many people come for one of his games before.
“I’ve been thinking about it all week, trying to get everything situated for them to be as comfortable as possible,” Thomas said. “I know they’re excited, I’m definitely excited for it.”
Thomas, who signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension in February, has 12 catches for 120 yards this season.
When Thomas and his fellow Panthers tight ends walk from the team bus into the stadium, they’ll wear custom Banners jerseys. They’ll later autograph those jerseys for TTB to auction off. Thomas also organized a partnership with Jimmy’s Famous Seafood to donate $10 to TTB for every ticket purchased via a special site for the TailGOAT pregame party.
These initiatives, Acton and Green said, were Thomas’ idea. They didn’t want to burden him, given the difficulty of getting through an NFL season, but he insisted on finding ways to help.
“It’s pretty awesome to have him come back and see the importance of the program that helped him get through life. To come back and give back to that, that’s unbelievable,” Green said. “A lot of guys forget where they come from. He hasn’t.”
Seth Tow grew up in Clarksville, Md., and graduated from Indiana University in 2019. He has written for the Star Democrat (Easton, Md.) the Valley News (West Lebanon, N.H.) and The Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.)