GREELEY, Colo. — Like an American Danny Rojas - for Saint Thomas, basketball was life.
“My foundation was just around hoop," Thomas, a junior forward at the University of Northern Colorado, said. "All the people that love me is because I met them through basketball. That’s just how I have friends. That’s my family.”
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, basketball was good to Thomas.
He won the state championship his senior year at Millard North High School, then parlayed that success into a scholarship to play hoops at Loyola-Chicago.
But it was in the Windy City that his foundation started to crumble.
“I didn’t know who Saint was outside of basketball," Thomas said. "If I don’t put an orange ball in a hoop, who’s going to love me? Who’s going to rock with me still? Am I still going to know the people that I know? Those questions lingered in my head.”
Lingering questions turned into depression, and depression turned into thoughts of suicide.
Thomas said the sanctuary that once was a basketball court had become his own personal hell.
“If I have a bad practice, I’m going to have a bad day," Thomas said. "If I have a bad game, it's like I let down everybody in my family. Things weren’t getting better off the court and basketball was just escalating my mental problems."
He sought help from the people in power at Loyola-Chicago, but all he found was skepticism.
“They weren’t approachable. They didn’t really listen about my mental health," Thomas said. "They thought I was just young and immature and that was an escape route for me. I couldn’t control my mind and I was trying to get control of it so I knew the best thing for me was to take a break.”
Thomas left the Ramblers' program completely in the spring of his sophomore year.
Thomas went home - back to Omaha - seeking solace and comfort.
Once again, he found only adversity.
“Nobody was supportive of my decision, even my family," Thomas said. "[I just had to] bet on myself.”
During the time away from the game, Thomas took up ways to calm his ever-moving mind - from walking to meditating. Eventually, his desire to play returned, but only under the right circumstances.
That's when he met the head coach at UNC - Steve Smiley.
“I really respect Saint because he’s been very vocal about mental health," Smiley, who's in his fourth season with the Bears, said. "He’s gone through some things and he’s continually working on it every single day. I really respect that. A lot of us just kind of shell it off and say everything's fine when everything’s not fine. On a human level, on a personal level, I respect how he’s approached his own battles.”
Thomas said his life started to feel hopeful and purposeful at UNC.
“I know I have a different reason than just being here for basketball and I wanted to figure that out," he said. “What I say is: control the controllable. If I can control my mind I can control my response."
That hope was born out of the support he felt from his new basketball family, support he hadn't experienced in a long time - not just on the court, but also to explore who he is without basketball.
“I think it took some time for him when he got here in June to really trust what we’re doing," Smiley said. "Not just on the court, but as a staff - 'Can I trust these guys? What are their intentions?' I think that was a good starting point.”
“There are people that want to help out there, you just gotta speak up and speak about what you’re going through," Thomas said.
Eventually, Thomas would like to be that sort of person for his teammates and for young athletes at-large. He'd like to be a shoulder to lean on and a guiding light for anyone struggling with their mental health.
"I want these guys to open up to me too," Thomas said. "If they’re going through anything, you don’t always have to go to a coach because they might not understand. You can come to a player that’s been through it, and I’ve definitely been through it.”
Meanwhile on the court, Thomas is flourishing with the Bears. He's earned the Big Sky Conference's Player of the Week award six times this season. He leads the conference in scoring with 20.3 points per-game, and he's on a short list of candidates for conference player of the year.
“He’s still got things he’s gotta work but he’s so complete there’s no telling what his ceiling’s going to be,” Smiley said.
Even so, Thomas is practicing what he learned away from the game in Omaha - keeping his focus small and his gratitude high.
“I didn’t even know I’d be in the conversation for player of the year right now," Thomas said. "It was just a blessing for me to be right here playing basketball again.”
Nine games remain on the regular season schedule for Thomas and the Bears before the Big Sky tournament - where they'll hope to make a run and win the championship, earning just their second ever ticket to the NCAA Tournament in March.