On the right path: UMass offensive lineman Ray Thomas-Ishman cherishing opportunities after tough past

  • UMass offensive lineman Ray Thomas-Ishman Sr. , sits on the bench during the MInutemen’s game against Hawaii at McGuirk Stadium. Gazette staff / Caroline O'Connor

  • UMass offensive lineman Ray Thomas-Ishman, Sr., left, battles Sean Carter, of Old Dominion, Saturday at McGuirk Stadium. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass offensive lineman Ray Thomas-Ishman, Sr. relaxes on the bench while the defense handles Old Dominion, Saturday at McGuirk Stadium. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass offensive lineman Ray Thomas-Ishman Sr. will return to Philadelphia Friday when the Minutemen play at Temple. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Thursday, September 14, 2017

When Ray Thomas-Ishman Sr. walks onto the turf at Lincoln Financial Field, Friday night in Philadelphia, his emotions will almost certainly be hidden in his stoic game face. But the pride running through UMass’ sophomore offensive lineman will be undeniable.

He’ll look into the stands and see so many who helped him overcome obstacles to get to that moment. His success was a tangible reward for the faith they’d invested in him.

All of them can look at Thomas-Ishman, who has started 15 games, and know they had a hand in helping that happen — his mom Serene Thomas; Nick Brown, who isn’t related but has become more of a brother than a friend; his high school coach Erik Zipay; some of the teachers who’d stay late after school to indulge his drive to succeed academically.

“It’ll feel real good,” Thomas-Ishman said. “It’s going to make me want to go even harder out there.”

Nearly a tragedy

A little less than 13 miles away from the site of Friday’s triumphant moment was nearly a tragic one.

After Thomas-Ishman, then a sophomore at Simon Gratz, delivered a dominant effort on offense and defense in a win on Oct. 4, 2013, he was still in his No. 71 football jersey walking to McDonald’s with some friends when an argument broke out in a crowd of people.

Thomas-Ishman said he and everyone else ran when they heard gun shots, but not quickly enough.

One bullet hit a teammate, and others caromed off the walls and ground of the nearby Chinese takeout joint. Five bullets hit him: one in his back, one in his left calf, and three in his hip and pelvis.

Rather than wait for an ambulance, a police officer, who was fortunately in the area at the time, got Thomas-Ishman’s 6-foot-4, 325-pound frame into the back of his cruiser and rushed him down Broad Street to Temple Hospital.

In the future, Thomas-Ishman’s combination of size (now 350 pounds) and muscle might open the door to a professional career. On that day, it saved his life, slowing the bullets from reaching his spine and vital organs or blood vessels.

“God gave me the gift of being big. If I wasn’t big and had muscle and fat and everything, I’d have died,” he said. “They said it just missed all the main arteries. You hear that and it’s like ‘Damn, that’s crazy.’ It opens your eye. I might be a walking testimony. God brought me too far to leave me.”

In Philadelphia, getting shot isn’t a rarity. PhillyPolice.com statistics show that he was one of 1,128 people shot in the city in 2013. Of those, 78.2 percent were under 35. Thomas-Ishman said six classmates were shot while he was in high school, and four of them were killed.

While Thomas-Ishman’s body still tenses up at any sound resembling gunfire, he feels more blessed than bitter.

“If that didn’t happen, who knows where I would have been at or who I would have been. I definitely think it built a part of my character,” he said. “It opened my eyes to see the people who are really in my camp, who are my real friends.”

The first four bullets came out right away, but the fifth stayed in his hip for almost two years before it came to the surface and was removed last year.

Thomas-Ishman approached his rehabilitation with a dedication that’s become a trademark. He spent months on crutches as his muscles healed and strengthened, first enough to carry his considerable frame and eventually to regain the agility that made him a Division I prospect.

“When God spared my son’s life I knew he had a destiny for him,” Serene Thomas said. “Raquan just had to realize it.”

Attacking his academics

Regaining his football prowess was only part of what he needed to get into college. Footwork came naturally. Schoolwork was a challenge.

As a middle-schooler with a learning disability, Thomas-Ishman used a defense mechanism often employed by struggling students.

“I didn’t want nobody laughing at me. I thought I was better to be the class clown than to really get the help,” he said.

He doesn’t know exactly when the light came on. But he didn’t like who he was, how he was perceived or where he was headed.

“I was in disciplinary classes. They said I was ‘unstable, won’t sit in the class,’” he said. “I said ‘This ain’t me. I’ve got to get my act right.’ From then on I did everything I could do to get my situation straight.”

Once he showed a commitment, his teachers at Simon Gratz were eager to help him.

“Teachers got off at 4, but would stay with me after school until 6 even 7 some times. I appreciate that,” he said. “They don’t have to give me extra time. They could just do the time they get paid for. I appreciate everyone helping me along the way.”

His college choice came down to UMass and Temple. For a 20-year-old from the nation’s fifth largest city, college town life in Amherst was an adjustment.

“It’s boring out here. But I like that there’s less temptation, less chances to get in trouble and get into a fight,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t want to go to Temple. My neighborhood is right there. There’s too much temptation.”

He’s thrown himself into football and school. As a true freshman last year he was required to spend 10 hours per week in study hall to work with tutors.

“He’d do 15 if that’s what it takes. He takes pride in it. He’s a guy that’s very responsible,” UMass offensive line coach Mike Foley said. “Where he came from you can go one way or another. He’s made his mind up that I’m going in this direction and nothing is stopping me. It’s a joy to see him.”

Thomas-Ishman doesn’t understand people who look at study hall as a nuisance.

“If they’re going to help me, I’m going to make them push me harder. If you want me to go one hour, I’m going to go three hours so I can catch back up,” he said. “I can’t just climb the mountain, I’ve got to jump over it.”

Thomas-Ishman looks like an NFL lineman. At his size and with his agility, he’s got a chance. But unlike many college football players, he’s not treating football as his only path to a better life. His uncle Reginald Chasten, who was a surrogate father sometimes for Thomas-Ishman, runs a construction business. Whenever his football career ends he’d like to follow him into that field.

“The league ain’t promised. I could get hurt in practice and be done. I go so hard to get my degree to take advantage of what they’re giving me, while it’s free,” Thomas-Ishman said. “I’m going to have no loans. I can go out there and get a job, take care of my family.”

Fatherhood motivation

A year ago, he played as Raquan Thomas. But this year he asked UMass to list him as Ray Thomas-Ishman Sr. on the roster.

Adding Ishman is for his father James Ishman. Adding Sr. is to honor his 3-month-old son, who was born this summer and lives with his mother in Philadelphia.

His relationship with his father is evolving. He’s watched James Ishman battle addition.

“I knew there was love there,” he said. “Drugs were just more powerful. He couldn’t help himself.”

Raquan Sr. thinks about Raquan Jr. a lot, dreaming and planning how to best provide for him and be a role model. In the future, if his son looks back at his college career, Thomas-Ishman wants him to see that even though he was far away, he was thinking about him.

Thomas-Ishman’s face lights up when he talks about his dreams for Raquan Jr., who’ll see his father play live for the first time Friday.

“I want him to say, ‘My dad went to college so now I’ve got to go to college. My dad got one degree, I need two degrees,’” Thomas-Ishman said grinning. “That’s how you set up your family tree successfully. I want my son to set the bar even higher. I’m hoping he’ll be 10 times better than me.”

More than that he wants to help is son avoid the hardships he had to overcome in Philadelphia.

Thomas-Ishman has a complicated relationship with his hometown. He loves it, but isn’t sure he wants to go back.

“Everything Philly put me through made me who I am. I don’t regret nothing. The mistakes and the things that I’ve been through helped me appreciate life at a young age,” he said, touching the 716 (Philadelphia’s area code) tattoo on his left hand. “But I’ve been getting calls: Such and such just got killed. Such and such just got locked up.

“I never really looked at it until I got out of my community and got around some different people and realized, ‘Oh snap, people don’t live like this.’ I don’t want this for my life,” he continued. “I never said I don’t love Philly. But I’ve seen the same cycle happen over and over.”

He’s not part of the cycle anymore, much to the relief of his mother.

“I’m proud of where he has come from and what he’s accomplished,” she said. “He’s not just persevering on the field and he’s making good grades. You can come out of the inner city. You don’t have to be the next statistic. I don’t know what words could fit how proud I am. I’m proud beyond infinity. ”

On Friday, Thomas-Ishman will be proud too, proud to stand on the field to let Philadelphia see how far he’s come. Zipay rescheduled his football game so the whole Simon Gratz team can attend. Thomas-Ishman said he wants those players to see what hard work can produce.

“I want to go back and show people you can make it out no matter what,” he said. “You have to be dedicated. I feel real good about the path that I’m going down. I’m out of trouble. I’m going to school for free and playing football. I get an education and when I leave, I’m going to have no loans. It’s like I’m already getting set for life.”