Fort Riley may have brought Willie Thomas to Manhattan, but mixed martial arts made him want to stay.
“I love being in Manhattan; I never thought I would say that,” said Thomas, a former Fort Riley soldier. “When I found out I was getting stationed at Fort Riley, I was like, ‘There is nothing in Kansas,’ and I’ve really made a home for myself here.”
Thomas was considering moving back to his home in Virginia to attend college after his time in the Sunflower State was over, but when Josh Pfeifer and Joe Wilk from the Combatives Sports Center, where Thomas had been training in mixed martial arts, heard about his plan, they convinced him to stay in Manhattan.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” Thomas said. “Everybody there was so welcoming and willing to teach, kind of build off of what I’ve already learned and try to make me better.”
In the cage, Thomas’ determination and training has already paid off. A year after his decision to stay, Thomas fought in his first fight with the gym and won. On June 4, Thomas got another win under his belt against Justin Jorgensen in the third round after the judges’ decision.
“I lock myself in a cage, and I beat somebody up,” Thomas said. “On the surface that’s what it looks like, but underneath of it all it’s way more technical than that… It’s two competitors (who) step inside a closed environment, and they’re testing each other. That’s pretty much what it comes down to, whose skill is better than the other’s.“
As another way of testing himself, Thomas applied and was accepted at K-State to continue his education. Initially, he thought athletic training would be a good fit for him, but he has since declared his major in kinesiology to study strength and conditioning
“I don’t want to be the guy that’s putting the Band-Aids on the boo-boos,” he explained. “I want to be the guy that’s in the weight rooms screaming at the player motivating them and making them get better.”
Thomas’ opportunity to do just that came last summer after meeting Jimmy Price, K-State basketball’s head strength and conditioning coach.
Since becoming Price’s intern, Thomas has helped train the players, motivating them to become stronger athletes. That effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by the players.
Sophomore point guard Kamau Stokes said working with Willie has been great.
“He as a lot of enthusiasm,” Stokes said. “He works hard and he wants everybody else to work hard.”
“He’s a pretty energetic guy,” senior forward Wesley Iwundu added. “He’s never down.”
Over the past year, Thomas has been learning the ins and outs of the strength and conditioning program. In addition to supervising and sometimes participating in workouts, Thomas has given input in the layout of the weight room and the players’ exercises and nutrition, and he manages the inventory.
“There’s more to being a strength and conditioning coach than just telling the athlete, ‘OK, there’s some weight: pick it up, put it down and do it over and over again,’” Thomas said. “It’s about building a relationship so that the athlete trusts you and they trust that what you’re putting them through is beneficial.”
While his time in Kansas turned out differently than he might have imagined when he arrived, he plans to stay here for the time being as he and his wife (whom he met in Manhattan) await the birth of their second child.
“My situation just kind of symbolizes what it is to be in Manhattan,” Thomas said. “Like with K-State sports, we’re always talking about how the teams are a family, and that’s pretty much what this whole community has done for me since I got out of the Army.”