PAY ATTENTION to enough sidelines during high school football and you'll see coaches, and/or players, standing with signs above their heads relaying messages encoded by all sorts of wacky things.
On the Imhotep sideline last weekend, one sign had four ciphers: a comic-book photo of Aquaman, the Arizona State Sun Devils mascot, a San Diego State Aztecs decal and the famous photo of Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals.
What does it all mean? Who cares? Sometimes Imhotep center Gordon Thomas Jr. tells opponents exactly what's coming anyway.
"I feel like on the offensive line, you have to have an attitude," he said during Tuesday's practice at Ben Johnston Memorial Stadium. "Because if we don't have it, then who will?"
The 6-foot, 305-pound senior sometimes breaks the huddle and loudly tell his o-line mates exactly which defenders to block, subterfuge be damned.
"A lot of times we already know who we have," said the 17-year-old, whom teammates describe as a dry-humored jokester. "But, it's just the fact that I can let y'all know who we're blocking and there's nothing you can do about it."
Tomorrow's 3 p.m. PIAA semifinal matchup against undefeated Berks Catholic (14-0), which has given up 20-plus points only once this season, will test that confidence when the Class AA foes face off at Governor Mifflin High School in Shillington.
In AAA action, Archbishop Wood tackles Berwick tonight at 7 o'clock from J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown. St. Joseph's Prep (AAAA) will face Neshaminy at 3 p.m. tomorrow from Charles Martin Memorial Stadium (the contest originally was slated for 1 p.m.).
For Imhotep, Thomas is the on-field brains behind a team with 12 wins, 642 points scored and eight All-Public League offensive players.
"Gordon is the second most important component to our offense," offensive-line coach Marcus Fulton said. "If we don't block well, the quarterback doesn't throw well and running backs don't rush for 100 yards."
Junior RB Nasir Bonner is the team's top rusher, with 1,068 yards, 14 TDs and All-Pub clout. Fellow junior QB Andre Dreuitt-Parks earned All-Pub honors with 1,496 passing yards and 24 scoring tosses.
Fulton, 36, played center at Murrell Dobbins Tech (1995), so is it just a case of unheralded big guys sticking together? Well, Thomas said he let go of his need for accolades long ago.
"I'm used to it now," he said. "I've played offensive line all my life."
Well, almost . . .
"I got the ball back in little league," he said, smirking. "I was 2-for-12 in career rushes."
"The first carry was for 12 yards. The second carry, the d-end came right off the edge and got me. That was the end of that."
A 4-year starter, he now is tasked with coordinating assignments, reading defensive lines and leading one of the city's top offensive units.
"If there's a problem, we come to him," 15-year-old sophomore guard Johncarlo Valentin said. "He's like a coach on the field. Me being a young guy, I come to him the most."
"He's like an older brother figure to me," continued Valentin, a 6-4, 285-pound All-Pub standout. "We have our ups and downs, but once we hit the field and those lights come on, that's all in the past. The o-line, we're like a bunch of brothers."
College scouts have indicated Thomas, who was thrice named All-Pub, lacks the desired height to protect big-time backfields. However, the Germantown native (off Wayne Avenue) hopes his leadership skills - and 4.4 GPA (weighted) - might help procure a future spent guarding his community.
Influenced by his father, a probation officer for the federal government, Thomas has contemplated careers in the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Marshals Service.
With that in mind, he chose "crime and poverty and how they correlate with outcomes on education," as his senior project. A 10- to 15-page paper on the subject will follow before graduation.
Carrying honors coursework and leading a football team into December also takes a toll. He said his head rarely hits the pillow before 1 a.m., after practice, dinner, a power nap and then study time.
"I'm not the party guy," he said. "I don't go out too often. I barely know what fun is right now. Football is fun. I know that if I grind now, I'll be able to play later."
Those aren't always popular sentiments among teens.
"But with me it's different," he said. "Because playing football, these guys respect me. So, always doing my work is positive to them."
Marist has shown football interest, but he's also hoping high grades can get him a walk-on shot at a big-time program.
"Guys are striving to do what I'm doing, because, when a college comes in to visit, I don't have anything to worry about, because I know my grades are good," Thomas said. "I don't have to mumble, 'A's and B's.' I can just say I have a 4.4 and know that I'm proud of what I'm saying."
No matter what path or profession he chooses, effecting change seems to be his goal.
"Some time ago, I came to grips with not having those big NFL dreams," he said. "I really want to be in law enforcement."
He added: "I guess just making a difference. I know I'd just be one officer, but still."
"Right now, I can just leave my mark on Imhotep," Thomas said. "That's where my mark is being left. But I want it to be left everywhere I go."