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I am SCHRIEVER: Wrestling saved me from myself

Morris Thomas, 50th Space Wing Safety Office staff sergeant, says wrestling saved him from becoming self-destructive as a child. Now, he’s created the Children of Valor wrestling club at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, and hopes to pass on his lessons learned to the children. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, 50th Space Wing Safety Office staff sergeant, says wrestling saved him from becoming self-destructive as a child. Now, he’s created the Children of Valor wrestling club at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, and hopes to pass on his lessons learned to the children. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, Children of Valor wrestling team coach, (right) instructs a wrestler during a match at the state wrestling competition in Castle Rock, Colorado, Feb. 28, 2016. Thomas, 50th Space Wing Safety Office, has been coaching for 10 years and has used his experience to create a wrestling club for Schriever Air Force Base children. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, Children of Valor wrestling team coach, (right) instructs a wrestler during a match at the state wrestling competition in Castle Rock, Colorado, Feb. 28, 2016. Thomas, 50th Space Wing Safety Office, has been coaching for 10 years and has used his experience to create a wrestling club for Schriever Air Force Base children. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, Children of Valor Wrestling Club coach, instructs a wrestler during the state championship wrestling tournament Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Douglas County Event Center in Castle Rock, Colorado. Thomas started the wrestling club 11 months ago at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, and took more than a dozen wrestlers to the state competition. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, Children of Valor Wrestling Club coach, instructs a wrestler during the state championship wrestling tournament Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Douglas County Event Center in Castle Rock, Colorado. Thomas started the wrestling club 11 months ago at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, and took more than a dozen wrestlers to the state competition. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, Children of Valor wrestling team coach, gives Ian Greer a low-five before his first match at the state wrestling competition in Castle Rock, Colorado, Feb. 28, 2016. Children of Valor has only been a team for 11 months, but placed fifth out of 191 teams during the tournament. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, Children of Valor wrestling team coach, gives Ian Greer a low-five before his first match at the state wrestling competition in Castle Rock, Colorado, Feb. 28, 2016. Children of Valor has only been a team for 11 months, but placed fifth out of 191 teams during the tournament. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, Children of Valor wrestling team coach, instructs a wrestler during a match at the state wrestling competition in Castle Rock, Colorado, Feb. 28, 2016. Thomas used wrestling as a guide while going through tough times during his youth. He now shares that sentiment with his wrestling team. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

Morris Thomas, Children of Valor wrestling team coach, instructs a wrestler during a match at the state wrestling competition in Castle Rock, Colorado, Feb. 28, 2016. Thomas used wrestling as a guide while going through tough times during his youth. He now shares that sentiment with his wrestling team. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

The Children of Valor Wrestling Club poses for a group photo before the state wrestling competition Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Douglas County Event Center in Castle Rock, Colorado. The rookie team consists of children from Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

The Children of Valor Wrestling Club poses for a group photo before the state wrestling competition Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Douglas County Event Center in Castle Rock, Colorado. The rookie team consists of children from Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- After moving from project housing to a higher income city when he was 9 years old, Morris Thomas, 50th Space Wing Safety Office staff sergeant, started a new school and was thrown into a world of discrimination and prejudice.

"I was made fun of a lot for either being poor or being black," said Thomas. "I was told I 'didn't belong there'; I 'looked like trash'...more specifically I remember my sixth grade teacher told me I 'should have just stayed in the projects where I belonged.'"

While trying to deal with this adversity, Thomas started getting into fights, was suspended from school and was even put into handcuffs once or twice.

"I was in a very dark place and seeing nothing but violence most of my life; I reacted the way I thought I should have," said Thomas.

Luckily for Thomas, his school's wrestling coaches took notice.

"My story would have likely ended there if I hadn't found wrestling," said Thomas. "Coach [Kevin] Mattarelli and the Edwardsville wrestling club coaches saved me from myself."

Thomas was invited to join the close-knit team, and although he couldn't always afford to attend the tournaments, he was able to compete with the help of his coaches.

"My coaches made that opportunity available if I did yard work for them," said Thomas. "I winded up being on Team Illinois on three occasions as well as qualifying for Illinois wrestling state [competition] on three occasions and Nationals twice. I left Edwardsville with 100 career wins."

As his wrestling career came to an end, Thomas realized wrestling was more than a sport--it was his passion.

"Wrestling to me has multiple meanings," said Thomas. "It means triumph, it means revealing character, it means finding out what is deep down inside of you as a person. It gave me the confidence I never had before. It gave me a level of strength that I didn't even know I had. It didn't build necessarily character, it revealed what was inside of me."

With his new-found confidence in hand, Thomas joined the Air Force, and for the last nine years, with each assignment, from Florida to Texas to California, he stayed involved with wrestling as a coach.

"To pass [lessons I've learned] on is a phenomenal feeling," said Thomas. "Watching the kids when they step on the mat for the very first time and they're at a loss for what they're doing, and to watch them grow and change from the very basic technique to the intermediate is just phenomenal to watch."

Now, as a Schriever Air Force Base member, Thomas has become even more involved--by creating a wrestling club for the base's children.

"It isn't something that has been established here, I'm building it from the very ground up with my investments and my knowledge," said Thomas. "We [went] from basically busted rubble in a room to being among the top five for the rookie division for the state out of 191 teams, and that is a great start to a year."

Thomas currently has 15 children on his team, Children of Valor, who range in age from 4 to 15 years old. Of his 15 team members, 13 went on to compete at the state tournament and five went on to place during the competition.

"The biggest fulfillment for me was actually seeing [the wrestlers] work hard the entire year, struggle and go through everything that they've gone through in practice," said Thomas. "It finally comes to fruition when you see their faces and they know they're in the finals or they're getting a trophy because they've worked hard and earned it."

"He is always there looking out for every single one of us," said Jadon Janaros, Children of Valor wrestler. "He's not only become a coach to me, he's become a father figure."

Thomas hopes to make a difference in the lives of the wrestlers he coaches and finds joy in their successes; however, it isn't only the children he is impacting.

"Staff Sgt. Thomas is a phenomenal Airman, but he's an even better person," said Col. Jason Janaros, 50th Mission Support Group commander and team parent. "Professionally, he embodies our Air Force core values, and personally, I trust him with my children...I don't think you could pay someone a higher compliment. It was 'Coach Mo's' primary objective to teach, train and inspire the kids on his team, but I want him to know the parents of these young men and women are just as inspired."

Thomas works with the Schriever wrestlers three times a week to prepare for competitions.

"Watching them I feel first and foremost, nervous," said Thomas. "I wonder if I've done all I could to set them up for success and it's a rush--it's a great feeling. Even if they try as hard as they can and go through and get defeated, it's still good to see them grow because they're learning from that. The great thing about my kids is they've seen defeat, they know what it is like to lose and they're humble. They're humble in victory and they're humble in defeat. No matter what the outcome of the match, I'm still proud of them."

Thomas plans to keep coaching throughout his military career and hopes to inspire more kids to wrestle.

"Everything you do in life is up to you," said Thomas. "It's your own journey and it's how much effort you put in that determines the outcome. There's a saying that says once you wrestle, everything else in life is easy, so I hope [my team] takes that with them."