This story was originally printed in Dime #70. To see it in its entirety, check out the issue on newsstands nationwide…
Everyone could use extra motivation, and while many athletes roll their eyes when someone tries to tell them how hard they should be working, it’s impossible not to get what Eric Thomas is saying. Nicknamed “the hip-hop preacher”, Thomas overcame homelessness to become one of the industry’s most relevant new educators.
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Before his YouTube videos went viral, and before he was educating future millionaires, Eric Thomas just wanted to change people’s perspectives. The educator, motivational speaker and author had started a non-profit organization as a junior in college to help drug dealers and single-parent mothers get their GEDs. Thomas also later began speaking at Michigan State University, trying to show young people how best to use their energy. He was dealing with the death of Detroit as GM, Ford and Chrysler all took major economic hits, and the resulting financial losses trickled down into everyone’s attitudes. Everyone was negative. Everyone was tired.
One of his more memorable speaking engagements climaxed when Thomas told his listeners, “When you want to succeed as bad as you wanna breathe then you will be successful.”
That gave someone an idea. A video later appeared on YouTube documenting the workouts of former East Carolina running back Giavanni Ruffin. The background audio? One of Thomas’ speeches. What happened? The video has now been viewed close to six million times.
“When he blew up,” explains Thomas, “I think that’s when I started getting calls because for some reason with him being an athlete, it made the connection that this particular video inspired athletes.”
Soon, Thomas was invited to speak with the high school All-Americans at the 2012 Jordan Brand Classic this April, as well as Harvard University and the Toronto Blue Jays minor league affiliate. Thomas is also the narrator for the recently released SB Nation series called “Core of Sports” and was recently commissioned to execute consulting initiatives for the NFL Players Association. Amazing, considering he was once an angry, homeless high school dropout who might’ve never gone to college had he not met his future wife. She told him the only way they could stay together was if he got his GED and pursued a college degree. Now, they’re married and Thomas is one of the fastest rising motivational speakers of this generation.
Presently, Thomas has a popular YouTube channel where his weekly “TGIM” â€“ Thank God It’s Monday â€“ videos are helping people change their perspective on what it means to be successful and happy. And besides his viral videos, as well as his speaking engagements, Thomas also wrote a book last fall called “The Secret To Success” for every young teenager who’s been hurt. At around 12 years of age, he found out that the man helping to raise him wasn’t his father. It devastated him and changed his relationship with his mother.
“I went to school angry,” he says. “I was on the block angry, and because of that anger, I made some real crazy decisions. I just want to catch every 12 or 13-year-old and say it’s okay that your old dude wasn’t in your life.”
Interestingly, the majority of Thomas’ listeners on his YouTube channel are white males in highly competitive environments. But because of his energy, his passion and his background, Thomas closely resonates with the country’s youth. As he explains, if you really want to have an impact, you need to be more than just a teacher. You have to be an effective communicator.
“I found that my message was a lot sharper than a lot of cats,” Thomas says, “because I had the privilege of not just speaking from here but I was working in an environment every day where there were stories that I had that made my message weigh much richer.”
With athletes, his lessons are similar, but with a twist. Some of the young basketball players Thomas speaks to are from inner cities, and while they have opportunities to become future millionaires, that success isn’t without drawbacks. Some of those kids have never stepped outside of their environment. They may not understand the language, the code or the rules before suddenly, they find themselves at Duke University.
“That’s a huge responsibility on a 19-year-old, 20-year-old, 21-year-old,” Thomas says.
Many don’t know what it takes to even make it in college. No one is showing them how. They’re first-generation students who haven’t come from an environment where education is stressed.
As Thomas says, basketball is never enough, and a lot of young people don’t make the right decisions because they’ve never been challenged before. They have the time but don’t know how to manage it. They have the resources but don’t have the knowledge.
Not only is he trying to inform these future stars what it takes to succeed outside of their social bubble, he is also trying to teach them some humility.
“A lot of our young athletes have this entitlement,” says Thomas. “They feel like ‘Because I can dunk a ball, because I can throw a ball, because I can run a ball, people owe me.'”
Even as Thomas’ celebrity grows, he hasn’t yet set any future goals. He just wants to improve as an educator by becoming savvier corporately, better at tracking data and most of all, better at getting his message across. As Thomas tells it, it’s not what happens to us in our life that dictates the outcome… it’s how we perceive it.
“You will walk away saying this is my life and I’m about to take ownership of my life,” he says, “and I can be, I can do and I can have whatever it is I wanna have.”
How important is having a positive outlook on life?
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