49ers rookie Thomas was built to overcome NFL adversity

Ambry Thomas

Ambry Thomas was built for this. 

It may appear to those outside the 49ers headquarters that the rookie cornerback has been struggling, but there is more to it than that. On Tuesday, coach Kyle Shanahan shared how Thomas has improved on the field in practice and in games. 

After only playing only 20 defensive snaps through Week 13, Thomas was called upon to start in the 49ers' last two games. Shanahan believes the catches Thomas has allowed and the penalties he has committed are only part of the growing process.

The head coach likes Thomas’ aggressiveness jamming receivers on the line of scrimmage and his short memory after challenging plays. 

For Thomas, facing adversity is nothing new and his mental strength comes from what he has already overcome. 

In June 2019 while a student at the University of Michigan, Thomas felt like there was something wrong with his stomach, and not just a run-of-the-mill ache. The cornerback checked himself into the emergency room, and shortly thereafter was informed he had colitis.

Thomas spent three weeks in the hospital and lost 35 pounds. Incredibly, the defensive back set his mind on being able to suit up for the Wolverines' season-opener after doctors told him there was only a slim chance he would play. 

On August 31, 2019, Thomas recorded his first of three interceptions in his junior year in Michigan's season-opener vs. Middle Tennessee State. 

Maybe even more impactful was what Thomas experienced in high school. During a Detroit King summer practice -- his head coach Dale Harvel collapsed in the heat. According to King’s defensive coordinator Ty Spencer, Thomas rushed to his coach’s side, rolled him over and helped him onto the stretcher. 


Harvel did not survive.

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Spencer largely credits Thomas for the team winning the state championship that season. 

“The leadership he exhibited that year was amazing,” Spencer told NBC Sports Bay Area. “We weren’t supposed to win the state championship that year but his leadership was a big part of why we did. That kid will not settle.”  

Spencer believes there is no challenge Thomas will shy away from. Starting over and proving himself worthy of his third-round pick status is something that he knows the young cornerback will accomplish. 

“He has always had the drive to be great,” Spencer said. “I saw him put the work in to be an All-American in high school. He might not do everything perfect the first time but he is so competitive that he will get to where he needs to be.” 

Thomas’ job will not get any easier Thursday night as the 49ers face the Tennessee Titans, with Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Brown expected to play after being activated from injured reserve.

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