I attended The First Academy for 13 years, graduating in 2015. God used TFA in a mighty way when I was young in order to support my family in a time of need. My mom, Natalie Thomas, battled through the challenge of raising five kids and fighting breast cancer from 2000 until she died in 2006. But, she didn’t battle it alone. God used the families and staff at TFA to build an army of support around my mother and us kids. There were donations, carpools, meals-cooked, even scholarships extended to us children to ensure our continuing of education at TFA. The love of Christ was present through the body of TFA in that time, and it’s something I’ll never forget.
Upon graduating, I had a scholarship to attend the United States Naval Academy for football. I first attended their Preparatory School (NAPS) in Newport, Rhode Island, with my high school teammate Mason Plante. We graduated together and went on to the Naval Academy as freshmen in 2016. After my sophomore year, I was medically discharged from the Academy and I came back home to Orlando, while Mason still attends and is set to graduate in May 2020. Although being sent home was hard, the peace of the Lord was upon me and I knew that God still had a plan and purpose for my life. One of my favorite verses is Job 13:15a, which says “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him”. If we truly believe God to be who He says He is, even in the midst of suffering we will know that He is still for us, and continue to hope in Him and His plan for our life.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but we as God-fearing Christians must understand that God will wreck our dreams for His purpose. In high school, I never stopped and asked myself if going to USNA was God’s plan or mine. In fact, I never stopped and asked anyone if I should go there or not, I just did what I wanted. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s simply that we need to know and understand that God’s ways are higher than ours. If we are walking through life thinking we have it all figured out, we’re wrong. I thought I did but I learned my lesson. Job replies to God in Job 42:5-6 saying, “’I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’” In this verse, Job finally understands who he is in light of who God is—the fear of the Lord. For me, leaving the Naval Academy was my Job moment. I finally understood who I was in comparison to God, and I too could only repent and give myself up to God and his ways.
The move back to Orlando was a big lesson in how to trust the Lord and wait on His timing, especially since I’m not the most patient person. But I’ve watched as God has done the miraculous. I applied to UCF because I knew God was calling me to continue my education there in Mechanical Engineering. On the day of orientation for UCF, as I was walking out to my car, a random lady stops me and asks if I had ever heard of UCF’s “Soldiers to Scholars” scholarship program. She told me a little about the program, saying it was an opportunity to tutor and mentor underprivileged youth while earning a scholarship. I had never seen myself as one to work with youth, but I also knew I had been praying that if God wanted me to be at UCF, he would provide a way for me to be able to afford it. So I tested out the opportunity, which God’s hand was all over. Ever since I’ve been working with youth, and I’ve grown to love pouring into young lives, and, to the best of my ability, I try to extend to them the love of Christ. That was the first of many ways in which I’ve seen God work through my life since being home.
Coming back to Orlando allowed me to marry my high school sweetheart that I met at TFA, Ellie Branch. When you’re at the Naval Academy, marriage is not allowed. But, being back in Orlando opened the opportunity for us to be able to obey the voice of the Lord, and step into the covenant of marriage in a simple, special way. What’s crazy about it all is that before I ever knew out about my discharge, Ellie had decided she was going to transfer back home to UCF. Little did I know I was coming back home as well, and it was clear God was moving pieces around for us to be able to be together. Now, together, we attend the Horizon West Campus of First Baptist Orlando and serve in their kids’ ministry. Out at UCF, we both are student leaders with the Navigators Campus Ministry. So, if there are any TFA alumni reading this at UCF looking for a place to connect, please reach out to either me or Ellie. We would love to get to know you.
TFA provides the opportunity to be around great men. I’m especially thankful for men like Coach Kinard and Coach Cramer. They were not only willing to let their lives be the example of how to be men of honor and character, but they also taught us that there is always a bigger picture to life. They taught us that your lens and perspective defines the things you will get out of life. I’ve been blessed to be able to be back around both Coach Kinard and Cramer, as I am currently coaching as one of the assistants on the Middle School football team this year.
In closing, I’m thankful for the relationships I’ve made at TFA that I’ve been able to carry with me. I’ve grown as a man because of them. My prayer and hope for all who attend TFA are to be able to find real, lasting relationships that challenge you to grow deeper in your relationship with God, each other, and yourself.
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