Martha Thomas didn’t understand it. Nobody in her family did.
She didn’t understand why in the middle of her shift as a nurse, her manager came to her desk and took Martha downstairs. She didn’t recognize the two cops there, or the detective who was waiting for her. She did, however, know the sheriff. He was the father of one of her son Matt’s best friends.
She also recognized the sheriff’s wife. But why was she there? Why were any of these people there?
“It just didn’t click,” Martha said.
“Your kids are fine,” were the first words anybody said. “Your kids are safe.”
Relief, but not an answer.
Martha could tell the reason everyone gathered in the room wasn’t going to be a good one. It was obvious. She could see it in their faces.
She was right.
“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever heard in my life,” Martha said. “It was awful.”
Her ex-husband and father of her three children was dead.
He shot himself.
Thirty minutes were the only thing separating Matt Thomas and the end of his first day of fifth grade. But he didn’t get to finish out the school day with his classmates.
His best friend Connor’s mom, the sheriff’s wife, was there to pick him up early. Matt didn’t understand it, but he didn’t think too much of it. He had just turned 11 less than a month earlier.
“I just thought I was going to hang out with my buddy Connor,” Matt said.
Connor’s mom took him home.
When Matt walked inside, the rest of his family was already there. The room’s energy was upbeat.
Martha could tell her kids were excited. They still had the jitters from going to their first day of school. They had new clothes, new backpacks and had seen some of the friends they hadn’t been in contact with since school let out three months ago.
Josie, his younger sister and a second grader at the time, sat right next to Martha. Tony, the oldest, was supposed to be at seventh grade football practice. Instead, he sat in the chair by himself. Matt sat by the fireplace with Sister Bridget, a nun from the family’s parish.
As soon as Martha heard the news herself, she dreaded this moment more than anything. All she could think about on the ride back to her house was how she was going to tell her children. How could she deliver news so awful that her children’s father was not only dead, but that he took his own life?
Greg Thomas battled addiction with drugs and alcohol before committing suicide on Sept. 1, 2005.
After their divorce two years earlier, Greg saw his kids every other weekend on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. As time rolled on, it became only Saturdays and Sundays, and then eventually just one day every two weeks.
Martha told her children their father had killed himself. He was gone.
Tears instantly streamed down the boys’ faces. Tony was in his second year of middle school, Matt his final year of elementary. They knew what had happened. They knew they were never going to see their father again.
Josie was 7. Her birthday was the next day, and her dad always took her out for a birthday dinner. She didn’t cry at first but she saw her brothers sobbing. She forced out tears.
“I guess I won’t be going out with dad tomorrow night,” Josie said.
When Matt was in kindergarten, he only went to school for half a day. At 5 years old, he spent the first half of his day in class and the other half on the basketball court dribbling and getting shots up.
At that point in his life, Matt wasn’t new to basketball. He had been dribbling the ball since he was 3.
“Watching how he could handle the ball, it was like, ‘Wow,’” Martha said.
When Matt was 9, Martha put a hoop and a slab of concrete in the backyard. Matt walked around during the summer upset because the concrete didn’t extend far enough for him to shoot 3-pointers.
Martha, who scored a Dubuque Wahlert High School record 48 points when she played 6-on-6 basketball in high school, gave Matt tips such as keeping his elbow in and dipping his wrist into “the cookie jar” on the follow-through of his shot. Other than those small tips, Matt developed his shot on his own.
When middle school and high school rolled around, the one thing coaches would always say is, “We don’t mess with Matt’s shot.”
Considering Matt has made the most 3-point shots of anyone returning in the Big 12 this season, it’s safe to say leaving his shot alone was the right move.
“I think he’s the best shooter in the country,” redshirt senior Naz Mitrou-Long said. “I know he knows that. The work he puts in can back that up as well.”
From an early age, Matt’s go-to activity was basketball. Even when he was one of the smallest and youngest players on the court, one thing he could control was his work ethic.
“I’m not going to get outworked by anyone,” Matt said. “It’s kind of been like that my whole life. That’s a value my mom taught me at a young age. If I want something bad enough, I can work hard enough to achieve it.”
Everything he does is based on his basketball career. He doesn’t drink pop, watches everything he eats and what he does on the weekend.
“I’ve literally devoted almost my entire life to the game of basketball,” Matt said. “I don’t remember the last time I took a day off.”
All of the work Matt has put in led to his coach, Steve Prohm, delivering some high praise for him at basketball media day.
“[Matt] is probably as hard of a worker as anyone I’ve ever been around,” Prohm said.
Matt was 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds when he slipped on the blue and white Onalaska High School jersey for the first time. As a 15-year-old freshman on the varsity team, he wasn’t the star, but everyone in the gym knew he could shoot.
Onalaska had a road game early in his freshman year against a rival school. The game was tied late in the game and Onalaska was holding the ball for the final shot. His teammate missed the shot, the other team got the rebound and called a timeout despite being out of timeouts.
A technical foul was called with essentially no time on the clock in a tied game. Matt’s coach, in a hostile environment with the opponent’s fans nearly on top of the court, picked the freshman to step to the line and shoot the free throws.
Matt won them the game.
“The amount [of courage] that took, I was wowed by that,” said Tony, his brother and a junior on that team. “That’s when I knew he could be special.”
It was as easy to see his shots fall in as it was to see the potential he had as soon as his body started to grow. Tony was two years older than him and hit his growth spurt between seventh and eighth grade. He stood at 6-foot-5.
As a freshman, Matt had size 13 shoes, clown feet as he called them, so he knew he was about to hit a growth spurt.
“Matt would always say to me, ‘Gosh Mom, what do you think? Do you think I’m going to grow?’” Martha said. “I would look up to heaven and say, ‘Oh, God, don’t do this to the poor kid, let him grow.’”
He finally did grow, shooting up to 6-foot-2 at the start of his sophomore year.
During that year, Onalaska was ranked No. 1 in the state of Wisconsin. The team started by winning its first 16 games of the season. Then Nick Arenz, who went on to play collegiate basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, tore his ACL. Three games later, Tony, who went to play at Viterbo University, an NAIA school in La Crosse, Wisconsin, tore his ACL too. That put a lot of pressure on Matt.
He reveled in that pressure. He became a star.
“Matt literally carried the team,” Tony said. “He would score what seemed like 30 points every game when he was getting double-teamed.”
His first scholarship offer came from Northern Iowa after his freshman year. More mid-majors followed before schools from the major conferences started giving him offers.
“There were times I would be worried because Matt wasn’t home yet and he should’ve been,” Martha said. “Then I would look out and see him talking on the phone to coaches in the driveway.”
Then-Cyclones assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger was the guy Iowa State had constantly talking to Matt. He attended Matt’s high school games, and Iowa State offered Matt a scholarship his sophomore year.
In the end, it came down to two schools, Iowa State and Virginia. Virginia’s head coach, Tony Bennett, played collegiate basketball in Wisconsin and told Matt he would be a perfect fit in Virginia’s system, which thrives off players who can shoot and play defense.
But it was too far from home.
“It was a gut feeling,” Matt said. “I felt like this was the right place.”
Matt led Onalaska to the state basketball championship his junior year, the same year he started hearing comparisons to his future coach, Fred Hoiberg.
It’s an easy comparison to make. Both are 6-foot-4 shooting guards who grew up in the Midwest. They both chose Iowa State over more prestigious programs and both have two of the sweetest shooting strokes to grace Iowa State’s campus in the history of the program.
Matt was the highest-ranked player coming out of high school who Hoiberg ever recruited, according to ESPN. Better than all-time great Georges Niang and this season’s preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Monté Morris.
The only difference in the comparisons is the Iowa State faithful compared the expectations of a 19-year-old freshman who had never donned the cardinal and gold jersey to a career of one of the greatest, most beloved players in the history of the program.
“It’s definitely humbling getting compared to him,” Matt said. “Coming here as a freshman, you want to make a name for yourself. I just wanted to be the best me I could be.
“I didn’t necessarily like getting compared to him, but that’s something I didn’t have control over. It was definitely tough when people expected you to play like Fred did his senior year when you’re a freshman. It’s just kind of unrealistic to try and fill those shoes when I had never even played in the Big 12 at all.”
The night Greg Thomas died, the Thomas family already had friends and neighbors at their door, providing comfort, food and support. Martha had three active kids, and she raised them on her own.
There were nights Josie, Matt and Tony would all have three different activities they had to attend, and there was no way Martha could get them there by herself.
She needed help, and the communities of Onalaska and LaCrosse were there for her.
Matt’s best friend Dustin’s family was there for him. Matt spent weekends in northern Wisconsin at Dustin’s family’s cabin.
Dustin’s dad, Todd, filled a lot of the void that Matt’s dad wasn’t able to fill. He took him to practices and games and was the father figure Matt didn’t have after fifth grade.
“He was the No. 1 father figure in my life,” Matt said.
Matt was playing in an AAU tournament in Milwaukee the summer before his senior year. His team had just advanced to the championship game when he went out to the car to get a Gatorade and something to eat.
His mom was waiting for him. She had news reminiscent of Matt’s first day of fifth grade.
The news was about Dustin’s dad, Todd.
He had drowned.
Martha gave Matt a choice, should they stay or should they make the six-hour drive up to the cabin to be there for Dustin.
“There was nothing we could do at the cabin,” Martha said. “Matt knew he had to be there for his friend. There was just no question that we were going.”
It’s how you respond
Martha Thomas woke up to a text. It was from Fred Hoiberg. She knew something was up but she didn’t know what. She tried to get hold of Matt but she couldn’t. She was scared, she didn’t know what had happened.
So she went for a walk.
She had her phone in her hand as she passed neighboring houses. The phone rang.
It was Matt.
He had asked if she had heard what happened. She hadn’t.
Matt had left a party in the summer after his freshman year at Iowa State. He had a couple drinks but didn’t think much of it. He had driven home lots of times after a couple of drinks; he knew his limits.
Flashing lights lit up the rearview mirror.
He had been pulled over for a broken taillight. He spent the next 12 hours in jail. He had gotten an O.W.I.
“I feel like I let her down,” Matt said. “I feel like I let a lot of people down. The community of Onalaska helped raise me. Everyone was there for me during times of adversity. A lot of those people look up to me. I feel like I let them down. My teammates, Iowa State, everybody.”
For the first month or two after that, every time Matt was out in public he was self-conscious.
“People look at you one way and you think they’re judging you or they’re thinking lower of you,” Matt said. “I just hated that.”
The hardest part was calling his mom the next morning.
When Martha heard the news from Matt, she started saying, “What were you thinking? I can’t believe you would do this.”
But then she stopped.
“What am I doing,” she asked herself. “The kid learned from it the second it happened. He needs understanding and that you’re there for him. I was mean mom for about two minutes, then everything changed.”
Matt has gone to different schools in the area and talked about the dangers of drinking and driving after his arrest. He gave up drinking for a year.
“Something we’ve talked about is,” Martha said, “it’s really not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond to it.”
Matt came home one day the summer after his sophomore year and pulled up the movie “Unbroken” on demand. He watched it with his mom in the living room.
The movie is the story of Louis Zamperini, who tirelessly trains to represent the United States in track at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. According to the synopsis, during his training, he learns to become resilient and disciplined; his brother’s words of advice, “If you can take it, you can make it,” push him to overcome any adversity.
“[The movie] was awful,” Martha said. “I sat there and watched it and thought, ‘Why am I watching this, it’s the most frustrating movie?’”
She could see the similarities between the movie and Matt’s life.
The adversity he faced seemed to just keep coming back.
Matt lost his father at 11 years old, but he didn’t grow cold. He embraced the love he received from his community.
He then lost his second father in what appeared to be a freak accident. He drove six hours to just be with his friend.
He arrived at Iowa State, and the coach who recruited him, Otzelberger, left for another coaching position at Washington. The next year, the man he was constantly compared to left for the NBA. But Matt stayed.
He got benched on a top-25 team 14 games into his freshman year after just one loss. But he didn’t quit.
He paled in comparison to the expectations he was presented with when he arrived on campus. But he didn’t grow hostile toward the man he was compared to.
He was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. He said the arrest was “meant to be.” He now shares his story in hopes of saving even one kid’s life.
He struggled more in his sophomore season than he had in the rest of his life combined.
“If we missed a shot we were getting pulled [early in our careers],” Mitrou-Long said. “Not because of anything on us but because we were just that loaded.”
After Prohm came in, instead of benching Matt after a missed shot, he begged him to shoot again, Matt came out as a junior and had the best season of his collegiate career.
“A lot of things could have broke him,” Martha said.
But they didn’t.
After all, it’s really not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond.