There is a play, from Friends running back Thomas Hankerson’s sophomore season in 2012, that tells almost everything you need to know about the young man.
Playing at Austin-Adair Stadium, Hankerson takes a pitch at the Sterling 5-yard line moving left. He’s quickly hemmed in by several defenders. No matter. He launches himself up, as if on an invisible pogo stick, from the 3-yard line — all 5-foot-5 and 185 pounds shot into the ether.
He flies over several diving Warriors. One final defender catches him at the top of his leap, sending him spinning until he smashes into the turf, ball safely tucked away and several yards into the end zone.
He sits up, collects himself and jogs back to the sideline.
“I’m fearless,” Hankerson said. “That comes from my grandmother, to be honest with you … she always told me ‘Don’t be scared of anything, and whatever you put your mind to, you can do it,’ and I’ve taken that to the football field. She had all brothers, the only girl, so I think that’s where she got it from.
“I don’t celebrate too much when I make plays because I’ve always believed you should act like you’ve been there before. No reason to act a fool.”
Hankerson‘s evolution as a player — and as a person — has taken a giant leap forward this season for Friends (3-1, 2-0 KCAC), which hits the road Saturday to take on Kansas Wesleyan (1-3, 0-2) in Salina.
“It’s hard to explain when something works out the way it did like with Hank, because we didn’t really know anything about him,” Friends coach Monty Lewis said. “But (Friends assistant coach) Matt Welch always has amazed me with his ability to find talent.”
Hankerson was a second team All-KCAC pick last season after rushing for 955 yards and 11 touchdowns. He exploded for 269 rushing yards — the highest total in the NAIA this season — and three touchdowns on 35 carries last Saturday in a 36-30 win over Southwestern. Hankerson leads the Falcons with 461 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
“(Against Southwestern) we just weren’t synced up in the passing game for whatever reason, so we had to throw the saddle on Hank,” Lewis said. “Knowing he was healthy and 100 percent, it was his time to make or break a game with his performance.”
Hankerson, from Boynton Beach, Fla., bounced around from NCAA Division II Lane (Tenn.) College to Hutchinson Community College to Kansas State before struggles with academics forced him to move home two years ago. He took classes at Florida A&M to get his grades back in order, then called Hutchinson coach Rion Rhoades seeking help in restarting his football career and finishing his degree.
“I told him my grades were in order and I wanted to go play somewhere, that I’d be willing to go wherever they’d take me,” Hankerson said. “And he said he’d help me. Friends was the first place to give me a shot.”
But Hankerson had to work on building relationships — and trust — once he got to Wichita. That wasn’t easy. He’s a self-described recluse who lives alone in an off-campus apartment and doesn’t socialize too much outside of team activities.
“I don’t really see him unless he’s coming into my work, and even then he’s alone,” Friends running back Lewis Taylor said, laughing. “And I work at Burger King, so he’s usually trying to get free food. He’s hard to understand sometimes, but he’s all business when it comes to football.”
Lewis and running backs coach Jerry Taylor eventually wore Hankerson down — Taylor by inviting him over for dinners with his family and Lewis just by … being himself.
“I’m a hugger, I’m an emotional guy, everybody knows that,” Lewis said. “I think once (Hankerson) saw that I was being genuine and the sincerity behind what we wanted him to do here, we built on that. He understands we want him to get a degree and that he needs to be a student-athlete first. When you communicate with him, to his face, he responds well.
“He’s kind of a loner, but when he’s around the guys on the team it’s 100 percent positive, nothing negative, ever. It’s been a fantastic experience having him here.”