Most athletes love for the game of football starts at the high school level, but for Hornet middle linebacker Thomas Cletcher, it started way earlier. His passion for the game ignited while playing Pop Warner football in his hometown of Corona, about an hour east of Fullerton.
At 8 years old, Cletcher and his friends would spend countless hours talking about their dreams of playing football one day. But back then he never imagined the roadblock that would be set before him nearly a decade later.
Now standing 6-feet-1-inch and 225 pounds, Cletcher’s physical ability and ambition led to a breakout freshman season for the Hornets in 2015. His dedication on and off the field caught the attention of universities across the country, leading him to receive multiple Division-I scholarship offers.
The recent success tells only a small part of Cletcher’s story though.
Despite recently emerging as one of the top JUCO linebackers in the nation, Cletcher’s road hasn’t always been easy. While playing for one of the state’s perennial football powerhouses, Centennial High School in Corona, he faced adversity that nearly derailed his playing career before he could even get to college.
During the summer prior to his senior year, Cletcher was at a 7-on-7 passing league game, when he had a knee-to-knee collision that wound up completely tearing his ACL. The injury steered Cletcher away from the game of football for the first time in his life, and it came at the most inopportune time.
“When I tore my ACL that was a life test, things aren’t always going to go as planned,” Cletcher said.
After the injury Cletcher had to receive treatment and go into surgery to repair his torn ACL. The progress was slow. He spent 6 months pushing through gruesome physical therapy and training, just to get back to a point where he could resume even basic football activities again.
When finally cleared to return, the window of opportunity to play and show D-I colleges that he could excel at the next level was rapidly closing on Cletcher.
“I felt like Boobie Miles from Friday Night Lights,” Cletcher said. “It took a toll on me, I was cheated of my dream of playing at a state championship game with all my friends that I grew up with.”
With his senior season coming to an end, Cletcher, who had the unenviable task of rehabbing a severe injury, next had to come to terms with not receiving a college offer. Instead, he was forced to search for a different route to continue his athletic career.
“It sucks to be taken away from doing what you love, but injuries are part of the game,” Cletcher said. “So when it happens, you got to deal with it the best you can, I trained hard during off season and I never lost focus of my dreams.”
Riverside City College was the school he chose to attend originally. He spent two years taking courses and practicing with the team, but while attending college, he didn’t participate in any actual games, so he was able to keep his full eligibility moving forward.
After spending two years strengthening his surgically repaired knee and honing his craft at RCC, Cletcher took another leap of faith and transferred to Fullerton College.
“It was something about Riverside’s program that just didn’t seem like the best fit for me, and I had a good feeling from Fullerton,” Cletcher said. “I reached out to coach Brian Crooks the [FC] defensive coordinator and he gave me an opportunity.”
With the transition to a new college, Cletcher felt mentally and physically prepared to get back on the gridiron, and show the coaching staff they made the right choice. And right they were.
In his first season with the Hornets, he became a workhorse athlete on the field and an unquestionable leader on defense. Cletcher feels that the adversity he faced coming back from such a devastating injury helped him mature and become even better than before.
“Without a doubt, I am bigger, faster, stronger and more explosive than I was before the injury,” he said.
After the eye-grabbing season, in which he led the Hornets with– 70 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries, including 1 returned for a touchdown, Cletcher was named a 2015 California Community College Athletic Association 1st team All-American and received the title of Southern Conference Defensive MVP.
“Cletcher is an overall leader, he leads by example on defense, he works hard and makes big plays,” Crooks said.
The road to glory for Cletcher this year has been an upturn in his life. He currently has a 3.0 GPA, with two Division-I offers on the table, including University of Texas San Antonio and Louisiana Tech. He also received an offer from the University of Southeastern Louisiana, a Division-I AA team.
Cletcher has already taken his official visits to both Division-I schools, and is debating which university to attend.
“The defensive scheme the school runs will hands down play a big role,” Cletcher said. “That’s going to be a big part when choosing a school, where I’ll fit best with the defense I’ll be playing in.”
Cletcher plans on staying until the end of spring practice to weigh out his options with hopes of receiving additional offers from other universities. Until then, he decided to continue working hard in the classroom and on the field with the team while waiting to choose the right university.
To see Cletcher in action, check out his freshman season highlights.