CHARLOTTE – Before he turned 10 years old, Ian Thomas found himself staring at the real possibility of a childhood spent in foster care.
But Saturday, with Thomas surrounded by siblings in the Baltimore living room where they grew up together, his success story off the field took its next successful step on the field. The hulking tight end was selected by the Panthers to kick off the third day of the 2018 NFL Draft.
"I've had a great support system behind me, and they made it possible for me to believe in myself," said Thomas, the first pick of the fourth round. "It's a dream come true."
Thomas' mother died of a kidney infection when he was 8 years old, and within the year his father died of a heart attack. One of nine siblings, Thomas was raised by his oldest brother, Clif Farmer – who was 19 when he gained full custody of Thomas and two of his siblings.
"I always thank him for helping us growing up and helping me become the man I am today. He knows how much love I have for him," Thomas said. "It's a blessing to have him as an older brother and a role model."
Now, Thomas' family will be there to support him on his journey into the NFL. He has just one full season of experience on the major college level but showed major potential at the University of Indiana, drawing some comparisons to future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates.
"I think it's very possible. Like everyone is saying, I have great potential and a lot of space to work with to get better," Thomas said. "I will take the challenge and hopefully fill those shoes."
Mentioning Thomas in the same sentence as Gates might be jumping the gun, but the Panthers do really like their pick's potential. Thomas did catch 26 more passes at Indiana than Gates did at Kent State (where he played basketball), but Thomas does have a ways to go.
General manager Marty Hurney said that Thomas can learn on the job in 2018.
"He definitely has the ability to come in and contribute right away, but we think he has got a very high upside," Hurney said. "We think he can be a complete tight end. He's got all the skill sets. He's got a lot of potential. He need experience and he's going to be a work in progress, but he's got all the tools." Thomas prides himself on being an all-around tight end. He closely followed Todd Heap of the Ravens growing up and said he considers himself both athletic in the pass game and strong in the run game.
All-around ability like that is valued at the positon by the Panthers, and it's something they have in place already with their potential Hall of Famer. Greg Olsen signed a two-year extension through the 2020 season hours before the draft began Thursday. The Panthers are in the process of figuring out who can complement him in 2018 (and eventually replace him) after Ed Dickson signed with the Seahawks.
"He's a great guy, a great tight end who has been in the league for a while," Thomas said of Olsen. "He's a role model to look up to, a great veteran in the league."
Thomas knows all about role models in his personal life as well, and Saturday he was in position to celebrate another success with them.
"You see some tears here and there, but it's great, especially knowing where we came from and how far we've come," Thomas said. "It's a blessing."