A Passion You Can't Teach

Oct. 27, 2006

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Joe Petrelli loves Torey Thomas like a son. So the fright in the quivering voice of this kid of 13 shot right to his heart.

Over the phone that day, Torey told "Mr. P" that folks were telling him he was "a bleeder" and might never be able to play basketball again. That he had something called hemophilia.

Torey's mother, Rosemary, is a transmitter of this disease. Torey had been having chronic nose bleeds. And doctors were expressing concern.

Petrelli, a 1973 Holy Cross grad and bonds trader, had grown close to Torey. His son Kyle and Torey played on the same youth basketball team in White Plains, N.Y. "He's part of the family. He still goes out with us on my birthday. He'd have sleepovers with Kyle. Susan and I consider Torey our fifth kid."

Fortunately, Petrelli had experience with blood problems. His iron deficiency had been treated at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. He allayed Torey's fears and arranged testing at Weill Cornell for Torey, his mom and his younger half-brother Trevon.

Torey received a clean bill of health. But it was determined that Trevon has a deficiency in plasma coagulation factor IX, known as Hemophilia B. His mom, a nursing home social worker and community liaison, has earned certification to give Trevon the required injections.

"My brother can't play contact sports, but he's the most courageous kid I know. He is very smart, really copes well and is always optimistic," says Torey, admiringly.

Petrelli is just one of many who have been drawn to Torey, not because of his amazing athleticism, but because of his magnetic personality. Torey credits "Mr. P" and several other adult males in his life for becoming "father figures" and providing him with guidance, goals and structure.

Torey says he has no relationship with his own father, who left his mom when she was pregnant with him. Besides Trevon, now 12, he has two older sisters, Tasharna and Tammy Thomas, and a stepfather, Greg Williams.

Growing up on hard-scrabbled Ferris Avenue in White Plains, Torey acknowledges he was enveloped by poverty and folks caught in the grip of personal stagnation.

"Ferris Avenue is like quicksand," Torey explains. "A lot of things are going on along that strip. People get stuck and can't get out. I love the people there, and they love and care for me. But I want to become something more, and I knew hard work and sacrifice would get me loose."

Torey remembers his sisters bringing him to the park off Ferris Avenue. "I just gravitated to the courts," recalls Torey. His agility and speed drew attention. He played at the White Plains YMCA, becoming a teammate and pal of Joey Papalardo Jr. whose father Torey calls "Coach P.''

Joe, who is retired after selling his distributing business, and Gloria Papalardo consider Torey part of the family.

Over time, Torey, Joey Papalardo and Kyle Petrelli became involved in a hoop league at the Don Bosco Community Center in neighboring Port Chester, N.Y. Their coach, Billy Walsh, had played for Frank McGuire at South Carolina. He would be added to Torey's growing list of mentors. "We were there to make sure kids like Torey didn't fall through the cracks," says Joe Papalardo.

Torey, a top student, won a scholarship to Trinity Catholic in Stamford, Conn., where Walsh coached the first-year students and Papalardo served as his assistant. Torey made all the necessary sacrifices. He got up at 6 o'clock each morning and made the 30-minute trip from White Plains to Stamford where he would catch a van to Trinity. He attacked academics with the same ferocity he approached sports.

At Trinity, Torey's unusual leadership ability became obvious. He progressed quickly from freshman ball to the varsity. Just before tournament time, Coach Mike Walsh had his poised point guard running the offense.

"When the kids were freshmen, Coach (Billy) Walsh challenged his team--`How many sit-ups and push-ups can you guys do?'" recalls Papalardo. "Torey replies, `What about a thousand each?' Well, Coach Walsh cut that number back to something like 50 ... but Torey would do a thousand every day. The other kids knew who their team leader would be," adds Papalardo.

What followed was a spectacular schoolboy career. As a junior and senior, Torey sparked Trinity to back-to-back Connecticut championships. He set a school record in assists (689), scored 1,140 points and, as a 5-9 (now 5-11) guard, pulled down 527 rebounds. Twice, he made first-team All-State. As a senior Torey was Connecticut Player of the Year, making everyone around him, including teammate David McClure (now at Duke), a better performer.

More importantly, to Torey and his mom, he became a member of the National Honor Society while developing his skills as a school and community leader. He also developed another close bond with the family of teammate Jimmy O'Leary. Soon Torey became another son to Mike and Maryanne O'Leary, who already had six stellar scholar-athlete kids. During the season, he would often stay overnight at the O'Learys, rather than make the commute to White Plains and back.

The qualities that the Petrellis, Papalardos, O'Learys, Walshes, Willards, and everyone who meets Torey rave about are his compassion for others and his passion for life.

"He cares so much about making others better while working hard to make himself a better person," Papalardo assesses.

Papalardo offers an example. Torey wants to give back to his Ferris Avenue community. He sees kids struggling. He suggests that an enrichment program be set up at the White Plains Y. Papalardo asks for an audience with the board of directors. He lets Torey do the talking and sell the concept.

Torey's passion takes over. He tells the board his story, how he was saved by those who took time to mentor him. He brings tears to the eyes of those present. His plan would combine AAU basketball with a tutoring program at the Y. Businessman Chris Combe funds Y scholarships for 70 kids from Torey's neighborhood. Torey's plan is executed by him and others inspired by him. The program is becoming an outrageous success.

Despite all the accolades, as a high school senior Torey Thomas is not being romanced by the big-time hoop colleges. His work ethic, his academics, his talent, his proven successes are all a matter of record. But powerhouses hesitate when they realize Torey is anywhere from 5-8 to 5-11--depending on who's doing the measuring. Wisely, Torey decides to delay his decision until his senior season ends, and his stock rises.

"I wanted to go to a college with academic prestige where I could prove I could play at a top level," Torey says.

"Mr. P" had just the place. Joe Petrelli thought his alma mater would be a perfect fit for Torey. And his sister, Susan, had married William P. Doran, Class of 1977--who happens to be enshrined in the Holy Cross Varsity Club's Hall of Fame for his prowess in basketball and baseball.

Petrelli and Doran double-teamed Ralph Willard '67, current Crusader coach and former captain. Come take a look at our guy, they pleaded. Willard made a special Sunday trip to see Torey work out.

"Torey has great instincts and quickness," Willard says. "I was impressed with his ball handling, his work ethic and his self-discipline. Most of all, he exuded that passion you can't teach. I turned the trip into an official visit and offered him a scholarship on the spot."

Willard tells an insightful anecdote about Torey. During Torey's first year, the coach yanked Torey from a game and started to lecture him about the fine art of Willard-style defense. Torey looked away, then walked away, a bit ticked off.

Later Willard called Torey into his office. In no uncertain terms, he told Torey that he had to look him in the eye when he was speaking to him. Willard wanted to be absolutely sure Torey was listening to every word he spouted. Willard read Torey the riot act about being at a great school and that he should never disrespect people by not paying strict attention.

Torey left. Moments later: Knock, knock. Torey is back. Torey tells Willard: "Coach, you will never have to have this conversation with me again. Ever!"

Before each season begins, Torey presents Willard with a typed-up contract. It is loaded with items Torey vows to accomplish. He will improve his ball handling. He will increase his three-point shooting percentage. He will ... on and on it goes. He signs this performance contract and so does Willard.

"He has never looked away since our talk," says Willard. "I consider Torey the best person I've ever coached. His greatest talent is caring about others. He doesn't drink or smoke. He leads by example. He is a true motivator, destined for great things."

"If they had municipal elections up here, Tory would be Mayor of the Campus,'' Willard adds.

*Torey loves Holy Cross, and the College loves him. He is not only No. 1 on the court, but the College's Web site features Torey as its cover story in its "The Spirit of Holy Cross" public relations campaign.

And it was love at first sight. Torey recalls walking into the lobby of Hanselman Hall on his 18th birthday and being ambushed by his dorm-mates and friends.

He swells with pride when he tells how Holy Cross went to Notre Dame and beat the Irish in their own house in the NIT's opening round. He had 16 points, six rebounds, two assists and a memory for a lifetime.

Torey speaks with common sense and sensitivity toward all as he recounts the progress that the Black Student Union made while he served as its chief of staff.

He chatters with delight about his two years as a resident assistant and about being an ambassador for the College while giving campus tours to incoming students. He relishes mentoring inner-city kids on Sunday mornings in the College Hill program run by John and Ellen Moynihan.

When he brags, it is about his senior sidekick and roomie, Keith Simmons '07 being first-team All-Patriot League--or the accomplishments of others.

He talks lovingly about all those who have mentored him. He leaves out nobody.

But mostly he talks about his mother, and how she nurtured him, giving him space to grow and to be his own man.

He says he has recovered fully from off-season knee surgery, ticking off all those who helped, from his surgeon, Dr. Phil Lahey '69, to those who spurred on his arduous rehab. He mentions he would like to become a lawyer someday, so he can help the needy.

He believes if everyone is healthy and gives 100 percent, the basketball season ahead will be a success. His desire is seen simply by glancing at a few startling facts: at 5-11, Torey was fourth in overall rebounding in the Patriot League last season. And he led the league in minutes played, including all 50 in a double-OT against Fordham.

He resolves to stick his nose in where it don't belong and come out with the ball for his team. He will take his lumps and survive.

Because, he says, he only bleeds purple.


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.