The Everett Royals during practice at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The Everett Royals during practice at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Semi-pro football team pushes players to succeed off the field

The Everett Royals “do everything it takes to make sure that players are not struggling.”

EVERETT — Every day, first thing, the owner of the Everett Royals scours Craigslist for odd jobs.

Trash runs, yard work, sheet rock repair.

The search fulfills a promise Mike Thomas, 34, made to the semi-professional football team he founded last year. As a new owner and a coach, he’s committed to helping players and staff find a job, learn a skill or further their education.

Starting at the age of 19, Thomas played semi-pro football for the Tulalip Hawks and the Snohomish County Vikings. The league rarely pays players.

The two teams have folded, but Thomas can recall plenty of times when his teammates couldn’t attend practice because they didn’t have money for gas or rent came first.

When Thomas launched the Everett Royals, he vowed to do things differently.

He wants his team to succeed on and off the field.

“I played semi-pro football for nine years and the only thing I got out of it was injuries and a pat on the back,” Thomas said.

To keep his pledge, Thomas enlisted Workforce Snohomish, which offers free career counseling services. The agency runs the county’s two WorkSource centers in Everett and Lynnwood.

Joy Emory, president and CEO of Workforce, looks forward to the matchup.

Mike Thomas, owner of the Everett Royals, dons his pads for practice at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Mike Thomas, owner of the Everett Royals, dons his pads for practice at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“We can help fund training. We can provide paid internships so players can do what they love — play football — while also supporting themselves and their families,” Emory said.

Thomas sees it this way: “We do everything it takes to make sure that players are not struggling.”

Bradley Peth, 23, a running back for the Royals, recently visited Workforce: “They just want to help you get jobs in whatever you’re interested it. It’s all free. That’s really cool,” Peth said.

“The Royals are different from any semi-pro team I’ve played on,” Peth said. “This is the first team where they’re actually trying to help you get jobs.”

During a recent Royals practice at Archbishop Murphy High School in south Everett, Zander Refilong, a Workforce employment specialist, set up a table for players and fans to stop and chat.

“We’re here to help with whatever barriers they have to completing their education or finding a job,” Refilong said.

Players range in age from 18 to 44. The Royals regular season runs from May to September. Games are played at Archbishop Murphy High School or Mariner High School in Everett. Tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and military and children under age 14 get in free. The team’s colors are purple and gold.

“Mike came up with a good idea to help people get jobs and money and learn a skill,” said Ty Williams, a cornerback for the team. “It’s pretty dope.”

Mike Thomas (6), owner of the Everett Royals, shares a laugh after practice at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Mike Thomas (6), owner of the Everett Royals, shares a laugh after practice at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Setting up the play

Most weeks, four to 10 players might take Thomas up on one of the jobs he lines up, said Tom Fischer, the Royals head coach, who’s been calling plays for semi-pro teams for years.

Players typically earn about $18 an hour, said Fischer, a master carpenter who offers his expertise to players working on construction projects.

“This team is different because it’s getting people employed,” Fischer said “Guys are making money, and they’re getting to learn.”

Thomas’ enthusiasm is contagious, Peth said.

“A lot of players have been putting in extra work, extra practices and workouts to prepare for this season,” said the running back, a 2016 graduate of Lynnwood High School. “Everybody sees how hard Mike is working for us, on and off the field. So that’s kind of hyping people up, too.”

Thomas is soft-spoken; his voice, melodic and polite. Ask a question and his response always include the salutation, “ma’am”or “sir.”

Tom Fischer, head coach of the Everett Royals, runs the warm-up drills before the first game of the season at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Tom Fischer, head coach of the Everett Royals, runs the warm-up drills before the first game of the season at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“I didn’t say, ‘Yes, ma’am’ or ‘sir’ when I was growing up,” Thomas said. “I had a lot of anger problems. I wasn’t a good kid growing up, I wasn’t a bad kid. I graduated high school, but I was always cursing and getting in trouble.”

Thomas recently ran into an Everett police officer who knew him from the old days.

“He was one of my troubled teen cops when I was growing up,” Thomas said. “He wanted to know what changed.”

Thomas credits football and his faith for the interception.

“I was a troubled teen until I found semi-pro football and gave my life to Christ,” Thomas said. “Football taught me respect.”

The love of football is the common thread among the team’s 57 players and staff.

“It’s family coming together. It’s friendship,” said Dion Bluford Jr., 25, of Lake Stevens, as he came off the field at Murphy High School after a four-hour team practice.

Beau Beery, Everett Royals offensive coordinator, calls a play in the huddle during practice at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Beau Beery, Everett Royals offensive coordinator, calls a play in the huddle during practice at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The Royals offered Dylan Reid, 21, a spot as a defensive back on this year’s team.

Tryouts for the 2022 season were held on a chilly November day at Everett Memorial Stadium. Reid’s mother, Angie Barber was in the stands to cheer him on.

Barber, who lives in Everett, said her son was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 15. He played football at Evergreen Middle School and Cascade High School until he learned of his condition.

Reid looks up to Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, who also was diagnosed with epilepsy as a teenager.

“It has had zero effect on football,” said Reid, who manages his condition with medication.

Reid practiced with the Royals for a few months, but decided it was in his best interest to wait until next year to try out again, Barber said.

“They pushed him to keep working and get stronger,” Barber said of the team. The encouragement made him focus on “more warmups, more workouts, more sparring.”

For other young men, it’s a chance to keep playing football beyond high school or after they age out of youth sports.

“I was part of the Boys and Girls Club in downtown Everett,” Thomas said. “But after you reach 18, there are no more programs.”

That void can have consequences, Thomas said.

Boyd Demus, Everett Royals defensive coordinator, leads the huddle with a laugh at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Boyd Demus, Everett Royals defensive coordinator, leads the huddle with a laugh at Archbishop Murphy High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“There’s a lot of troubled youth out there, and sometimes they go back to doing things they don’t want to do.”

Thomas runs Royal Home Build, a Mill Creek-based construction business. He dug deep into his savings to launch the Everett Royals in 2021.

The team is part of the Gridiron Developmental Football League, a Memphis-based nonprofit composed of some 40 semi-pro teams.

There are five GDFL teams in Washington: the Everett Royals, Seattle’s Washington Warriors, the Tacoma Sabers, the Tacoma West Sound Rebels and the Grit City Knights in Gig Harbor, said Charles Thompson, league commissioner, who founded the organization in 2010.

”We’re trying to give some of these guys that fell through the cracks a chance to live out their dreams and aspire to the next level,” Thompson said.

Last year Royals player DeShon Williams , a former University of Washington tight end, signed to the Seattle Seahawks practice squad.

Chicken burger, fries and a team

When COVID-19 struck in spring 2020, the owner of the Tulalip Hawks told players there would be no football that year.

Disappointed, Thomas resigned himself to sitting out the season. But the urge for a chicken burger and fries affected a turnaround.

When Thomas pulled into the drive-thru at a McDonald’s restaurant one night, he heard a deep voice asking for his order over the intercom.

Brad Peth (left) and Marcus Goodman share a laugh during practice at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Brad Peth (left) and Marcus Goodman share a laugh during practice at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“I pull up to the window, and the guy is huge,” Thomas said. “I asked him: ‘Do you play football?’ and he’s like, ‘No, after high school I didn’t get the opportunity.’”

“Have you heard of semi-pro football? Thomas said. “Maybe you should sign up.”

Then without thinking, Thomas heard himself blurt, “‘I have a football team. You could play for my team.’”

There was no team at that point, just Thomas — overcome by enthusiasm — waiting on a burger.

When the server asked for the name of his team, Thomas paused, and answered, “The Royals,” a riff on the former entertainment company he ran, Royal Family Empire. They exchanged phone numbers.

“As soon as I got home, I started writing down what I wanted for the team,” Thomas said. “The first thing I wanted was to give these guys an opportunity to learn a trade. Let me bring something else to this.”

Thomas recently met with Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin’s executive assistant Nichole Webber, hoping to add more community sponsors to the team’s roster.

“He reached out to the city, looking to partner with the city and build his business and team,” Webber said. She offered information about local tourism grants, and pointed him to TheLab@everett, a business incubator that offers support for-profit and nonprofit startups.

Mike Thomas packs away pads and helmets after practice at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Mike Thomas packs away pads and helmets after practice at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“He has this wonderful mission to help young men when they get out of high school,” Webber said. “That’s obviously something we support.”

She was struck by his pluck.

“Usually if you’re someone who owns a team, you’re a millionaire, not somebody who wants to invest in his community,” Webber said. “Hopefully, we can find more ways to partner with him in the future. We want his business in Everett, his team.”

Waleed Muhammad, owner of SnoCoData Service and a team sponsor, is a fan.

“Thomas is harnessing the excitement players feel on the field to encourage them to seek employment opportunities,” Muhammad said.

“A lot of young men are underutilized because they haven’t had the chance to fulfill their potential, ” Muhammad said. “Mike is giving them the opportunity to get that, so he’s filling a big void.”

On a warm sunny Saturday morning in February, a handful of spectators had gathered in the stands at Archbishop Murphy High School to watch an Everett Royals practice. Most were friends or family of team members. They clapped, hooted and hollered at a completed pass.

A numbers decal is applied to a Royals helmet before the first game of the season at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A numbers decal is applied to a Royals helmet before the first game of the season at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

On the sidelines, veteran semi-pro football player Michael Marshall grabbed a swig of water. The 34-year-old wide receiver said he was excited for the Royals’ first preseason game, the following Saturday.

He swore his allegiance to Thomas: “He’s going to make sure this is something that is going to last,” Marshall said.

As the four-hour practice came to an end, players formed a circle, standing and kneeling.

Thomas and the coaches offered advice.

“Remember the game is on and off the field. Do the little things outside this team that will make you better,” Thomas said. “Things happen, you make errors. Don’t live in those, you will get better.”

Marcus Bagnerise leads the pregame rally at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Marcus Bagnerise leads the pregame rally at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The players picked up their gear, laughed, called out to one another and headed for the parking lot. Then the field was empty. The only sounds were the hum of a field house generator and a pair of shoes scuttling across the artificial turf — Thomas picking up his bag.

He had plans for the afternoon. Sort the football equipment into two piles, away and home, and then spray-paint 50 football helmets with a team color, sunburst yellow.

“It’s going to be a long day,” Thomas said walking to his car, smiling at the sun.

Janice Podsada: 425-339-3097; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @JanicePods.

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