FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Lawrence Thomas stops each day in front of the large framed photo that’s hanging in his home and speaks to the man he considered a brother.
The New York Jets defensive end — and sometimes fullback — lets Mylan Hicks know that he’s always thinking of him. It’s also a reminder to Thomas that his childhood buddy and former high school and college teammate is watching over him.
“It was terrible, man, how everything played out,” Thomas said in a candid interview with The Associated Press. “I just look at him every day and talk to him every day, so I know he’s still with me.”
Even a year later, the pain remains raw for Thomas, who vividly remembers getting that phone call on the morning of Sept. 25, 2016.
Hicks was shot and killed outside a nightclub in Calgary, Alberta, where he was playing in the Canadian Football League.
“It was like, oh man, so crazy because you grow up together and we were talking about living our dream together, and we had all these dreams and aspirations and goals you want to set for yourselves and your families,” Thomas recalled. “For his life to be taken like that, I was just thinking, ‘Wow, we’re only 23 years old.'”
Thomas and Hicks grew up together in the Detroit area and were teammates on the football team at Renaissance High School. They reunited at Michigan State and became key parts of the Spartans’ defense — Thomas on the defensive line after also playing fullback as a freshman and blocking for Le’Veon Bell, and Hicks at safety and linebacker.
Hicks, who was a year ahead of Thomas in school, went undrafted in 2015, but signed with San Francisco as a free agent before being cut at the end of training camp.
He signed with Calgary of the Canadian Football League in May 2016 and was a member of the Stampeders’ practice squad.
Meanwhile, Thomas also wasn’t drafted last year, but signed a free-agent deal with the Jets. He had an impressive training camp and made New York’s Week 1 roster. Thomas started the season opener and had three tackles against Cincinnati.
“We spoke the day before the Bengals game,” Thomas said. “He had FaceTimed me. Then, the day of the Bengals game, I got back to my phone after the game and he was just saying how proud he was of me because I made big plays in my first game in the NFL. He was saying how when his season was over in Canada, he was going to come to New York and just hang with me because we hadn’t seen each other since like April before he went to Canada.”
Thomas played at Buffalo in Week 2, and had another tackle.
On the morning of his third NFL game, though, Thomas got the phone call that changed his life. After all the tears and shock at the news, Thomas took a heavy heart into the game against the Chiefs in Kansas City.
The Jets lost 24-3 that day, and Thomas suffered a torn labrum in the game — an injury that abruptly ended his season.
“It was just like a blur,” he said. “It was like a real disaster. It all hit me all at once. I couldn’t let his death take me down, though, because I know he would’ve wanted me to be with this football stuff and I’m still going.
“That’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to prove himself and get back to the NFL, so I’ve got to take it and run with it.”
Thomas went through extensive rehabilitation, determined to make the Jets’ roster again and pick up where he left off.
He was among New York’s final roster cuts before the regular season, but was signed to the practice squad and then promoted to the active roster on Sept. 16.
After a mostly quiet return at Oakland, Thomas made his presence felt — literally — as the Jets used the 6-foot-3, 286-pound defensive lineman at fullback throughout the 20-6 win against Miami .
New York had toyed with mixing in Thomas last year, knowing he started three games at fullback in college and caught seven passes for 78 yards. The Jets, who don’t have anyone on the roster designated as a fullback, revisited the idea a week or two ago.
“I always kept an eye on him,” offensive coordinator John Morton said. “We made a decision to have a little package for him, so he practiced and he looked good.”
Early in the third quarter, Thomas caught a short pass — his first NFL reception — from Josh McCown and barreled through about four defenders before finally going down at the Dolphins 13.
Thomas couldn’t help but think of Hicks after the play.
“That was him, man,” Thomas said with a big smile. “That was him. I know it.”
Thomas makes sure Hicks is never far from his heart. He often wears a chain with Hicks’ No. 6 hanging from it, and calls Hicks’ mother every day to check in on her and the family.
“We’re all just trying to get through this together,” Thomas said. “That game last week, I just knew he was with me. That was my brother and I know he still covers me. We’re on this mission together.”