SE: Army Veteran Brings Iron Cat Championship to Men's Basketball

Army veteran. Mixed martial arts fighter. Non-traditional college student. Volunteer strength and conditioning intern. Will Thomas owns all of these titles, and together they have allowed him to bring a dynamic impact to the K-State men’s basketball team.  

This summer, Thomas brought in a motivational idea from his time in the U.S. Army, which included three tours in 10 years, to help boost daily energy in the weight room. During a tour in Iraq, Thomas started a combative — hand-to-hand combat — tournament within his unit, with the winner receiving a WWE-style championship belt for the week. 

“The guys in our unit, they really bought into it, they tried really hard to win it, and, of course, the guy who won it would walk around that whole week bragging,” Thomas said. “It motivated the guy that won it, but it also motivated the other guys to work harder.”

The same belt — now coined the Iron Cat Belt — resides in the weight room of the Ice Family Basketball Center, where the K-State men’s strength and conditioning staff determines a winner for each week’s workouts. 

“We’re not just going to give the belt out and pass it around so that everybody gets it,” Thomas said. “It’s for the guy that comes in, motivates the rest of the team, has that high energy the whole week, does things to try and push himself while at the same time pushing his teammates, and I think it worked really well. The players really got behind it.”

Zach Winter, the first winner of the prize, said he has seen a significant impact from the weekly competition. 

“Everyone gets excited and pumped up when it gets brought out. It just helps get people fired up a little bit more,” said Winter, a walk-on who wasn’t expecting to be named the first Iron Cat winner. “We did a cool little video for it. It’s just something fun he’s brought to the team, and I appreciate it. I think it’s just a fun way to make the weight room a part of the whole team aspect.”

While meant to create competition and add some fun to the summer workouts, the Iron Cat Belt, also won by Barry Brown, may not be awarded every week.  

One week this summer, Thomas said the energy inside the weight room “died off.” To motivate the team, no player was awarded the belt. The next week? Problem solved. 

“The energy was right back up, teammates were trying to help each other,” Thomas said, pointing out the effort of senior Wesley Iwundu in particular. “It did exactly what I wanted it to do, which was bring the team together, help each other get through the tough times. That was the basis of having the Iron Cat Belt, and I think we fulfilled that goal 100 percent.”

The Iron Cat Belt may be the most tangible item Thomas has brought to the table for K-State’s men, who leave Monday for their 10-day trip to Italy and Switzerland, but his general presence has added to the program as well. w

As an MMA fighter — a passion he began in 2009 and restarted at a gym in Manhattan in 2014 — and with his decade spent in the Army, Thomas earned a high level of respect immediately from K-State’s players. 

“Will does an awesome job with the guys,” K-State head men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach Ben O’Donnell said. “He can get onto the level where, one, they respect him because he’s ex-military and because he’s an MMA fighter — so there’s a little respect level there already — and, two, he brings a lot of energy every day and he’s very consistent. The guys definitely respect Will. 

“He comes in here every day, works hard, does exactly what he needs to do, he doesn’t ever complain, so he’s a great, great component to have on our staff here.”

Thomas secured his internship about a year ago, following a series of connections that started with a friendship with former K-State guard Justin Edwards. 

After accepting the volunteer position with the program, Thomas’ role within K-State basketball continually grew. From working with the younger players, structuring in-season programs, running individual workouts for injured players and even gaining experience with the women’s basketball team, Thomas quickly developed into much more than a typical intern. 

“Will brings a big thing to the table,” K-State senior guard Carlbe Ervin II said. “He’s energized every day. He makes our team go, honestly. He makes everybody wake up every day.”

Thomas’ obvious impact isn’t accidental, either. The passion he delivers to the program stems from his experience with K-State. It is where he met his wife, who sparked his interest in Wildcat sports, and it is where he will graduate this December with a degree in kinesiology. 

“K-State as a whole, it’s just been a life-changing experience for me,” said Thomas, hoping to find full-time work as a strength coach after graduation. “Working with the coaches, getting to build relationships with the players, it truly is a family aspect. I never come in here one day and think, ‘What am I going to do to make myself better?’ I come in here and think, ‘What am I going to do to make this team better?’”

Thomas — who has gone 3-3 in amateur fights since rebooting his MMA career in Manhattan — said he’s traded training aspects with K-State basketball, another mutually beneficial aspect of his opportunity. 

He hopes to make the jump to professional MMA status soon, but until then, he’ll continue his favorite part of fighting: the preparation.

Regardless of what happens, Thomas said he is in a good place. 
“Being here and being a part of something bigger than myself is the same thing that I did in the Army. Being a part of something that was greater than me, that’s how I feel about being a part of this program,” he said. “The ties to Kansas State University and my family in general is something I’ve never experienced before. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Being here is one of my greatest accomplishments.”

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