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Pinball Wizard

Jeff Thwaites is easy to identify on a soccer field.

That’s because, according to those who have watched the senior midfielder play firsthand, he does things with the ball that no one else would even conceive.

“If you watch him in his warm-up, the things he can do with the ball, it’s really magical some of the stuff he does,” said USF assistant coach Mike Duncan. “Every time I watch him warm up, he does something different with the ball, and I just kinda go, ‘Wow.'”

His ability to weave a path around defenders, blast shots from 35 yards out with either foot or execute the seemingly impossible have given him a reputation as one of the most gifted playmakers in the conference and arguably the most talented player on the USF roster.

“He’s a tremendous technical player and can do things with the ball that you just really can’t teach people to do,” USF assistant coach Jim Felix said.

The basis of his game is deft ball control that he honed as a youngster during countless backyard drills with his father, Richard.

“What I helped him to do when he was very little was (develop) the ball control you see that he has,” said Richard Thwaites. “I would stand up there as a little boy and just bang balls to him and make him control it without complaining.”

Richard Thwaites was a high school soccer player in his native Jamaica and later started following the game avidly during stays in England and Costa Rica, where Jeff was born. It wasn’t long before his father’s love for the game was passed on to his youngest son.

“He instilled in me intelligent soccer — to try to be constructive with my passes, to try to think smartly, to try to out-think the other players, the other team and really enforced playing with skill,” Jeff Thwaites said.

Thwaites also has the advantage of being able to use both feet, a skill he developed with the help of an instructional video by one of the all-time greats.

“It was a 10-minute tape, and it was Pele talking about why he was so good and why he was ahead of everyone else,” Jeff Thwaites said. “I just remember them showing highlights of him scoring with his right foot and a highlight of him scoring with his left foot. And ever since I was younger, my dad would just force me to use it, and then eventually I just realized that I would be better off if the ball came to my left foot, and I could do just as much.”

Thwaites, who moved to Odessa with his family when he was 3-years-old, went on to win a state title with the under-12 Northland Rangers and become an award-winning player at Gaither High School. He was recruited by a number of schools, including Bradley, Clemson and Charlotte, but never visited any but USF. He enrolled at USF in 1999 in order to remain near his childhood home.

Then things started to unravel.

Thwaites was thrust into a team that had won the Conference USA title and gone to the NCAA Championship the year before, but lacked leadership and ultimately underachieved.

Things were no better in his sophomore year.

“We never had any leadership that year (2000),” Thwaites said. “That was the poorest leadership. Not to be rude, but nobody stepped up, and nobody took control.”

Though Thwaites accrued a league-high nine assists early in the season, a combination of on-field attitude and off-field behavior led to his being suspended and benched by former coach John Hackworth.

“We had some older players on the team, seniors, that didn’t lead this team in the proper way,” said Duncan. “So you had younger players, like Jeff Thwaites … picking up bad habits. A lot of the younger players had a lot of bad habits instilled in them both on the field and off the field: training habits, work ethic, in the classroom and party habits.”

Hackworth gave Thwaites an ultimatum: Become more of a leader and a constructive force on the field, or find somewhere else to play.

“I gave Jeff a choice, and the choice was his to make,” Hackworth said. “Not so much that I was a dictator and he had to do it my way or hit the highway, but that I had certain standards that he needed to live by, both on the field and off the field. And the choice was, ‘Jeff, if you want to play for me, if you want to be as good as I think you can be, you’re going to have to let me help you get there.'”

For the man who had groomed him to be a dominant player, the news was not easy to bear.

“It was a very difficult thing, Richard Thwaites said. “We had a chat with Mr. Hackworth one night when he came up, and he said things that hurt deeply about him. That really upset me and my wife; we didn’t sleep for nights. But I figured that if Jeff is going to become a man in this world, he’s got to take the bull by the horns. Some problems were created by himself, and some situations I didn’t think were fair. But altogether, he had to deal with the whole situation.

“I think at the end, he may have found out that some of the things that were said about him were a matter of jealousy.”

With his roommate Andy Chase in a similar position and looking to transfer, Thwaites said he contemplated asking for a release and following Chase to Furman. But pride got in his way.

“I have pretty big pride when it comes to somebody saying, ‘Hey, you can’t do something,'” Thwaites said. “And Hackworth basically said that he didn’t believe that I was a part of the program, and that I couldn’t cut it attitude-wise for him, and that I was a bad seed. And I wanted to prove him wrong, basically.”

So with the encouragement of his parents and his girlfriend, Amber O’Keefe, who he started dating during his suspension, Thwaites started to turn his life around.

“I became a better student, attended all my classes, made the right decisions in the nightlife,” Thwaites said. “Instead of going out every night, I go out once a month, maybe. I quit going out.”

The changes paid off. Thwaites made first team All C-USA his junior year, piling up nine goals and four assists in the regular season as the Bulls went 14-6. He added another goal in the first round of the NCAAs.

“Last year’s season for us was one of the best years in school history, and Jeff Thwaites played a huge role in making that happen,” Hackworth said.

Now on the eve of his final home appearance for the Bulls, Friday night at 7 vs. Louisville, Thwaites is firmly entrenched as a team leader.

“He has become a lot more positive,” said Ben Cowherd, his teammate in high school and at USF. “Over the years, I’ll say he’s become much more of a team player.”

The perception exists that Thwaites could have achieved more with his prodigious talents (17 goals and 20 assists in three-plus seasons), but he attributes that to injuries — he has played with tendonitis almost all year — the consequent lack of confidence and the lack of senior leadership in his first two seasons.

“I think his career could have been better here, but who’s in control of injuries?” Duncan said. “That’s limited him. At Penn State last year (in the second round of the NCAAs) he was injured, and he was playing through hernias.”

First-year USF coach George Kiefer said Thwaites has done everything he has asked of him.

“Jeff has been unbelievable to me starting my career here at USF,” Kiefer said. “He’s just been a very good leader. He’s worked on his deficiencies, and then when you get a guy like Jeff being willing to work on his deficiencies, as the captain and as one of the better attacking players on the team, willing to concentrate on the defensive side of things and really let it be seen by other team members that he’s willing to correct some problems that he has, it goes a long way toward the other guy wanting to do the same thing.”