FULLERTON — For Cal State Fullerton soccer player Sheldon Thomas, the Caribbean island of Trinidad was a long way from being a land of opportunity.
"College there is for the very intelligent," he said. "There weren't a lot of schools there I could get into."
And, he said, "there weren't a lot of good jobs . . . "
But it wasn't easy to leave behind family and friends where he was born and grew up, even though Thomas decided it was the best thing for him to do.
Three years later, however, he's certain he made the right choice.
He's getting a college education. He's also building an enduring relationship with a father he barely knew. And the success he has had playing college soccer could lead to a pro career.
"He has Major League Soccer written all over him," Fullerton Coach Al Mistri said.
Thomas, in his first season with the Titans after playing two years for El Camino College, leads the team in goals with nine. His 22 points going into Sunday's game against UC Santa Barbara, midway through the regular season, rank 18th in the nation and is tied for first in the NCAA's Far West region.
The door to a new life opened for Thomas when he was able to join his father, Raymond King, in Southern California after he graduated from high school in Trinidad.
"He and my mother separated when I was young, and I had never really met him until I was 11," Thomas said. "He came here to California with his family when he was still in his early 20s."
Thomas moved in with his father and his wife in Carson in 1993, and not long afterward enrolled at El Camino in Torrance.
"We have a really good relationship," he said of his father. "We clicked right away. He likes to play soccer too, and he would take me to the parks and get me into the games there."
Thomas laughed and said, "He was like my manager for a while."
Thomas says one of the reasons he moved to the United States was the possibility of playing college soccer.
"When I was in high school, coaches from the U.S. would come there and recruit players, but they were better players than I was," Thomas said. "I played soccer a lot when I was growing up, but I didn't take it as seriously until I moved to a bigger high school my junior year. Soccer was very big there. We would sometimes have around 5,000 people coming to some of the high school games."
Thomas caught Mistri's eye when he scouted him at the community college. Mistri is even more impressed after seeing Thomas play against some of the nation's top teams this year.
"He's one of the most remarkable players I've seen," Mistri said. "I use him now as an example with our other players when I talk about about the hard work it takes to be successful. He has a great work rate on the field, and that's refreshing, especially when you see it in a striker."
Mistri compares Thomas favorably with the two other top goal-scorers he has had at Fullerton, Eddie Soto and Mike Fox. Soto set the school record for goals in a season with 18 in 1994. Fox had the previous high, 17 in 1982.
"Sheldon is more physical than either one of them," Mistri said. "He's more of a brute on the field. It's hard to compare him to Eddie because Eddie was more of a finesse player. I wish Eddie would have Sheldon's work rate and I wish Sheldon had Eddie's finesse. I'd like to combine their talents and then clone them."
Titan assistant coach Bob Ammann, who played professionally in the Swiss First Division in 1989 and 1990 and in the United States with the Salsa, agrees with Mistri that Thomas has a promising future in pro soccer.
"I really like his strength on the ball," Ammann said. "From that standpoint, he's special. He shields the ball well, making it very difficult for a defender to stop him when he goes for the goal. He has a determination and a hunger that I wish all our players had. I think he's starting to realize that soccer can be his ticket someplace."
Ammann is impressed by how quickly Thomas established himself when he joined the Titans this season. "We had only 12 days of practice before our first game, but once Sheldon got his fitness built up, he did fine," Ammann said.
Thomas was named most valuable player in the Titans' second tournament of the season at Virginia, and scored the goal that gave Fullerton the tie with the host school, ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time.
Thomas says he definitely wants to play pro soccer, but he isn't in a rush. He has a year of eligibility left with Fullerton.
"I don't want to get swell-headed," he said. "I know I still have a lot to work on, even though I've learned a lot here this season. I definitely want to get my college degree. I think I'd like to coach someday."
Thomas stays in touch with his family and his friends in Trinidad by telephone.
"I speak to my mom on the phone every month," he said. "It was hard for her to let me go, but she knew it would be very good for me. I also have three brothers back there I haven't seen in three years."
Thomas says his mother reminds him during each telephone conversation that she prays for him to do well.
"She says she's very proud," he said, "and I know my father is proud of me too."