CHICAGO -- Semajay Thomas ripped the sheets on the bed in his room and wrapped strips around his hands as protection.
He knew tearing the sheets was against the rules at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, knew there could be trouble if he were caught with what amounted to contraband.
He was a 16-year-old awaiting trial as an adult on a first-degree murder charge, a kid who wanted only to resume his promising boxing career, wanted it so badly that it was the one thing that kept Thomas going when "Temporary" became 15 months.
There was no way he was getting out before the trial, not after bond was set at $900,000, far beyond the means of a poor family from Chicago's West Town. There were days Thomas was so depressed he would start to cry and tell his boxing coach, Nate Jones, "I want to break out of here."
So he wrapped his hands and propped the mattress against the wall and punched it, over and over again, envisioning himself in the ring, surprised by how real the sensations felt. He shadow-boxed and did sit-ups and ran laps around the detention center yard, trying to maintain his stamina, his skills and his sanity. He hid the sheets under the bed until corrections officials saw what he was doing and let it go.
When anyone asked why he was doing it, he had a ready answer.
"I kept telling everybody I was going to make the Olympic team when I got out," Thomas said. "They thought I was crazy."
Who wouldn't have, especially if they knew the competitive challenges ahead for Thomas after a jury found him not guilty Nov. 17, 2010?
When he returned to competition, Thomas would be fighting men, not the juniors -- younger than 17 -- against whom he had built a reputation, winning the National Silver Gloves and finishing fifth at the World Junior Championships before being arrested and jailed Aug. 10, 2009. The three rounds now would last three minutes each instead of two. He would have barely nine months before the U.S. trials for the 2012 Olympic team.
The trials begin July 31 in Mobile, Ala.
Thomas is the top seed at 141 pounds, the light welterweight division. He got that ranking after he won the Illinois title in mid-February and the U.S. title in late June when, just two months past his 18th birthday, he easily defeated four opponents, including a 26-year-old in the final.
"Everyone was amazed," Thomas said. "For me to get out and get a couple months training and dominate like I did was unbelievable."
That's the way Jones feels about how fast Thomas has gone from the wide-eyed kid punching away wildly at Eckhart Park to an Olympic team contender.
Not long after Jones first saw Thomas fight about four years ago, the coach thought he was the best up-and-coming amateur in the country, a 15-year-old with the strength of a man, a kid who punched so hard Jones jokingly asked if he were taking steroids.
"I saw a kid with a lot of heart," Jones said. "I didn't know he was going to be this good.
"If they would have found him guilty, my plan was to write a book: 'The Best Fighter The World Has Never Seen.' "
It would be that fighting ability, his being known as "The Boxer" in his neighborhood, that made the Satan Disciples figure Thomas was the perfect guy to take the rap for a beating murder members of their gang had committed. A couple of gang members went to the police with their accounts of what had happened, and that led to Thomas' arrest.
"When he went away, it was the worst day of my life," Jones said.
Jones had grown up in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project. At 21, he was convicted of auto theft and armed robbery. He did 20 months at the Western Illinois Correctional Center.
Three years later, Jones won the 1996 Olympic heavyweight bronze medal. He went on to fight professionally until 2002 and later became a training partner of fellow 1996 bronze medalist and eventual world champion Floyd Mayweather.
"When I got locked up, it changed my life," Jones said.
Thomas feels similarly. The difference is, he was locked up for a crime he didn't commit, a crime that called for a minimum sentence of 20 years.
And who knows what might have happened, no matter the verdict, if Judge James Linn had not granted a motion to keep Thomas in juvenile detention when he turned 17 and normally would have been transferred into the adult population at Cook County Jail nine months before the trial?
Some of the gang members who had fingered Thomas to the police recanted. None of his DNA or fingerprints was on the victim, Reynaldo Ortiz. Thomas' hands showed no damage that would have been likely if he had taken part in delivering a murderous beating.
The key phase of his trial came when one of his attorneys, Michael Oppenheimer, put Thomas on the stand.
"I have never had a client with more heart and spirit," said Jon Erickson, his other attorney. "We decided Semajay's best defense was Semajay."
Thomas said he was playing with a friend on the porch of his apartment building when he saw the attack on Ortiz begin. Oppenheimer asked Thomas to tell the court who had committed the murder. Thomas hesitated, afraid giving a name could lead the gang to seek retribution against him or his mother.
A few seconds passed. Oppenheimer asked him to give just a first name. Linn asked Thomas to answer the question. Another 15 or 20 seconds passed. The jury leaned forward. Thomas gave a first name. The courtroom buzzed.
The jury deliberated barely an hour before finding Thomas not guilty. A co-defendant, tried separately, got 30 years.
There has been no retribution. Erickson thinks the gang was satisfied a lower ranking member eventually took the fall for one of its leaders. But Thomas spent the first three months after the verdict with an aunt in the suburbs before returning to the third-floor walk-up he shares with his mother, Carla, and four of her nine children.
The one thing he most wanted to do after getting out of the detention center for good?
"What I'm doing right now," he said. "When I hit that gym and put on the gloves, the love (for boxing) came right back."
Thomas was in the JABB boxing gym on the West Side, sparring for a photographer. He was wearing boxing trunks styled to look like feathers, a reference to his Cherokee heritage. There is a tattoo just below his collarbone reading, "Fear No Man" and another on his right arm of a "C" in a crown. The C stands for Carla, who grew up in Cabrini-Green, the oldest of 14.
"My mom, she's my queen," Thomas said.
Thomas, a senior at Rauner College Prep, hopes boxing will bring the payday that will allow him to give her a proper throne. The plan is to make the Olympic team, fight in the 2012 London Games and turn pro. For the last 2 1/2 weeks, he has been training for the Olympic trials at the Tampa (Fla.) Boxing Academy, a facility owned by Phil Alessi, who is likely to become Thomas' manager.
"Being in juvie showed him how rough life can be, how everything can change in seconds," Jones said. "I know how the streets act, the influences, the girls, the cars. I tell him, 'You stick to your goals, and you'll have more than everybody.'
"Semajay has a beautiful future."
The trials are a double-elimination event. If Thomas wins, he then would need to finish in the top 10 at September's World Championships in Azerbaijan to assure the U.S. of qualifying for a place in the 141 class in the Olympics. There would be another chance in 2012 for boxers in the non-qualified weight classes to gain an Olympic spot.
Thomas said by telephone this week that he has been sparring up to eight rounds and wants to do 12 rounds before leaving for the trials. After some celebration of the U.S. title, his weight is back down to 145.
"He's addicted to White Castle," Jones said.
"I'm addicted to winning too," Thomas countered.
Not a bad punch line.