Growing up in Indian Trail, the closest Thomas La Bianca came to a football field was in pickup games with kids in his neighborhood.
Even as a freshman in high school, La Bianca saw little playing time with Porter Ridge’s junior varsity team – until circumstances moved him from tight end to the offensive line.
Move ahead nine years – La Bianca is a redshirt senior at Charlotte and the team’s starting center for most of the 49ers’ four seasons.
Even today, La Bianca, 23, shakes his head at how far he’s come since his days at Porter Ridge.
“It’s something I think about every day,” said La Bianca, who will make his 34th career start (and 38th game appearance) Saturday when Charlotte (3-5, 2-2 Conference USA) plays Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1) in Hattiesburg, Miss.
“I always had a passion for it, but I never in a million years would have thought I’d get the opportunity to play college football.”
From soccer to football
While La Bianca grew up playing football with his neighbors, most of his time in organized sports in grade school and middle school was spent on the soccer field.
But that changed when he entered his freshman year at Porter Ridge.
“I played soccer until the eighth grade, and pretty competitively,” said La Bianca, who is 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds. “But I got a little too big for that. I’ve always had a passion for football, playing in the yard with my neighbors. I always thought I had pretty good hands and I was a bigger guy, so I thought I’d try tight end.”
La Bianca didn’t get much playing time on the Pirates’ junior varsity until a spate of injuries to the offensive line prompted a change.
“I didn’t really play at all – I was a third-string tight end,” La Bianca said. “We had a ton of injuries on the JV offensive line, literally our entire starting line. So my coach moved me over to play tackle. It started from there.”
La Bianca began drawing attention after moving up to Porter Ridge’s varsity team.
He was named to the Southern Carolina 3A-4A all-conference team as a junior and senior, when the Pirates posted back-to-back 14-win seasons and advanced to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state championship game in 2011.
La Bianca was also drawing attention from college recruiters. Midway through the 2011 season at Porter Ridge, he committed to Coastal Carolina over Elon, Western Carolina and Wofford, he said.
However, it wasn’t long after committing to the Chanticleers that La Bianca received a call from 49ers coach Brad Lambert.
Within weeks, he changed his mind about Coastal Carolina and committed to Charlotte.
“I had never really heard from the 49ers’ program,” La Bianca said. “But after meeting the coaching staff, and getting the opportunity to be a part of building a program and a foundation … it was a no-brainer, one of the best decisions in my life.”
Said Lambert: “He was a long shot for us. But something kept nagging at me, because I called him back. One thing led to another … and it worked out that he came here.”
La Bianca played guard and tackle at Porter Ridge, but upon joining Charlotte’s fledgling program in 2012 – the year the team spent practicing but not playing – he was in for another position change.
“I had played guard here throughout the fall (practices),” La Bianca said. “But one day, (the late Phil Ratliff, at the time the 49ers’ offensive line coach) just asked me to snap, to go over with the quarterbacks and centers to see what that’d be like.
“I had a really hard time learning to snap the ball, because I had never done it before. It was a really hard transition, but once I got that down that was the position I felt most natural at. It just felt right.”
It took La Bianca most of Charlotte’s practice season in 2012 to adapt to the change. Even now, he says he’s still learning.
“It is something that needs to be worked at every day,” La Bianca said. “I probably felt comfortable towards the end of that spring, but even now I work to perfect the craft.”
The work has paid off for La Bianca and the 49ers, who enter Saturday’s game against the Golden Eagles with the league’s third-best rushing offense, and having won their past two C-USA road games.
“He’s done an awesome job,” Charlotte offensive line coach Johnson Richardson said of La Bianca. “He’s one of those guys that rarely has a MA (missed assignment). He rarely makes mistakes on the field. There’s not enough good stuff I can say about him.
“He’s always been a highly intelligent kid. He’s a one-rep guy: I tell him how to do something and he does it. He makes my job easy as a coach.”