On the eve of Garfield High School's first football game in 2017, the team's head coach is talking football, off-the-field controversy, and why he wanted to play Archbishop Murphy.

Joey Thomas is now in his second year with the Bulldogs.

In his first season as head coach, the team went 8-2. It was their best record in years. Garfield also made national headlines in 2016 after becoming one of the first high schools in the country to take part in national anthem protests that began in the NFL, to draw attention to racial injustice.

"It was just about hearing the voices of our student athletes and doing what they felt was right in their hearts and having a plan," said Thomas. "It's about equality on multiple fronts. You know, police brutality played a part in it, but also equal opportunities in education."

Thomas said the team's national anthem protest eventually led to a meeting with members of the Seattle Police Department, for what he called an open and candid conversation.

"We actually took steps to make our community better," he said. "And I think we have to start here, start small, and work our way out."

So does Garfield plan to take a knee during the national anthem for the 2017 season as well?

"We'll have that discussion as a team and see where we're at and whatever we do, we'll move forward together," said Thomas.

But that was just one of the controversies Garfield's team has faced in the past year.

In April, Thomas was accused of violating school district and WIAA recruitment rules. Seattle Public Schools brought in a third party to investigate. In June, the results of that independent investigation cleared Thomas of any wrongdoing.

"We already knew how it was going to end, but it was an exhale moment to just say, okay now we can move on," said Thomas. "When your character is in question, at first it upsets you. But then you learn how to just brush it off."

He also refutes accusations that student athletes who are homeless are being taken advantage of by powerhouse football schools like Garfield, in order to stack a roster.

"In my opinion, I hugely doubt coaches around the state are doing that, and me personally, I know I'm not doing that. And I think it's unfortunate that coaches are being generalized," he told KING 5.

So as he prepares for the first game of the 2017 season, Thomas felt it was important to explain why he thinks some of the talented kids on his team wanted to be Bulldogs.

He says it's not about recruiting. Instead, Thomas believes it's about race.

"You know, having an African-American head coach and African-American leadership is enticing to people who look like you. If you look at other programs in the state, there are not a lot of African-American head coaches," he said. "And I think one of the things that, when people look at our program and what draws families and parents and kids to our program, they see - and I'm just being truthful with it - they see a young African-American coach that parents and kids can identify with."

Thomas knows the topic is tough to talk about, but says he also knows the toughness of his team. They've never shied away from a controversy or a challenge.

That's a big part of the reason why Thomas wanted to play Archbishop Murphy. The private school out of Everett made headlines of its own in 2016 when five teams forfeited rather than play Archbishop Murphy's talented team.

Thomas said he called Archbishop Murphy head coach Jerry Jensen and asked to schedule a non-league game between the two teams.

"I was just candid with him. I said hey coach, you have a phenomenal program; I feel like you got a raw deal last year with everyone canceling your games. So I know you have some openings, if you guys are open to it, let's put a game together," said Thomas.

Jensen said he was grateful for the offer. He spoke to KING 5 about how his team is trying to move past last year's forfeits and focus on the future. You can watch that story here.

The much-talked about game between Archbishop Murphy and Garfield is set for seven p.m. Thursday at Archbishop's stadium in Everett.

Archbishop Murphy is ranked number one in the state in Class 2A, according to the newly released AP Poll. Garfield is ranked number six in the state in Class 3A.

Thomas said he feels the game is a fitting start to the season, given the criticism both teams have faced.

"As far as non-conference games, I only play against coaches and teams I respect. And I respect Coach Jensen. I respect what he's built and how he's built his program," said Thomas. "It's like, you've been through the ringer, you just went through it. I've been through the ringer, I've been through it. Let's just play, let's just get back to football. I'm excited."