Thomas, Emmitt

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Emmitt Thomas

1943—

Professional football player, coach

Emmitt Thomas capped his forty-two years in the National Football League with an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in August of 2008. Thomas played thirteen seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs before starting the second phase of his career as an assistant coach for a succession of teams, including the Atlanta Falcons. "My personal road to Canton is very simple," Thomas said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, according to ESPN.com. "I love playing football. I never wanted to cheat the fans, my organization, my teammates or my coaches by not giving my best at all times."

Thomas was born on June 3, 1943, in Angleton, Texas, the seat of Brazoria County. His mother, Carrie, died when he was eight, and he had little contact with his father. His grandparents, Lewis and Virginia Fyles, raised Thomas and his three siblings. "Growing up, I was resentful and angry at other families around us because they seemed fully intact," he recalled in his Hall of Fame speech. "I'd often lay awake at night wondering why our family had to be different."

At Marshall High School, Thomas played just one season of football before entering Bishop College, a historically black college founded in Marshall, Texas, in 1881, that relocated to Dallas in 1961. His baseball coach suggested he try out for the football team, and he emerged as a skilled wide receiver and occasional quarterback. He was eligible for the 1966 National Football League (NFL) draft, but the roster was especially heavy with defensive players that year, and he stood little chance against players from the top-tier schools. The Kansas City Chiefs, however, had been looking for new talent among athletes from historically black colleges like Bishop, and gave Thomas a tryout. Initially, the rookie played wide receiver, but then "they called me in one day, and I thought I was getting cut," he recounted in an interview with Kent Youngblood in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Instead the Chiefs' coach, Hank Stram, told Thomas he was being moved to defensive back under assistant coach Tom Bettis. "I was raw. I mean, I could run and jump and catch. But Tom taught me everything else."

Thomas wound up in the Chiefs' cornerback position, where his main role was to intercept forward passes. When he first donned his No. 18 Chiefs' jersey, the franchise was part of the now-defunct American Foot- ball League (AFL), and in 1969 Thomas led the AFL with nine interceptions. A year later the Chiefs became part of the NFL, and Thomas had twelve interceptions during the 1974 season, which again made him the League leader. One of his most famous interceptions came during Super Bowl IV in 1970, when the Chiefs beat the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings by a score of 23-7.

Thomas was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, and when he retired in 1978 he ended his career with fifty-eight interceptions, a Chiefs record that still held thirty years later. His first coaching job was at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. In 1981 he was hired by the St. Louis Cardinals as a receivers coach, and spent four seasons with the team. He joined the coaching staff of the Washington Redskins in 1986 in the same position, and was made secondary coach a year later. In all, Thomas spent eight seasons with the Redskins before moving to Philadelphia to take a job as the Eagles' defensive coordinator. He worked under head coach Ray Rhodes and moved with Rhodes when he became head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1999. At the time—with Thomas as defense coach and Sherman Lewis serving as offensive coordinator—it marked the first time that an NFL team had a trio of African Americans in its top three coaching slots.

Thomas served as defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings before joining the staff of the Atlanta Falcons in 2002 as the senior defensive assistant coach and secondary coach. The team went through a succession of head coaches over the next five years: first Dan Reeves, then Jim Mora, and finally in December of 2007 Bobby Petrino abruptly resigned to take a coaching job with the University of Arkansas Razorbacks in the midst of a dismal season for the Falcons in which they had won just three out of thirteen games. Thomas was named interim head coach for the Falcons on December 12, 2007, and given the task of shepherding the team through the rest of the season. "This organization has been good to me," Thomas told D. Orlando Ledbetter in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when the announcement was made. "I am hoping that I'm able to step up for them and get this thing done for them for the next three games." The Falcons ended their 2007 season with a 44-41 win over the Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta's home field, the Georgia Dome.

In January of 2008 Thomas handed over coaching duties to new hire Mike Smith. A few weeks later, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced that Thomas was to become one of its Class of 2008 inductees. Prior to the ceremony in August, Thomas requested his name be listed in the official records as Emmitt Earl Fyles Thomas, with the "Fyles" added in honor of his late grandfather Lewis, who "is still my hero," Thomas told family, friends, and colleagues who had gathered for the ceremony. "I remember those long hot summer nights sitting on the porch listening to baseball games and prize fights and other sporting events. It was during these times that he taught me life's greatest lesson. He taught me about honor, commitment, love, religion, hard work and respect."

At a Glance …

Born Emmitt Earl Thomas on June 3, 1943, in Angleton, TX; son of Lewis Fyles Jr. and Carrie Thomas; married Gloria Diane Campbell (divorced); married Jacqui; children: (with Campbell) Derek, Dedra.

Career: Kansas City Chiefs, cornerback, 1966-78; Central Missouri State University, member of coaching staff, 1979-80; St. Louis Cardinals, receivers coach, 1981-85; Washington Redskins, receivers coach, 1986-87, secondary coach, 1987-94; Philadelphia Eagles, defensive coordinator, 1995-98; Green Bay Packers, defensive coordinator, 1999; Minnesota Vikings, defensive coordinator, 2000-01; Atlanta Falcons, senior defensive assistant/secondary coach, 2002—, interim head coach, December 2007-January 2008.

Awards: Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2008.

Addresses: Home—Suwanee, GA. Office—Atlanta Falcons, 4400 Falcon Pkwy., Flowery Branch, GA 30542.

Thomas became one of 247 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame though his twenty-year eligibility window had closed long ago. He was chosen by the Hall of Fame seniors committee, which can make exceptions to that rule, and at the August ceremony was introduced by his son Derek, who serves as the basketball coach for the Western Illinois University Fighting Leathernecks. The younger Thomas recalled wondering why his father—whose fifty-eight career interceptions remain among the top ten in NFL history—had not yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame. "He'd always said good things come to people who wait," Derek Thomas told Rick Gosselin in the Dallas Morning News. "He'd tell me, ‘If it happens, it happens. But if it doesn't, I know what I did. You know what I did. I'm at peace with that.’"

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 13, 2007, p. B1; August 2, 2008, p. B1.

Dallas Morning News, February 1, 2008; February 2, 2008.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), December 30, 1996, p. 41.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), July 23, 2000, p. 1C.

Online

Porter, Todd, "Bet on the Tears: Six New Immortals Bare Their Hearts," CantonRepository.com, August 3, 2008, http://www.cantonrep.com/hof/article.php?ID=424082 (accessed October 27, 2008).

"Thomas: ‘I Am Truly Humbled,’" ESPN.com, http://proxy.espn.go.com/nfl/halloffame08/news/story?id=3516486 (accessed October 27, 2008).

—Carol Brennan