- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

Election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame never figured to be on Emmitt Thomas‘ agenda.

Born into segregation in Angleton, Texas, in 1943, Thomas lost both of his parents by the time he was 12. He and his siblings were raised by their grandparents, who were sharecroppers. Thomas grew up picking cotton, pulling corn and working watermelon fields.

In his spare time, Thomas was a fine outfielder. Football was something he didn’t really play until his senior year of high school, but he made enough of an impression to earn a scholarship to tiny Bishop College in Dallas.

Signed as a rookie free agent by Kansas City of the American Football League, Thomas made the team. By his second season, 1967, he was starting. By his third, he was a Pro Bowl cornerback. By his fourth, he was a world champion, thanks to the Chiefs’ stunning victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the final Super Bowl before the AFL-NFL merger.

“The summer after my freshman year, I told my grandpa I wasn’t going to come home next summer, that I was going to stay up in Dallas,” Thomas said. “He said, ‘You got a job?’ I told him the school had a program where I could work on campus, live in the air-conditioned dorms and also work in the post office. Every time I got paid, I sent him the check stub. After I got lucky enough to play pro football, he would always ask me, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’”

Thomas did his job so well that he twice led the league in interceptions. His 12 interceptions in 1974 are two shy of the NFL record and his 58 career picks rank fourth among corners. He was chosen for five Pro Bowls during his 13 seasons, all with the Chiefs.

“Emmitt had everything you need in a corner, including size,” said longtime NFL executive Bobby Beathard, who hired Thomas away from the Cardinals in 1986 to serve as an assistant coach with the Redskins. “Emmitt had hands. He had speed. He was very smart. He really played the game with his head. He was a great technician. He had it all. He really didn’t get the notoriety he warranted.”

Thomas will receive the NFL’s ultimate notoriety on Aug. 2 when he’s enshrined in Canton, Ohio, along with Darrell Green and Art Monk, both of whom he coached with the Redskins. Thomas was elected as a senior candidate.

“I was blessed with natural ball skills,” said Thomas, now the assistant head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he finished last season as interim head coach. “I wasn’t the most physical corner, but I was a student of the game and I stayed healthy. And in the big games, I stood up and made some plays. I got the max out of my ability.”

Thomas has been getting the same out of others since he retired after the 1978 season. After two years coaching at Central Missouri State, he worked for the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings (all as defensive coordinator) in addition to the Cardinals, Redskins and Falcons. Along the way, Thomas tutored such Pro Bowl talents as Green, Monk, Roy Green, Eric Allen, Keith Brooking and DeAngelo Hall.

“Tom Bettis, my defensive coordinator in Kansas City, used to ask me all the time, ‘What are you going to when you get through? You would probably make a good coach,’” Thomas said. “He did everything in his power to help me. I started coaching at Central Missouri State, and we stayed in touch constantly. Tom was with the Cardinals and when they needed a receivers coach, he talked coach [Jim] Hanifan into hiring me. I was there five years, and my career took off.

“Every step I’ve made, I’ve always talked to Tom prior to taking the job. I’m so happy that he’ll be able to go to Canton with me share this with me and my family.”

Thomas, who will be presented by his son Derek, the men’s basketball coach at Western Illinois, is family to Green and Monk, too.

“When Emmitt came to Washington, I asked him, ‘Coach, what are you going to do with me?’” Green said. “He said, ‘Nothing. Do what you do.’ Emmitt helped sell coach [Joe] Gibbs and Richie [Petitbon, the defensive coordinator] on letting me really play the way I wanted to. I saw Emmitt in Houston at Kenny Houston’s golf tournament. We’re both tickled to death that we’re going in together and with Art.”

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