Leader Blues

Saturday, October 18, 2008

SPORTS>>Jacksonville put Thomas on path to success

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Since leaving high school in 1993, Robert Thomas has been to Arkadelphia, Dallas, Denver and Atlanta.
But the former Red Devil football star has carried what he learned as a young man in Jacksonville with him everywhere he’s been.

“Growing up in Jacksonville, a lot of people had their hands on me, guiding me,” said Thomas, a 1993 graduate of Jacksonville High School who will be inducted tonight into the school’s Hall of Fame. “I was raised by a lot of different people in every part of this city.”

Guided by what he learned at the Jacksonville Boys Club and under the tutelage of Marvin and Sue Cox, Thomas got on the path to success and stardom early in his life. It carried him all the way to the National Football League, where he became a part of history as the primary blocking back for all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith.

It was an improbable pinnacle for a Division II linebacker out of Henderson State. It is the rare DII player that reaches the NFL, but Thomas, who began playing organized football when he was 4-years-old, rarely doubted his abilities and never sold himself short.

“I guess nobody expected Lil’ Bob — that’s what they called me back then — to get to the NFL,” said Thomas, 34. “Even Lil’ Bob didn’t expect it. I’m used to being told you can’t do it. But I tell people, you can’t say ‘can’t.’ I knew the odds were against me, but it was more of a relief and not a shock when I made it. It was hard work to get there but it was a blessing.”

Those lessons he learned at the Boys Club and from mentors around Jacksonville served him well throughout his football career. He did everything that was asked of him at Jacksonville High School, playing fullback, tight end, linebacker, defensive end and quarterback. He even punted for the Red Devils.

“You missed a great time if you don’t know about Jacksonville football (in 1993),” Thomas said, still clearly thrilled at the memories. “We had a tenacious defense — the Killer B’s. There was Joseph Bowden and Jerry Brown and a lot of talented guys. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

The Red Devils tied Little Rock Catholic for the conference title, but lost in the second round of the playoffs to Pine Bluff.

Because of his size as a junior, Division I schools ignored Thomas. By the time he enjoyed a growth spurt in his senior season, going from 5-9 and 185 pounds to 5-11 and 225, only DII schools had shown any interest.

Thomas chose Henderson State and made the most of it, reaching the Reddie Hall of Honor after setting career records at the school in tackles (355) and solo tackles (201).

He signed as a free agent linebacker and fullback with the Cowboys in 1998. Over a 5-year career, Thomas caught 50 passes, three for touchdowns. He carried the ball only 39 times, averaging four yards per tote. But Thomas hardly regrets his limited opportunities with the ball.

“It’s hard to say I didn’t play a big part,” Thomas said. “If there’s no (guard) Nate Newton, if there’s no (guard) Larry Allen, if there’s no (tight end) Moose Johnston, Emmitt doesn’t become the all-time leading rusher. If there wasn’t no us, there was no him. So I think we played a great big part.”

Thomas, 34, has spent the past six years playing in the Arena Football League for the Georgia Force and the Colorado Crush.

He’s finally ending 30 years of football after rupturing a disc in his neck. Thomas has three children, sons Robert, 10 and Tyriece 7, and daughter Cameron, 6. He’ll be getting married soon.

Thomas spent some time as a radio host on 102.9 but has left that to open up a towing and wrecker service. He lives in Maumelle.

As for the induction into the Hall of Fame, Thomas couldn’t be more excited.

“It is a great honor,” he said. “I love the city of Jacksonville.”