If what they say is true and only the good die young, it's amazing Rodney Thomas got to Texas A&M to begin with.
With his passing yesterday at the age of 41, we got more than a reminder of how precious and sometimes fragile life is, but a jolt to our memories of just how fine a person Thomas was. He was a great football player, of that there is no doubt -- but he was an even better person.
Thomas' legend began well before he got to College Station, as he led Groveton to a pair of 2A State Championships and a 32-0 record in 1989 and 1990. During his senior year, he became the first back in state history to rush for 100 yards or more in all 16 games, and finished the year with a staggering total of 3,701 yards, which at that time was the second-most in Texas high school football history. He ran for more than 8,400 yards in his career and would have been a 5-star recruit had such a thing existed at the time. Instead of going anywhere he could have in the nation, he stayed close to home and committed to Texas A&M, joining Greg Hill and Leeland McElroy in an incredibly productive backfield.
On their way to never losing a game at home during his tenure and going 42-5-1 overall (possibly losing a national title shot due to the program being on probation in 1994), the Aggies relied on guys with flashy nicknames -- "GHT" and "Lectric Leeland" -- and Rodney. His teammates called him "Rock T," but to the 12th Man he was Rodney. Always smiling, always friendly and always humble, even as he won all-conference accolades in 1993 and 1994 and won the Aggie Heart Award after his senior season. Even though he was never the sole featured back, Thomas still ranks fifth on the school's career rushing list with 3,014 yards and ran for 41 touchdowns, which puts him third on the all-time list.
But the stories you're hearing today are largely about his character off the field, not on it. There is a story that, one evening, a vending machine in Cain Hall malfunctioned and other players helped themselves. Thomas stood there and counted up all the things taken, went back to his room and fed quarters into the machine until the debt was taken care of. I thought that story was an urban legend -- until a couple of teammates set me straight.
After an embarrassing loss to Tulsa, Thomas got back to College Station and waited for the equipment truck to arrive and helped them unpack -- because he was ashamed of how he played.
I was a beneficiary of Thomas' kindness in 2001, when I was the sports editor of The Battalion. It was summer and we were looking for something to cover, and we decided to try to talk to some Aggies who were now in the NFL. Someone suggested we get ahold of the Atlanta Falcons and talk to Thomas, who had spent the previous six years with the Tennessee Titans. His first season, after being picked in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft, was his best, picking up 1,151 yards from scrimmage and scoring seven times for the then-Houston Oilers.
The Oilers responded by drafting Eddie George in the first round the next season.
Instead of being bitter and frustrated about being relegated to career backup status, he told the Falcons PR staff that he'd be happy to talk to me -- whenever I had time.
It doesn't work that way. WE make time for the players, not the other way around. Unless the player was Rodney Thomas.
"Oh, I'd do anything for A&M," he said. "I love everything about A&M and the Aggies. I wouldn't be where I am without Texas A&M."
I don't remember the rest of the conversation, but he was very patient and generous with his time and thoughts with a reporter who, looking back at it, had very little clue about what he was doing at the time. But he treated me like I worked for Sports Illustrated, and told me he'd be happy to talk anytime.
2001 was his last season in the NFL. After that, he went home, back to Groveton, and enjoyed life. And people enjoyed being around him, just as they always had before. There was no arrogance to Rodney Thomas; his upbringing and Christian faith wouldn't allow it. He was still, like he was at A&M, just Rodney.
At least, that's how he considered himself. Today, we know differently. He was more than just Rodney -- he was a great football player and greater man. His is a loss that goes far beyond football, as we mourn the loss of a man who could be an example of how to live on Father's Day.