The legacy of a Ram

 Uncategorized
Mar 192006
 
Authors: JP Eichmiller

It was the spring of 1969 and all Earlie Thomas’ cared about was getting back into shape after an ankle injury had ended his junior season prematurely. When five black panthers from Denver arrived at his Ellysworth Hall dorm room, however, those priorities changed.

“Being a black athlete back then you had pressure to solve all of the problems of the world,” said Thomas, the defensive captain of the CSU football team in 1969.

And it was for this reason that Lauren Watkins, the Denver leader of the Black Panthers – the infamous and sometimes violent black civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies – had decided to pay an unexpected visit to Thomas’ tiny dorm room.

The issue was simple, yet so complex.

Watkins and the other Panthers wanted captain Thomas to lead a black player boycott of Brigham Young University during the upcoming fall game. Due to Mormon ideologies, BYU had yet to admit any black players or students into the school. Other universities, such as Stanford and San Jose State had taken notice and were forfeiting competitions with the Mormon school. CSU, however, had decided against taking any such actions.

If a something was going to be done about the BYU situation, Thomas knew it would be here and now, and that as captain, he would decide the fate of the black players on the team. The players and the Panthers had made this clear.

Thomas sensed that Watkins was not there to negotiate as much as to intimidate him into agreeing to terms. At 6’3″ and 220 pounds, wearing black leather, boots and most likely packing guns under their jackets, there was nothing subtle about the message that Watkins and his fellow Panthers were sending when they rode into town on their motorcycles. “I knew they weren’t just there to say ‘hi, how are you doing?'” Thomas said.

But Earlie Thomas was not easily intimidated. He knew Watkins from his time growing up in the Five-Points area of Denver and also knew that “he looked a lot tougher than he was.”

Thomas was at a crossroad. On one hand he could join with the Panthers and make a statement against a bigoted university and its policies, risking the loss of scholarship for himself and his fellow teammates. On the other, he could refuse the groups demands, lose face to some in the black community and ensure his teammates a chance at a degree which they had no other financial means of obtaining.

The decision lay in Captain Thomas’ hands.

February has been a celebration of Black History Month. A time to remember all of the achievements as well as hardships that black Americans have struggled through and endured. Pick up a book to learn of iconic black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.

But Black history doesn’t have to be studied from historical texts at CSU. Sitting in an office in the general services building on campus, not far from his old stomping grounds at the now-extinct University Field, is a living, breathing example of the history and accomplishments of blacks in America over the last half-century.

The story of Earlie Thomas is one that probably should not have been. The sixth child in a poor black family of eight from the segregated South is not supposed to reach the unprecedented accomplishments that Thomas has.

But Earlie Thomas never recognized the barriers that society often assumed. His is a story that begins on the wrong side of the tracks in small town Texas, winds through the rugged Five Points of Denver, begins to bloom in a farming town of Northern Colorado and reaches fruition by the Broadway lights of New York City.

The story of Earlie Thomas is a lesson in black history. A story of enduring struggles, challenges of race, love that recognizes no color and the ability to overcome adversity. His is a story worth telling.

A childhood of segregation

“I couldn’t go to a movie theater in the town I lived in because there was the black part of town and the white part of town separated by the railroad tracks. You didn’t go into the white part of town unless it was to work.”-Earlie Thomas

Denton, Texas was not unlike many small farming towns in the South during the 1950’s. Segregation was a fact of life. Whites lived on one side of the tracks, blacks on the other. Black and white children attended separate schools and had little contact. Places and roles in society were clearly defined.

Denton, located in a county of 41,365 residents, sat nearly equal between Dallas and the Oklahoma border. There was not much reason to visit, short of the exclusively white colleges; the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University. The completion of the area’s first major thoroughfare, Interstate 35 East, had just opened up the town to its first major transit not requiring a train track.

Thomas was the sixth of seven children at the time. The family grew up together in a series of shotgun houses where all seven children shared a room and slept on the floor.

The bathroom was outside. If you wanted hot water it had to be boiled. There was never a refrigerator, so food was kept fresh in an icebox. Bath water had to be shared.

“I hated taking baths…everybody took a bath in the same tub, with the same water,” Thomas recalls. “The oldest ones got to go first, so by the time it got to be my turn the water was pretty bad. Felt like I was taking a bath in a bowl of mud.”

“In Texas, I think it got to the point where you didn’t really get out of line because bad things would happen to you.” – Earlie Thomas

Earlie Thomas knew which bucket of water to drink out of, and it wasn’t the bosses’. When you are a black nine-year-old working the cotton fields of Texas in 1954, there were rules to follow. That meant you shared the dirty bucket and snuff-stained ladle with all of the other black field hands. The clean bucket with the ice water was for the white boss alone to use.

So it was no surprise to Thomas when his cousin, despite his repeated warnings, drank from the bosses’ bucket and learned a lesson the hard way.

“Before he could get it to his mouth, this big white hand comes out of nowhere and just swats him, knocks him five feet back,” Thomas said. “This big white dude says, ‘boy don’t you ever drink out of that water again, you drink the colored water.’

“We laughed at my poor cousin. He’s crying and we thought it was the funniest thing…we were just rolling on the ground laughing. Maybe because we were kids. I had never been out of the state of Texas…. I just knew one type of lifestyle.”

This is what it meant to be a black and living in the segregated South. Restaurants, movie theatres, pools, even bathrooms were off limits. Unfair, cruel, racist, and the only world Thomas and his six siblings knew growing up.

It wasn’t fun and games growing up in Denton, Texas, our mother raising seven kids and making twenty dollars a week. – John Williams, half brother of Earlie Thomas

Being a part of the Thomas family meant having to contribute from a young age. At five Thomas was already laboring in the hot Texas cotton fields during “White Septembers” – when the cotton was at its ripest. From dawn until dusk, Earlie, his parents and his siblings worked, earning one cent for every pound of cotton picked.

Every year Thomas would miss the beginning of school in the fall due to his duties in the cotton fields. As a result Thomas and most of the black children of the area were slow to move through school. Thomas’ mother didn’t like it, but what choice did she have while trying to feed a family of nine?

Thomas toed the line for the most part, staying out of trouble and helping to provide for his family. Occasionally while working the fields, he would be reprimanded for stopping to play with the bugs and insects he found so interesting. Thomas recalls the experience:

“…You are pulling this bag and there are snakes, rabbits and spiders, bee’s … Everything you could think of was right there in the cotton fields. I got in trouble a few times because I liked insects, so instead of picking cotton I would be playing with bugs.”

“This one time I remember… we had to go through the white part of town and I was scared to death… some big white high school guys saw us and came out and shot us with bee bee guns and we took off running.” – Earlie Thomas

The first white person Thomas ever encountered was the ice deliveryman. Terrified by the unexpected encounter, Thomas’ mother had to calm her child and reassure him that the strange looking man meant him no harm.

His first encounter with white children his age provided for a far less innocent memory.

“We were playing down by the river, and these two white boys called us over,” said Thomas. “One of the boys asked me if I had ever seen a match burn, to which I said, ‘no.’ The boy lit the match, blew it out, and then asked me if I wanted to see it burn again.”

Thomas responded “yes,” so the boy took the still hot match and burned it into Thomas’ arm. ” I didn’t like that. I had a bad feeling about white people just from that,” Thomas recalls.

But what other way was there? If the Thomas family wanted to go to a pool or movie theatre, a thirty-mile drive to Dallas was required. On road trips, a light skinned uncle would be brought along to go into restaurants to retrieve food for the rest of the family.

“I would say that my real dad was pretty angry, because it didn’t take much for him to get in a fight. It didn’t take much for him to hit us, to hit our mom. He was kind of a violent person.” – Earlie Thomas

Earlie Thomas clearly recalls watching his father bounce a rock off of his neighbor’s head.

What had begun as an innocent rock throwing fight between neighborhood kids quickly escalated when Earlie’s father saw the other kids parents get involved.

“…My dad saw that and he came out,” Thomas remembers. “He picked up what looked like a boulder – it was a big rock – and he threw it. I still remember the rock going through the air and hit the mother in the head. It looked like the blood just came out in slow motion and they called the police on him and he took off running down the alley. He stayed gone for a few days and then came back.”

Things were bound to get worse for the Thomases. When Earlie was nine, his father would be shot and killed during a street argument. As far as Thomas knows, no one was ever charged with killing his father.

“They didn’t care if a black man killed another black man,” said Thomas. “And they really didn’t care if a white man killed a black man, so I doubt if anyone was ever arrested.”

The short time Thomas did have with his father ingrained certain truths that endure to this day. Thomas’ father was an alcoholic, prone towards aggression when he drank.

Thomas saw the effects alcohol had on his father and decided from an early age that liquor would not be a part of his life. “I was afraid of becoming like my father,” Thomas said.

The loss of his dad also provided for a spiritual reckoning for Earlie Thomas. The pastor at the local church – Reverend Harvey – helped fill the void of an adult male, taking Earlie horseback riding and to Dallas to enjoy swimming pools and movie theatres.

Thomas’ Christian beliefs endure to this day.

“Spiritually the man is just wonderful,” said Thomas’ wife Kathy Thomas. “We believe in Jesus Christ and that influences our lives.”

Thomas’ mother, Gertie, would remarry four years after the death of his father. His new stepfather – “Ren” Kinney – would be a guiding influence in his life. Thomas was taught how to hold a job, use his mind and to treat others with respect through his step dad.

“Earlie is definitely the ‘real deal’ and though you’ll never hear him boast about it, he has attributes and endless accomplishments that would make the rest of us collapse from exhaustion. How’d he do all that?” – June Comer, CSU class of 1969

What Thomas could not escape, was the shackles of society that were put on blacks in Texas.

Even if his siblings had been accomplished in the classroom, their options were limited. The local university, North Texas State College, did not accept blacks at the time, and Earlie’s parents had little money for education regardless.

One of Earlie Thomas’ older brothers – John Williams — was an accomplished football player, all-state Texas quarterback in fact. Yearning to get away, the brother visited the universities of Colorado and Colorado State on a recruiting visit when Earlie was in the seventh grade.

The brother came back with stories of a place where the schools weren’t segregated and a man was free to accomplish what he could make of himself.

The seed had been sown. Earlie’s mother would no longer allow the shackles of Jim Crow to hold back her family. The family packed up their belongings, loaded up the car and headed west.

The year was 1958, and the Thomas family was headed for a new beginning – in Colorado.

A new beginning

We were so happy. We were like the Beverly Hillbillies. We had an old pickup truck and a 1955 ford we packed up everything we had in those two vehicles, all the kids and the dog and headed to Colorado. -Earlie Thomas

In Colorado, Gertie Kinney saw an opportunities for her children that had never been available in Texas.

No longer would the family have to go through indignity of being excluded from restaurants. The back of a bus was no longer a requirement. And the children could attend schools with all of the other kids from the neighborhood, black, white, Hispanic or otherwise.

Education was the driving force behind the move from Denton. So when gang violence claimed the life of a student at the junior high Earlie was set to attend, Gertie Kinney made other plans.

There was a Catholic school in the neighborhood – Annunciation – that offered the kind of education and environment that Kinney felt her children deserved. The only problem being that the family was not Catholic and had no extra money to pay for tuition.

So Gertie Kinney brought her two older sons, youngest daughter and the undersized Earlie to monsignor Barry, the director of the school, and offered a proposition.

“…My mother says, ‘these guys can play football, and I can cook.’ He just laughed and said come back tomorrow,” Thomas recalls.

The offer was taken. Earlie and his sibling could attend the Catholic school free of charge provided his mother prepared the meals for the monsignor and the nuns and his two large, athletic brothers played for the football team.

“He was real small, about 140 pounds” – John Williams

Earlie never developed into the prep athlete his older brothers had become. He had tried out for the high school team, but there just wasn’t much use for a 5 foot 7 inch 140 pound running back on the squad.

But a late bloomer, Thomas was. Within a year of graduation, Thomas had matured to a healthy six feet and 180 pounds. The diminutive young man was growing into the strong, fleet-footed frame shared by his late father and older brothers.

Unsure what to do with his new found stature, Earlie took up boxing. Within a year, Thomas had risen to the rank of Golden Gloves champion in the light heavyweight division. Thomas recalled his brief boxing career in an interview with Bryant Gumbel for the January 1972 issue of the now defunct “Black Sports” magazine:

“I was a light-heavyweight at about 170 pounds. I had seven fights and won six and got disqualified in the seventh. I never really liked boxing.”

Soon after graduation, Thomas enrolled at Metro State University in Denver. Not unlike many students, he was forced to live at home while attending school to save money. The only subject that had held Earlie’s interest was bugs. The way grasshoppers communicated, how ants could hold organized warfare and hold each other as slaves, a separate world that he could manipulate; this was the passion that held.

So when Thomas discovered that Colorado State University offered a degree in entomology – the study of insects – he knew where he wanted to attend college. Again, however, Thomas faced a money barrier. This time Thomas could not rely on his mother to work a deal and his brothers would be unable to fund him. Thomas knew where he wanted to be; he just didn’t know how to get there.

Mr. Thomas goes to school

“He told me one day that he wanted to go to school to play football. I said, ‘where do you want to go?’ He said, ‘Colorado State.’ I said, ‘OK, you come work with me and we’ll get you ready.'”

This is not how it is supposed to work. Not today, not ever. It is simply irrational to expect to walk into a Division I football program with zero experience and gain a scholarship to play ball. For whatever reason, Earlie wasn’t listening.

Thomas and his brother John Williams, a cornerback with the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football league, started working out together in the spring of 1967 at Manuel High School in Denver. Professional players from the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos attended the off-season workouts to stay in shape.

Earlie, at best a bench-warming backup in high school was suddenly cutting his teeth in football against the likes of Willie Brown, Floyd Little and Nemiah Wilson.

“We had him out there covering guys and he was getting ate up,” Williams said. “But after awhile he got better.”

Earlie was taught how to backpedal, the intricacies of playing man-to-man coverage and what to look for in receivers’ movements. His skill became quickly apparent to the professional players working with him, if not the areas college coaches.

When the time approached for training camp to start at CSU, Williams made a collect call to then Rams coach Mike Lude. Williams had met the coach years before when he was being recruited out of high school and suggested that the coach may have overlooked some local talent.

Lude, upon hearing that Earlie wanted to play at an already stacked position, was skeptical of Thomas’ chances of making the team. Nonetheless, Lude agreed to meet with Thomas if only to appease his brother.

“Mike Lude told my mom a year later, that was probably the best collect call he ever had.” – John Williams

Earlie Williams had no money, but he had a dream. He wanted a degree in entomology from CSU and football would be the means to attain it.

Earlie tried to put on an athletes persona for his first meeting with Coach Lude. He walked into the coach’s office with his head high and chest out, heeding his brothers warning not to, “walk around with your head down looking for bugs like you usually do.”

The ruse failed however as coach Lude quickly discovered that while Earlie was long on ambition, he was woefully short on experience. Thomas remembers the coach’s words:

“You don’t know anything about football,” Lude said. “We recruit kids out of California, this is a Division I program – you can’t just play here without any experience.”

Unfazed, Thomas said he still wanted to give it a try. Perhaps impressed by the Earlie’s tenacity, Lude set him up with enough loan and grant money to get through the first quarter of school, after that there would be no guarantees.

“Earlie was so identifiable … those long, long thin legs that made the field look like it measured in feet, not yards. And the broad reach of those hands at the end of equally long upper limbs; he could cherry pick just about anything that came his way. Yep, he could definitely get the job done.” – June Comer

John Williams had told Earlie that he needed to make a strong first impression, that he needed to finish first in whatever he was asked to do. Still, when the coaches timed the team in a mile run around the newly built Moby Arena, no one was as surprised as Thomas when he finished first and broke the team’s all-time record.

So Earlie started to gain the coaches attention and swiftly moved up the depth chart. The kid was simply too athletically talented to ignore. By the end of camp, Earlie had secured his spot on the team and a full ride scholarship. He had cheated the odds and made believers of the coaches. Thomas could now count on his newfound athletic ability to pave his way towards an education.

As if the sense of accomplishment wasn’t enough for the moment, Thomas’ life was about to come full circle. CSU’s second game of the season was scheduled against North Texas University. The same Denton school that had denied his brother a scholarship years earlier because of skin color. Thomas was about to return to a much different home than the one he had left over a decade earlier.

Return to Texas

“My very first game in my life, really, was against North Texas State. On the first play, I lined up opposite Ron Shanklin, now of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He came off the line, I bumped him, turned and fell flat on my face.” -Earlie Thomas as told to Bryant Gumbel

Denton was not the same town Earlie and his family had left so many years earlier. The racial barriers had been broken somewhere along the line. North Texas State University was now accepting blacks. The public schools were integrated.

Earlie and his teammates all went to see “In the Heat of the Night,” together at the Denton movie theater. The irony for Thomas was unmistakable, as he sat in a theatre years earlier he had been banned from, watching a film where a black guy slaps a white man. Unbelievable.

“The world had changed, it was a different place when I returned,” Thomas remembers.

It had been Earlie’s first time on a plane, and his first return to Texas. Soon he would experience another first. Immediately preceding the game, with his family in the stands, coaches gave Thomas word that he would be starting.

Thomas blundered his first play, almost giving up a touchdown to the opposing receiver. But he regained his nerves, buckled down and ended the game with an astonishing six pass deflections.

After that, Thomas’ starting position was secured. He quickly gained a reputation around the Western Athletic Conference – CSU’s conference at the time – as a shutdown corner. Passes thrown his way became a rarity as opposing defenses realized the futility of challenging CSU’s star cornerback.

Thomas never lost perspective however. Football was simply a means to his goal of graduating. The humble, diminutive kid from Texas never forgot his roots and refused to allow any short-term success to divert him from his goal. It was a lesson that would pay dividends during the upcoming year.

“He was just the nicest man I knew, so I thought, ‘what’s the problem, why not go out with him.’ There’s not a lot of Earlies out there.” – Kathy Thomas

It was not uncommon for black athletes at CSU to date white women at the time. But that didn’t make things any easier for Earlie and his new girlfriend, Kathy Kreuger.

The two had met early in 1968 during a CSU basketball game at Moby Arena. The attraction was not instant, but through the constant prodding of a mutual friend the two began to date.

Kathy Kreuger was the only child of a marine. Kreuger’s parents were not excited about the relationship, a view that Kathy did not understand at the time but now attributes to her parents wanting to protect her from others’ narrow view points.

Even harsher was the reactions of many of the blacks on campus at the time.

“He got a lot of heat from the Black Student Alliance,” remembers Kathy Thomas. “There were some pretty ugly things that happened. People would start calling him names like, ‘All-American uncle Tom.'”

The criticism from Kathy’s parents and the black students at CSU endured, as did the young couple’s relationship. By the fall of 1967, Kathy had moved back to Denver to live with her parents and work as a receptionist. Earlie would often make the hour-and-a-half long drive down the interstate to Denver to visit Kathy at her work – the Kreuger household was off limits.

“Our idea of a date was him coming to Denver for me to type his papers,” Kathy Thomas said.

Soon Earlie would face adversity of a different kind – on the playing field.

It occurred during the first home game at the newly christened Hughes Stadium. While returning a punt, Thomas suffered an injury to his lower leg resulting in the tear of a tendon and the separation of the two bones.

Team medics told Thomas that he would never walk without a limp again and put him in a pressure cast. To the experts at CSU, Earlie’s brief playing days were over.

If there were a bright side to the injury, Thomas would soon find it. A new draft had been enacted for the war in Vietnam and Earlie was in line to be enlisted. When the Army doctors saw the injury, they quickly agreed with the prior diagnosis – Earlie would be lucky to ever walk strait again – he was clearly unfit for service.

Captain Earlie Thomas

“I was determined I was gonna play again. When I had a cast on my leg, I was still working it out; I was curling up towels with toes, even with the cast on. I didn’t believe the guys from the military. I didn’t believe our doctors either.” – Earlie Thomas

No one could say how and no one could say why, but Earlie Thomas defied the doctors’ prognosises and by the spring of 1969, Earlie was back with the team practicing at full speed.

He had earned the respect of his teammates, who elected him defensive captain for the upcoming season. With this honor came more responsibility than Thomas could have expected.

The civil rights movement was coming to a head in America. Rage was everywhere, only intensified by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was next to impossible for a black American to sit idle on the side without expressing an opinion.

It was during this time that the Black Panthers decided to pay their visit to captain Thomas. Demands in hand, the Panthers were not prepared for Thomas’ counter-offer. The black players would go along with the boycott of BYU – if Watkins and the Panthers were willing to provide them with tuition on the chance that the players were kicked off of the team.

“You didn’t want to say no to them, they were a violent group back then,” Thomas said. “They were really the opposite of Dr. King.”

Watkins was not prepared to meet the offer. The Panthers left CSU with no deal in hand, only returning for the spring game to heckle Thomas from the stands and insinuate his desertion of his race.

“He loved his people, but he couldn’t pay for his education,” Kathy Thomas said. “He felt he could help (black people) more from the inside.”

“I did have some regrets,” Earlie Thomas recalls. “We ended up playing BYU and they treated us badly. I heard the ‘N’ word more there than anywhere else.”

Things would calm down for a while for Earlie and Kathy. Thomas proposed to Kathy on Lookout Mountain west of Denver. After gaining the approval of Kathy’s parents, the two were wed in August of 1969 at the Danforth Chapel on the CSU’s campus.

Earlie began his final season at CSU as the team’s defensive captain. The young couple was looking forward with anticipation to a life after college, starting a family and a new career.

The Black Panthers, however, were not yet satisfied, not by a long shot.

“All the power to the brothers at the University of Wyoming! But, what about some of the apathetic Black athletes at CSU. Where were you when the shit should have been going down about scheduling and playing a school which preaches racism?” – Larry Jackson in a October 22,1969 letter to the Rocky Mountain Collegian

Where the panthers had failed to sway Thomas and the black players at CSU, they succeeded a little farther down the road at the University of Wyoming.

Having learned from their previously failed attempt to sway the Thomas, Watkins and the Panthers convinced the Cowboy players not to boycott the game entirely, but instead to where black armbands as a silent protest.

The plan backfired completely for the Wyoming players. Noticing the armbands during warm-ups before the game against BYU in Laramie, Wyoming, coach Lloyd Eaton proceeded to kick all fourteen black players off of the team before the game had even begun.

Having no guarantee for tuition, the “Wyoming 14,” was left hanging by the Panthers. Few if any were able to continue their education and would be remembered only for a valiant, if unsuccessful stand against one of the last institutions of sanctioned bigotry.

“He was going to the game without me, I was mad. He was a young man and he wanted to see the action.” – Kathy Thomas

It all started innocently enough.

ASCSU vice president Dennis Beckel and Black Student Alliance president Larry Jackson met with administrators at CSU, seeking permission to protest the policies of BYU at the half time of the teams’ Feb. 5, 1970 meeting at Moby Arena.

In the words of Jackson, the protest was intended to, “make a mockery of some of the Mormon policies.”

Permission to protest during the game was subsequently rejected by the university, which stated that the students were free to demonstrate outside of the gym but could not come inside. The issue, however, was far from over.

The first half of the game went off without a hitch. When both teams left the court for halftime, CSU held a 53-30 edge and the game appeared out of reach for the Cougars.

And then the BYU cheerleaders took the floor for their halftime show and all hell broke loose.

According to reports by The Rocky Mountain Collegian, approximately 110 protestors, mostly black, took to the floor. Pieces of metal and a firebomb were thrown from the stands. The protestors remained for 11 minutes before Fort Collins police showed up in riot gear and ordered the demonstrators to disperse.

“We couldn’t move off of the floor any faster due to the bottle-neck at the end of the gym. Pretty soon, I got shoved in the back and hit in the head by a club,” stated an anonymous protestor.

Seven people were arrested during the incident – only three of them students – while Earlie Thomas stood in the stands, watching and wondering where he might have been were it not for his willingness to stand against the pressures of the times.

The Graduate

“He had no intentions of playing professional football when he went to Colorado State.” – John Williams

It was January of 1970, when Earlie Thomas found out he had been drafted in the 11th round by the defending Super Bowl champion, New York Jets.

“Kathy, my wife was just standing there with this big smile on her face and she said, ‘Congratulations, Jet.’ That’s when I finally knew that it was true,” Thomas said at the time.

Earlie had continued to develop through college and now stood a robust 6 feet 2 inches tall weighing in at 204 pounds. Thomas had been timed at 4.4 seconds in the forty-yard dash, a quick time even by today’s standards.

Earlie and Kathy had even more reason to be excited. Kathy was pregnant and eventually gave birth to the couple’s first son, Garrett, four days after Earlie graduated with his coveted entomology degree.

Although he was drafted in the later rounds, probably due to speculation about his once injured leg, Earlie repeated the trend he had set in college and quickly rose through the depth charts. Just as in college, Thomas would be starting at cornerback by his second game.

The life of a professional football player was much different than the one enjoyed today. Because of Earlie’s relatively low draft position, his initial contract was not very appealing.

“I remember when we moved to New York, the trash haulers were on strike,” recalls Kathy Thomas. “By the time their new contracts were resolved, the trash haulers were making the same amount as Earlie.”

The largest professional football contract Earlie Thomas would ever receive would be $35,000 – not even worthy of a signing bonus in today’s market.

Earlie Thomas proceeded to have a successful pro career by any standards. He was teammates with Joe Namath and was able to compete with the likes of “Bullet” Bob Hayes, Paul Warfield, Oscar Reed and O.J. Simpson. Thomas finished second in voting for the 1970 rookie of the year award.

Thomas has fond memories of playing with the often-controversial “Broadway” Joe Namath.

“Joe Namath was our leader,” Thomas said. “My rookie year I was amazed because he would come into my room and encourage me.

“He still keeps in touch. I never met a player like Joe, he was very humble, very sensitive.”

Thomas would continue to disregard any racial barriers when he and Jets teammate Steve Thompson became the first bi-racial teammates to share a room on the road.

“It was a tough thing but it proves that people are people,” Thomas said. “We are so color conscious as a society – we look at that first and then we look at the person.

Steady as always throughout his professional career, and even through the births of his second and third sons, Thomas never lost the interest his youth – insects.

During football’s off-seasons, the Thomas family would return to Fort Collins so that Earlie could pursue a masters degree in entomology. One year, Thomas was selected to the Pro Bowl but declined due to the conflict with his studies.

“It wasn’t until 10 years later that I found out he made the Pro Bowl but didn’t go because of school,” Kathy Thomas said. “I was upset, I would have liked going to Hawaii.”

“At the time it was terrifying – Earlie didn’t have a job and we were living at my parent house.” – Kathy Thomas

By the mid seventies, Earlie Thomas’ football career was in its twilight. The time spent away from home and family was wearing on Thomas, who sought to move his family permanently back to Colorado.

When a trade request to the Broncos backfired and Thomas was instead sent to the Buffalo Bills, Thomas thought the end was near. The Bills cut him during training camp of the 1975 season and for the first time in years, Thomas was out of a job.

The family returned to Denver and moved in with Kathy’s parents. Thomas was now a spectator, watching games on TV instead of the field.

An injury to Denver’s starting cornerback changed all of that. Thomas quickly received a call from the Broncos and was offered the chance to compete for a job. Once again, Thomas would buck the odds by making the team. Pro football would last another two years for Thomas before a blood clot in his leg and a team he thought was going nowhere convinced him that the time was right for retirement.

Earlie Thomas: director of Environmental Health Services

My mother was always running me, and the bugs, out of the house. Bugs had always been something that got me in trouble more than anything.”- Earlie Thomas

Insects would now, once again set the course of Thomas’ life. After retiring, Thomas was hired by a consulting firm to do research on the affects of insects on farmland. In 1980, a position at the department of environmental health services became available at CSU and Thomas was able to return to his Alma matter to teach and continue his research.

Thomas remains at the department to this day, only now as the director. He works in an office not a football’s throw from his original playing field on College Avenue, keeping a daily monitor on any matter involving health and safety at CSU. For Thomas, the reward of hard work has been being able to spend the majority of his life in a place he loves, pursuing his passion.

It is not difficult for Earlie Thomas to stay content now. Not with three children and nine grandchildren to keep tabs of. At his home in Laporte, on a sprawling two-acre lot, Earlie plants a tree every time another grandchild reaches the age of two. The growing orchard is symbolic of the man who achieved so much through his quite love of nature.

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