May 15, 2012
The tough guy wasn’t fazed when his F-16 fighter jet malfunctioned and he had to parachute out into Iraq during the height of the Gulf War.
In one of the most dangerous moments imaginable, former Air Force football safety Scott Thomas spoke in a calm monotone as he discussed the plan with his wingman in another jet, Eric Dodson. As Thomas assessed the damage to the plane and contemplated if he could make it past the Iraq border before going down, during a lull in the transmissions he calmly said, “Bummer, dudes,” like someone ate the last slice of pizza.
But a painted football in a FedEx box outside Thomas’ house Thursday knocked the tough guy on his heels a bit.
Thomas was getting ready to leave his house Thursday to fly an international commercial flight for American Airlines when he got the package. Inside was a football, decorated with congratulations for being part of the 2012 College Football Hall of Fame class.
“It took my breath away,” said Thomas, an All-American safety who played for the Falcons from 1982-85. “This football was staring at me, and I rotated it and I saw what it said, and in my mind I’m thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”
Thomas becomes the fourth Falcon included in the College Football Hall of Fame, joining offensive tackle Brock Strom, defensive tackle and former teammate Chad Hennings, and coach Fisher DeBerry. The announcement was made Tuesday. Thomas said he was told to keep the announcement under wraps for a few days, and not surprisingly, he followed orders.
Thomas’ name might resonate among Air Force fans more than any other player in the program’s history. His enduring popularity, 26 years after he graduated from the academy, is due to his toughness, flair for big plays, and the exuberance in which he played the game.
The toughness is legendary. Before his 4,100 hours of military flight time, and having to eject from his jet in Iraq in 1991 and wait a couple of hours to be rrescued by military helicopters as the enemies closed in, he was known as a hard hitter on the football field. That toughness came from his parents, who traveled from Texas to every Air Force game.
“If he didn’t play good, his mama would whip his butt,” DeBerry said with a laugh. “They’d say, ‘We didn’t drive all the way from Texas to see you screw up.’”
He also was productive. He had 221 tackles, 10 interceptions and averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return. He was an All-American in 1985, and returned a punt, kickoff and interception for a touchdown on a team that went 12-1 and finished the season ranked fifth in the country.
“Growing up I was just a skinny kid who was fast and wasn’t afraid to hit somebody,” Thomas said. “In high school, I thought that would be the end of the road for me in football. I just got better and better.”
Texas pulled a scholarship offer at the last minute, so Thomas went to Air Force. He admits he thought he would spend two years at the academy and move on to a Southwest Conference school. He ended up being an Air Force pilot for 25 years instead.
“In retrospect, I’m glad I was put in that position and stayed there,” Thomas said. “I found success there that I might not have had elsewhere, and the greatest friendships of my life were born there.”
He said old Air Force teammates like Troy Calhoun, now the coach, and Brian Knorr would tell him he’d make the hall of fame, but after being passed over last year, he said he didn’t think about it this year. Even as he watched the official announcement Tuesday, he was still in shock.
“I was seeing all these great names I watched growing up, and to be included with them is a huge honor,” said Thomas, who also works at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, training pilots. “I still can’t believe it’s happening.”
Contact Frank Schwab: 476-4891
Facebook Gazette Frank Schwab