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One of a Kind: Remembering Rodney Thomas

June 20, 2014
 | 
Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

One of the greatest running backs in school history, Rodney Thomas died on June 14 in his hometown of Groveton at the age of 41.

Thomas is survived by his wife, Leigh; a four-year old son, Ian Rodney Thomas; and a teenage stepson, Jalen David Brown, who is entering Texas A&M this fall to pursue an engineering degree.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Texas A&M Lettermen’s Association Building Fund to create a lasting tribute to Rodney Thomas.

Donations can be made to: 12th Man Foundation, P.O. Box 2800, College Station, TX 77841-2800 (Memo: Lettermen’s Facility Fund / Rodney Thomas Memorial)

ONE OF A KIND: REMEMBERING RODNEY THOMAS

Thomas’ Aggie teammates, Larry Jackson and Leeland McElroy,
help shed light on a man that was truly remarkable

by Will Johnson '01
12th Man Productions

Larry Jackson’s day started at 5 a.m. He had already worked out two groups of Aggie football players, and two more were on the way.

Kevin Sumlin says the program belongs to his Director of Football Sports Performance this time of year.

Jackson is busy, but settled into his office inside the spectacular Davis Player Development Center for a lengthy chat.

Just one topic would allow him to take his mind off his important schedule.

“I’ll always have time to talk about Rodney Thomas.”

And now more than ever, that’s what Aggies need to do, because Thomas himself never would.

“He was so humble, he would never go around bragging about himself,” Jackson said. “We have to tell everyone (about him).”

If Thomas had wanted, he’d have had plenty of reasons to boast. He could tell you he is just one of five Aggies to run for over 3,000 yards in a career, and one of only three to score more than 40 rushing touchdowns at this school. He could tell you he never lost a conference game, nor one at Kyle Field. Then Thomas could dive into his tremendous deeds off the field, going on and on about how he touched this person’s life or helped this individual.

"He didn’t take any day for granted. He didn’t take football for granted. He didn’t take life for granted. He made the best out of every opportunity ... (and) out of life."

- Larry Jackson

But, he never did, and never will.

Rodney Thomas was laid to rest on Friday.

So we’ll tell the stories for him.

The Groveton, Texas native was a rarity. On the football field, he carried the ball with an uncommon swiftness that fused with raw power and a jarring ruggedness.

In life, he carried himself with class and character at a level that’s almost unheard of. 

His mix of gentleness outside the lines--and forcefulness inside them--is seldom seen. But perhaps that’s what made him so great.

“There’s a reason his light shined like that on the field, because that’s what kind of life he lived, and that’s what kind of person he was,” said Jackson. 

His play was terrific, but probably overshadowed by his good-heartedness. The stories are already being told since his passing. 

How he reimbursed a malfunctioning vending machine that was giving away free candy. And, his willingness to help the equipment crew unload their truck after a game. This is communicated first, not tales of what he could do with a football tucked away. 

But make no mistake, you wanted him on your side. It was too painful to line up across. His backfield-mate Leeland McElroy had an up-close look for two seasons.

“Rodney was the type of back that sought out defenders because he loved being the one to deliver the blow, and dish out punishment,” McElroy said. “He ran with authority.”

Jackson did line up across from Thomas in practices for four years.

“Rodney made his faith in God no secret, and demonstrated that in his actions, not simply his words. To have a guy be just as spiritually grounded as he was athletically gifted speaks volumes.”

- Leeland McElroy

“If you put him on the field now it doesn’t matter. SEC, Big 12, whatever. He would completely blow everyone’s mind with how he ran the football. The passion he ran with, the intensity. He never took a lazy step on the field.”

Thomas, McElroy and Greg Hill formed a backfield in the early ‘90s that often had the 12th Man in awe. Thomas dropped jaws in a different way than the other two.

“I think Greg and I may have had more similar styles,” McElroy explains. “Greg was quick, I was gifted with speed, and Rodney had more of an Earl Campbell style of play.”

Thomas went on to play seven seasons in the NFL, and in a Super Bowl with the Tennessee Titans. However, center stage was never his comfort zone. Larry Jackson found this out when he hosted Thomas on his recruiting visit.

“He wanted to go to a movie.  He wanted to go get something to eat, and he wanted to go back to the hotel. The first night I took him to McDonald’s, the second night to Taco Cabana, then he went back to the hotel and went to sleep,” Jackson remembers. “I wasn’t really certain that he had a good time.”

But he chose the Aggies, and even in college wasn’t looking for the spotlight.

“When most of us were taking an interest in campus parties and girls, he’d be trying to grow spiritually,” said McElroy.

Jackson and McElroy both mention that Thomas did open up during his days in the program, and wasn’t shy about helping his fellow man, and in what he believed.

“Rodney made his faith in God no secret, and demonstrated that in his actions, not simply his words,” McElroy said.  “To have a guy be just as spiritually grounded as he was athletically gifted speaks volumes.”

“When he opened up it always something so positive,” said Jackson.  “You always felt good when you walked away from the conversation.”

Rodney Thomas was more interested in just that than telling people how good he was himself. This, despite being one of the very best. Highlights and statistics will take care of what transpired on the field.

But it will take people like Larry Jackson and Leeland McElroy to tell the rest of his story. The more important part. The side that explains the man, and what was behind his kindness.

“I hope people remember him for the type of person he was,” McElroy says. “I really believe in my heart that’s what he’d want his legacy to be.  His play on the field spoke for itself, but his character off the field said just as much, if not more, about who he was as an individual and what he believed in.”

“He didn’t take any day for granted,” Jackson says, as players start to file into the Davis Center for another workout session. “He didn’t take football for granted. He didn’t take life for granted. He made the best out of every opportunity, every time he touched the football. He made the best out of life.”

Jackson now has to turn his attention back to the current Aggies, but you get the sense he’d like to stay 20 years in the past. Because, he always has time to speak of Rodney Thomas.

We all should. If we didn’t know him, and don’t know the stories or the man, we should listen.

Not just because he was an Aggie, and as McElroy says ‘one of the boys.’

But because he was one of a kind.



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