Football, stage star Earlie Thomas bloomed from rocky soil | Arts & Entertainment

Openstage-Exonerated Earlie Thomas

Football star Earlie Thomas, front, began a second career as an actor at age 57, appearing in, among many others, “The Exonerated” with OpenStage & Company in Fort Collins.

Earlie Thomas wasn’t intimidated to step onto a stage and perform. Not after an all-pro NFL career with the New York Jets and Denver Broncos. Not after picking cotton as a boy in Texas to help his family get by. Not after having to scramble to win a walk-on spot on the Colorado State University football team. Not even taking up theater at age 57, even though he had never been taught the fundamentals of reading.

That hadn’t stopped him from becoming an entomology scientist and CSU’s longtime director of Environmental Health Services. And it wasn’t going to stop him from becoming an actor once given the opportunity.

“I’ve made mistakes that have cost ballgames in front of 80,000 people, but then you just go on and you get ready for next week,” Thomas once told me. So, no, the prospect of blowing a line in front of 40 people on a tiny stage in Fort Collins wasn’t going to faze him.

Earlie Thomas Aloes

Earlie Thomas in 2003’s “A Lesson from Aloes.”

Not that it happened often. Thomas took on enormously challenging dramatic roles with the tenacity of a football player preparing to go to the Super Bowl: With discipline, enthusiasm and total commitment.

Thomas, a man with the body of a gazelle and the heart of a lion, died July 3 at his home in Laporte from advanced Parkinson’s disease. He was 76. His wife of 52 years, Kathy Thomas, called Parkinson’s “a cruel disease because it doesn’t affect the mind. It attacks the body — and what a body he had.”

Thomas had such a body that, at age 50, he coached CSU sprinters at the physical peak of their lives, and not one of them could hang with him for 40 meters. It was such a body that, at age 60, he once set off an airport alarm and, after a pat down, the security guard called for immediate backup. Soon Thomas was surrounded by TSA agents and ordered to pull up his shirt. But all they saw underneath were Thomas’ rock-hard, six-pack abs, and were soon offering profuse apologies. The agent who patted him down had mistaken his muscles for metal. 

A Lesson from Aloes

From left: Earlie Thomas, Thomas Sutherland and Wendy Ishii in 2003’s “A Lesson from Aloes.”

In a most audacious theatrical experiment, Bas Bleu Theatre founder Wendy Ishii asked Thomas and former Beirut hostage Thomas Sutherland to join her in a 2003 production of Athol Fugard’s searing anti-apartheid drama “A Lesson From Aloes” — even though Sutherland had never acted before, and Thomas’ last stage production had been 40 years before in an Annunciation High School production of “Twelve Angry Men.” Thomas would be playing a Black South African native who is scarred from an ill-fated resistance movement. And not as a stunt or a lark — this was a deadly serious creative endeavor. And Thomas dove in fully.

“I was a little leery at first because I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Thomas said at the time. “But I like what this play has to say. I think most people in this country don’t have a clue of how bad apartheid was. Even Blacks in this country who think, ‘Maybe we’re not getting equal opportunity,’ or ‘Maybe we’re being profiled by police’ — those are tough things, but a government-sponsored system of discrimination is another, and I was really excited to be part of making people aware of that.”

The trio rehearsed for a full year, one that Ishii, an award-winning veteran of dozens of productions, calls “one of the most magical, joyous and transformative years of my life.” During which time Thomas revealed that he could not memorize the script by simply reading the words. His brain didn’t work that way. But he had an uncanny knack for retaining what he heard out loud. He spent hundreds of hours learning his lines and a nearly impossible dialect. When he wasn’t at rehearsal, he was working alone at home in his barn, where he taped out the stage on the ground just as it looked back at the theater. “That way I could walk around in the barn and yell my lines at all hours of the night,” he said.

Thomas’ director was Laura Jones, who used football analogies to help Earlie understand the world of theater. “For example, if he would anticipate his next line, I would say, ‘False start, Earlie.’ That’s why Earlie always called me his coach, not his director. But he worked hard, and eventually, he got it. He picked up that accent so well, many people asked how I got a South African actor to come to Fort Collins.”

As the Denver Post theater critic at the time, I acknowledged the uneven but undeniably thrilling result, calling Thomas alternately charming and despairing. By the play’s end, Westword’s Juliet Wittman found Thomas’ performance to be so exhilarating that she just didn’t care that he was a rookie.

Thomas was hooked, soon performing in a series of substantial plays in Fort Collins that included “Master Harold and the Boys,” “Beast on the Moon” and “I’m Not Rappaport” at Bas Bleu; “The Exonerated” at OpenStage; and “The Miracle Worker” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at CSU.

“Earlie spent his entire life doing things for others, and I think theater was one of the only things that he ever did just for himself,” his wife said. “He loved the challenge of it, he loved working with others, and, as a lifelong learner, I think he loved the steep learning curve.”

Earlie Thomas family

Earlie Thomas and family.

Humble beginnings

Earlie Bee Thomas was born the sixth of eight siblings on Dec. 11, 1945, in Denton, Texas. It was a time when it was illegal for a Black person to even be present in designated white neighborhoods. While his mother worked as a cook at a local country club, Earlie and his siblings were forced to attend Denton’s only Black school, which he called a dumping ground where little learning took place.

The Thomas family was so poor, each kid would get one pair of new shoes at the beginning of each school year. If they grew out of them, which they inevitably did within a few months, they would have to go barefoot, even while working in the cotton fields. When Thomas earned his first NFL paycheck in 1970, he later said, the first thing he did was buy a pair of shoes, because he vowed that he would never go barefoot again. 

Still, young Earlie craved learning, developing a lifelong fascination with science and bugs. But throughout his life, he largely had to learn by sound. “They didn’t teach me phonics, how to read, any of that stuff at that school in Denton,” Thomas said. “That’s why my parents moved us to Denver.”

Thomas graduated from Annunciation High School in 1967 and then convinced CSU football coach Mike Lude to give him a chance to try out for the team. Thomas didn’t have a driving passion for football but a scholarship would be his only way of affording college — and he had one by the end of summer workouts.

Earlie Thomas CSU injury

Earlie Thomas suffered a devastating injury in his freshman season at Colorado State University.

After a devastating injury in the first game ever played at Hughes Stadium, Thomas bounced back in 1969 — the same year he married Kathy. He earned a reputation as a “shutdown cornerback,” giving up just one touchdown during his entire CSU career. He graduated in 1970 and was named to the Colorado State University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994.

Sports writer Tony Phifer calls Thomas “one of CSU’s greatest players.” Rams teammate Bill Schmitz told Phifer he will always remember Thomas “as a really good player, but as soon as football practice was over, he went off to his studies and his bugs. He was a very serious student.” One who, no one knew at the time, could only learn by listening.

Thomas was drafted by the Jets in the 11th round of the NFL Draft, but he was among the last to know because he was in class at CSU while the draft was going on. He finished second in voting for 1970 Rookie of the Year as a 6-foot-1 cornerback — tall for that position — but Kathy swears he grew another full inch by the time he was 25. “He was a late bloomer in every way,” she said with a laugh.

Earlie Thomas New York Jets

Earlie Thomas with the New York Jets.

Thomas played five years with the Jets while simultaneously pursuing his master’s degree at CSU, also in entomology.  By then, Thomas’ oldest son was nearing 5 years old, and he asked the Jets to trade him to the Broncos — otherwise he would retire at the top of his game at age 28. Once Garrett started school, Earlie wasn’t going to move him all over the country. The Jets traded him, just not to Denver. “It was purely through the grace of God that he ended up with the Broncos the next season anyway,” Kathy said.

Thomas played one year with the Broncos and, encouraged by a scary bout with phlebitis — an inflammation of a vein — he then retired. In fact, the very day he received his master’s degree from CSU in 1975 was also his last day as No. 48 with the Broncos.

“The subject of his master’s thesis tells you everything you need to know about Earlie Thomas,” his wife said. It was on a parasite called the alfalfa weevil. Thomas’ study of local farmers’ cultural practices informed strategies to help them battle the pest using far less chemicals.

Thomas enjoyed football, Kathy says, but not nearly as much as he loved his family. It was a paycheck, but not a very good one. In six seasons, he never even earned $15,000.

The right stuff

Thomas was extraordinarily committed to sons Garrett, Ryan and Jeramie, instilling in them the values of sportsmanship, fair play and that winning is fine — if you have worked hard and earned it. He was proud enough when son Ryan Thomas was part of the University of Colorado football team that won the 1990 national football championship, but Dad kept it all in perspective. The next year, when CU played Alabama in the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl, Earlie and his wife attended a friend’s wedding instead, “because Earlie knew what was important,” Kathy said. “He got annoyed when people at the reception crowded around a TV to follow the game because it was taking away from the reason we were there at the wedding,” she said.

On most NFL Sundays, she added, Thomas was more likely to be taking the grandkids to go see what they could find in the local pond than watching the television.

Earlie Thomas Im not Rapaport

Earlie Thomas, left, with Jonathan Farwell in Bas Bleu Theatre’s “I’m not Rappaport.”

Thomas joined the CSU faculty in 1984, serving for nearly 30 years heading the agency that monitors and promotes health and safety on campus. He also ran a consulting business and worked with farmers across four states to help manage pest-caused crop damage.

Thomas also coached young Fort Collins athletes in several capacities. He coached his three sons and all but one of his grandsons in a Junior All-American Football league. He spent 20 summers helping the Fort Collins Track Club for 8-18 year-olds. And he was known throughout the Cache La Poudre Middle School community for an obstacle course he set up in his backyard that incorporated tires, sawhorses, hay bales … and one mean rooster.

Thomas was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2009, and it has been slowly robbing him of his life ever since. But in a 2019 interview with Phifer, Thomas said he had been blessed “with a wonderful life, family and a couple of exciting careers.” Citing a biblical passage, he added, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith — and I intend to stay strong.”

Thomas should be remembered “as an extremely humble person who treated everyone with the same level of integrity and respect,” Kathy Thomas said. “It didn’t matter if you were the president or a custodian or a fifth-grade football player. What you received from Earlie was considerable knowledge and unconditional love. I think that is a gift from God that he used well throughout his life.”

Kathy Thomas already has received condolences from Thomas’ former teammates Joe Namath, Steve Thompson and Joe Jackson. Early Thomas is also survived by sons, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

It was his oldest grandchild who, at age 4, gave Thomas the enduring name Big Daddy — even though her own father was 3 inches taller. When her dad protested, the girl declared, “You’re Daddy. But he’s BIG DADDY.” And that was that.

A celebration will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 1 at the Summitview Church in Fort Collins.

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