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The Life and Career of Chiefs Legend, Emmitt Thomas

Following the path of one of the greatest Chiefs of all time, Emmitt Thomas

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By BJ Kissel

Chiefs Reporter

He’s referred to as “The Legend” among his peers.

That’s the kind of respect given to a man who has spent 48 years in the NFL as either a player or coach and has won Super Bowls as each (Super Bowl IV – Cornerback – Kansas City Chiefs, XXII – Defensive Backs coach – Washington, XXVI – Defensive Backs coach – Washington).

But that’s not the only reason current Kansas City Chiefs defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas is revered this way around Kansas City.

He spent his entire 13-year playing career with the Chiefs, originally joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 1966. He played in the first game at Arrowhead Stadium and still holds the franchise record for career interceptions with 58.

He’s entering his 35th season as an NFL coach and his sixth with the Chiefs as DBs coach.

Thomas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008, the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 1986, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

The résumé is long and distinguished, but the path it took for Thomas to achieve this legendary status was anything but easy.

Growing Up in Small Town Texas

Thomas grew up in Angleton, Texas, which sits about 40 miles south of Houston and has a population of less than 20,000 people.

He was a small-town country farm kid.

But as the oldest of four, Thomas was forced to grow up sooner than most kids his age after tragedy struck their family twice before he was a teenager.

“I lost my parents when I was young,” Thomas explained. “I came from a single-parent home. My mother died when I was 8. My dad was killed in a car wreck when I was 12. My grandmother and grandfather raised me, my two sisters and my brother.”

Thomas said it was his uncle, who also lived with them, that helped him develop his love for football as he got older.

“My grandparents didn't understand sports at all,” he explained. “They figured you go to college, you worked on the farm, post office or at Dow Chemical Plant. Those were the job opportunities for us at that particular time.”

Long before Thomas created his own opportunity to work in football as a profession, he was considered too small to play until the end of his high school days.

"I was sort of a late grower through high school,” he explained. “I barely topped 5-foot-8, so I only played football one year— my senior year. I played basketball, baseball and was in the band.

“As a matter of fact, I played bass clarinet for about six years.”

Thomas remembered how different things were back in the 1960s when he was playing football as a senior in high school back in Texas.

“It was totally segregated,” he said. “Even when I started playing football, at halftime, I had to sit and wait with the band."

Despite growing three inches and gaining 10 pounds by the time he graduated high school, Thomas still didn’t have the size to play football in college, and his best sport at the time may have been baseball.

Thomas initially went to Tuskegee University in Alabama because his uncle had gone there, but that lasted only a week because he felt it was too far from home.

At that same time, Hurricane Carla had devastated much of Texas and Louisiana. It still ranks as one of the most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history as it spawned more than a dozen tornadoes that ripped through the south.

Fortunately for Thomas, the reconstruction and move of Bishop College from Marshall, Texas to Dallas was delayed because of Carla, and school was forced to start later than originally planned.

Thomas, who on the advice of his high school science teacher, was then able to attend Bishop and begin school on time after leaving Tuskegee.

But even still, football wasn’t on the radar for Thomas at Bishop College. It was baseball.

"Football was something I wanted to do, but didn't have enough background to think I could play,” Thomas, who had played just one year of high school football, said. “I knew I was going to play baseball there.”

But one of the assistant football coaches saw Thomas playing baseball and asked him to try out for the football team heading into his sophomore year.

Naturally, Thomas made the team and played quarterback and a little defensive back.

"It was totally segregated. Even when I started playing football, at halftime, I had to sit and wait with the band."

It was before a game his junior year against Prairie View A&M, which had a standout receiver named Otis Taylor, that his coach told him that some professional football people were coming out to watch the game that week.

"Lamar Hunt and one of the scouts came to see Otis Taylor,” Thomas recalled. “My coach told me Taylor thinks he's going to get a shot. So he said you ought to go and play defense against him tonight at cornerback.

“So I went over and played defense. They came back later after that next season and signed me to a contract."

Just like that and only a few years removed from being too small to play the game, Thomas was a professional football player.

Thomas remembered how Hunt, the Chiefs founder and father of current Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt, carried himself.

"I remember how quiet and mannered he was,” Thomas said of Hunt. “He was kind of almost shy to the point, but real quiet, real professional."

Thomas would eventually become teammates with Taylor in Kansas City.

Taylor was a fifth-round pick by the Chiefs in 1965 and still sits as the all-time leader in career yards receiving by a wideout with 7,306.

Thomas and Taylor would eventually lead the Chiefs to a Super Bowl title during the 1969 season, but that wasn’t before an uphill battle awaited Thomas when he first joined the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent.

Thomas Begins Hall of Fame Career

As an undrafted free agent, Thomas wanted to make the right impression from the day he first arrived in Kansas City.

“I came in early, about six days before camp,” Thomas explained. “The first day, they gave me No. 63 (an unusual number for a defensive back). The trainer gave it to me and the equipment manager said ‘You're not going to be here long anyway.’

“I wore No. 63 for the first three or four practices because there were so many of us. At the time, we had well over 100 players in camp."

Thomas would eventually wear No. 18, which is one of 10 numbers currently retired by the Chiefs.

Coming out of Bishop College, Thomas was used more as an athlete than he was married to a particular position. He hadn’t even spent most of his efforts working as a defensive back before Hunt had gone to see him, it was just on the advice of his coach that he’d stand out there.

So when he first started with the Chiefs, Thomas wasn’t sure where he was going to play.

"I didn't know exactly where they were going to put me, so I went to all four positions,” he explained. “I learned the two safety positions and both left and right corner. When they gave us the exam, I answered all the questions across the board.

“I was taller than the rest of them and I was faster than the rest of them, so when we ran the 40 and I turned in all my homework, I answered every position on defense that I could to try and be impressive.”

This caught the eye of Tom Bettis, who was the Chiefs defensive coordinator and secondary coach at the time. It obviously impressed him.

Not only did Thomas, a phenomenal athlete that had the size and speed to be a Hall of Fame player one day, stand out because of physical abilities, but he took it upon himself to learn every position.

Thomas played but didn’t start his first year in Kansas City, which ended with the Chiefs falling to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I.

On the way back to Kansas City after that loss, former coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Hank Stram wanted to talk to Thomas.

“On the way back, coach (Stram) called me up front,” Thomas recalled. “I didn't know what he was going to tell me. He said ‘this offseason, go home and get shape. You're going to start for us at corner next year and we're going to win the championship.'

“That's when it kind of set in.”

It was three years later that the Chiefs would have another opportunity to win a championship, and this time it was against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

At this point, Thomas had come into his own as one of the top defensive backs in the league.

During this 1969 season, Thomas led the AFL with nine interceptions.

Coming into Super Bowl IV as 12-point underdogs, the Chiefs had something to prove to the football-watching world that thought the New York Jets title a year before was a fluke win for the AFL.

Thomas had one of the three fourth-quarter interceptions that clinched the game for the Chiefs and preserved their 23-7 win against the Vikings, giving them their first, and currently only, Super Bowl championship.

“Len Dawson and Buck Buchanan had always been supporters of mine,” Thomas reflected on his playing time in Kansas City. “When I came here, we had 23 DBs in camp and I was the last one on the depth chart.

“Slowly, I worked my way through and got an opportunity."

From wearing the No. 63 as an undrafted free agent in his first training camp all the way to Super Bowl champion, five-time Pro Bowler and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Thomas’ playing career stands upon itself as legendary.

But throughout his playing career, Thomas always knew that coaching was something he wanted to pursue whenever he finally had to hang up his cleats.

Thomas’ Coaching Career Begins

Back when Thomas was playing, the players had to find work in the offseason to supplement their income.

“I worked for Nieman Marcus one offseason,” Thomas explained. “I worked for Armour Meat Packing Company and then I also ran a government program here in Kansas City. I did that for about seven or eight years.

“But then when I would get off of work in the evening, I'd always come by the office and helped the coaches cut up spliced tape, make tape, stuff like that. Those various jobs taught me what I really wanted to do."

When the time came for Thomas to hang up his cleats and begin his coaching career, he leaned on the advice of Bettis, who became a mentor for Thomas throughout his life before passing away early in 2015.

"I had an opportunity to go to some bigger schools to coach, but my family was here in Kansas City,” Thomas explained. “Bettis said 'Look here. If you go to most places, big schools, they're going to make you a glorified recruiter. If you go down to Central Missouri State, you can keep your family here, you can commute and do whatever it takes, and they're going to let you learn how to coach.’

“(Bettis) had three girls and no sons and he kind of almost took me in like his son. I don't know why he plucked me out of the group, but he did and every big decision I made in my life, I always ran it through him and he was right there for me."

So Thomas began his coaching career an hour east of where he spent his entire playing career.

"I worked for Nieman Marcus one offseason. I worked for Armour Meat Packing Company and then I also ran a government program here in Kansas City. I did that for about seven or eight years."

“Two of the most wonderful years of my life were coaching there at Central Missouri State,” Thomas said. “We weren't high-powered. We weren't fighting big schools for talent. We got the second or third kid out of most of the high schools, and all they asked us to do was keep them in school, get them to class and win as many games as we could.

“There wasn't any stress at all. It was a nice situation."

Just a couple of years later, Thomas made the jump to the NFL when he got an opportunity to coach the offensive side of the ball with the St. Louis Cardinals, where his mentor, Bettis, was now the defensive coordinator.

Thomas coached the tight ends and receivers in St. Louis from 1981-85.

After St. Louis, Thomas moved on to Washington, where he coached receivers for one year (1986) and then defensive backs for the next eight seasons (1987-1994). He was part of the Super Bowl XXII and XXVI championship teams.

While there, Thomas also helped develop one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history in Darrell Green, who was coincidentally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with Thomas in 2008. They were also joined by receiver Art Monk, who played under Thomas in Washington as well.

Thomas would then spend seven seasons as a defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles (1995-98), Green Bay Packers (1999) and Minnesota Vikings (2000-01).

After the next eight seasons were spent with the Atlanta Falcons (2002-09) in various roles, including interim head coach in 2007, Thomas would finally get the opportunity he had been waiting for his entire NFL coaching career, spanning almost 30 years.

Thomas Returns Home

Thomas was hired as the Chiefs defensive backs coach in 2010.

"It was a lifelong dream,” Thomas said of rejoining the Chiefs. “I had so many times tried to get interviews here, to get a chance to come back because my wife is from here. She went to Park Hill High School.

“It’s also great to be around 15 or 16 guys I played with who still live in the area.”

Simply put, Kansas City is home for Thomas.

It’s more than just a place he met his wife, played his career or spent much of his time.

“This is where I really grew up,” he said. “I'm a country farm guy from a little town about 38 miles south of Houston, and then I went to a small Baptist college with about 1,500 students.

“I really grew up into manhood here in Kansas City, so it's like home for me. To come back and get a chance to work here was outstanding."

After a regime change in 2013 saw changes at many of the coaching positions, Thomas remained the defensive backs coach for Andy Reid.

"He's a great person,” Reid said. “He's so humble for all he’s accomplished. He's a good teacher. He's got a good way about him. The players listen to him and they play hard for him.

Thomas and Assistant Defensive Backs Coach, Al Harris (foreground)

“I've never heard anybody say something negative about him. You figure all the years as a player and as a coach that he's been doing this and not having one negative thing said about you, it's crazy.

“He's time-tested for greatness."

The Chiefs brought in former All-Pro cornerback Al Harris as assistant defensive backs coach in 2013, just a year after he began his coaching career with the Miami Dolphins as an intern.

Harris played 15 years in the NFL as a standout cornerback and was known for his bump-and-run, press-style coverage. He hung up his cleats in 2011 after spending time with six different NFL teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles, where he played for Thomas (1998) and Reid (1999-02).

“As a player, you just remember him always shooting you straight,” Harris recalled. “Not a whole lot of patience and very matter of fact, ‘this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it.’

“Now, seeing him work as a teacher, you realize he has a lot of patience.”

The opportunity to work with a Hall of Famer and someone who has more than 30 years of NFL coaching experience was intriguing to Harris.

He explained how Thomas’ presence elicits respect from those around him.

“As soon as you step in the building, his credentials speak for themselves,” Harris explained. “Everybody doesn’t make the Hall of Fame, everybody doesn’t come into the league as a free agent.

“The way that he sees the game, from both a coaches’ point of view but also as a former player, it’s unique because it takes time to develop that. He sees it so well from both sides.”

Despite being 72 years old and there being a significant generation gap between him and his current players, Thomas has a way with the guys.

He manages to get his message across and keeps things loose in his room at the same time.

“He’s not like a hard, I’m just going to press you and grind you out coach,” Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah explained. “He’s just like one of the guys in there, but he’s able to deliver his message in a way that we understand. When he gets up on the board, he knows what he’s talking about. The NFL is very technical right now, but the way he can simplify it and just bring it back to old school football makes it really easy to understand.

“Even though he played and did everything before most of us were even born, it’s amazing that he can relate to us so well.”

"His meeting rooms have always been like this, we’re serious business but we’re looser than other meeting rooms. For the simple fact that it’s a learning environment and we don’t want to be uptight. You’re not so stressed to where if you ask a question or get an answer wrong that it’s going to be hell and brimstone."

- Al Harris, Assistant Defensive Backs Coach

It sounds simple, but it’s not.

“Football is very relatable to life,” Abdullah said. “You can never stop learning, and that’s one thing with (Thomas) is that even though he’s a Hall of Famer and has won a Super Bowl both as a player and a coach, he’s still learning.

“I think that’s one of his best attributes.”

For someone who has had to adapt with the changing culture of the NFL since he first arrived as a player back in 1966, Thomas has mastered the art of dealing with people.

“His meeting rooms have always been like this, we’re serious business but we’re looser than other meeting rooms,” Harris explained. “For the simple fact that it’s a learning environment and we don’t want to be uptight. You’re not so stressed to where if you ask a question or get an answer wrong that it’s going to be hell and brimstone.

“I think that goes a long way with the players.”

It’s something Harris has learned and is continuing to learn from Thomas.

“It means the world to me,” Harris said of working alongside Thomas. “Anything I can learn from him, how to interact with players, how to communicate with them or how to get the most out of a guy, Emmitt does a great job of that and that’s what I’m learning from him. The steps of teaching.

“I tip my hat to him because he’s always here early in the morning, working and being the same guy every day. He can still teach and has enough fire in the oven to go out there and get at it every day.”

Abdullah said there’s definitely a certain level of respect that comes with playing for a Hall of Famer.

“The little kid and the football fan come out,” Abdullah said of playing under Thomas. “With his résumé, you definitely understand who is walking into that room. As football players, we’ve all been competitors since we were young. We strive to be the best and when you have someone that is elite in the history of the game, it makes you kind of sit up straight in your chair.

“We see the pictures of all the greats on the wall in the locker room. To have one of those guys in your room, you just respect it. When you put on that jersey, you have to show up because you’re representing him as well.”

Thomas’ Legacy in Kansas City

Thomas’ impact on the game as a player is reflected in his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When you also add in 35 years worth of coaching at the NFL level, there are few who can rival what he’s given to the game.

But what football has been able to give to Thomas’ family means as much to him as anything.

“It’s meant a lot,” he explained. “I’ve been able to help my family because of football. My brother and sisters, helping my own two kids get through college and to see my grandkids, it’s everything.”

Emmitt Thomas and his Pro Football Hall of Fame bust

It’s everything, and it was anything but easy.

He lost both parents before he turned 13 years old, and it wasn’t until his senior year of high school that he ever stepped foot on a football field.

At Bishop College, they only gave him a shot at trying out for the football team because an assistant coach saw him playing baseball, and he only got that opportunity because a hurricane forced the school year to start later than expected, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to enroll.

All of those experiences, along with many others have shaped Thomas into the man he is today. A man that can reach across the generational divide and speak to a younger group of players, who not only respect what he’s given to the game in the past, but for what he can provide to them as players now.

“He’s hilarious, I laugh with him every day,” Chiefs second-year cornerback Phillip Gaines said. “He comes in and he’s always cracking on someone. His personality is the best. He makes it really easy to be in a room full of people who like to joke around and that he does it right there with us.

“It’s a really good environment in there and I think that’s why we do so well.”

It’s a two-way street for Thomas.

“It keeps you young being around young people,” he said.

Thomas, along with Harris and coaching assistant Dino Vasso, helped the Chiefs pass defense rank No. 2 in the NFL last season, allowing just 203 yards passing per game.

They were the only group in the NFL that didn’t allow a 50-yard completion or a 300-yard passer all season.

From Hall of Fame player to leading one of the best defensive back units in the NFL almost 50 years later, Thomas has cemented his legacy in football across multiple generations.

It’s why he has the respect that he does.

“(General manager) John Dorsey says it all the time, ‘The Legend,’” Harris said. “Whenever you hear that, you know he’s talking about Emmitt.”

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