By Bo Carter, www.armedforcesbowl.com
1982-85 Air Force defensive backfield standout and 2012 inductee into the NFF College Hall of Fame Scott Thomas is no stranger to pressure situations demanding leadership and fortitude.
And there will be less pressure but just as much adrenaline flowing for him when the Falcons meet Rice in the 10th annual Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl Dec. 29.
Whether it is in his post-football Air Force military service to the United States or starring for the Falcons or even piloting hundreds of passengers worldwide weekly for American Airlines currently, the San Antonio native and leader of Air Force’s top team in history in 1985 (12-1, fifth in the final Associated Press national poll), has responded.
But of his many opportunities for performance (sometimes literally under fire), the Hall of Famer seems to enjoy the memories of four consecutive bowls and a 4-0 record among his cherished football past.
These triumphs included the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., over Vanderbilt 36-28, the 1983 Bluebonnet over Ole Miss in 9-3 defensive fashion in Shreveport, La., the 1984 Independence over Virginia Tech 23-7, and a crowning 1985 Bluebonnet Bowl over Texas 24-16 in his home state at Rice Stadium in Houston.
“It was an interesting story,” Thomas said with a laugh, “but growing up in San Antonio, I always wanted to be a Texas Longhorn since I was a little kid. During my senior year in high school at San Antonio Jay, I went for my recruiting visit with our quarterback Robert Santiago (who ended up going to Harvard). They made me a scholarship offer, and I thought I was all set. (Then-UT coach) Fred Akers told me at the end of the visit that I was welcomed to the Longhorn Family and they had a full scholarship for me.
“Then two days before signing day, an assistant coach – not Fred Akers – called my house,” Thomas continued. “They said Texas had overextended its scholarship offers and that there was no longer one for me.
“It was a complete shock,” he remembered, “but my high school coach L.G. Henderson had told me about the Air Force Academy, and they were looking for Texas players pretty hard even then. I told him I didn’t think I wanted to do that, wear a uniform and go through the military functions. Then I looked at the options and decided to attend Air Force. Coach Ken Hatfield was head coach at the time, and it just came down to going to a place that wanted me. I have made friends for life.”
“The most ironic thing was in ’85 when we got invited to the Bluebonnet Bowl to play Texas,” Thomas noted with a grin. “That was something special to play my final game in my home state and beat the Longhorns.”
Thomas, a consensus All-America and standout on AFA teams with a composite record of 38-12 (.760 winning percentage), took to the academy setting like a natural and ended his career with 221 total tackles, 10 pass interceptions, 22 pass deflections, a 28.8 kickoff return average, and touchdowns as a senior on punt, kickoff and interception returns – a rare “triplet” for one season defensively and on special teams.
“It was just a magnificent experience,” he related, “and I even got my nickname and made a longtime friend in my roommate during summer basic.”
Todd Wait, also a pilot with United Airlines in 2012, was there as bunkmate when both had their heads shaved for the training. Thomas’ locks grew back straight up in the coming days in spiked hair fashion and, thus, his longtime nickname “Spike.”
“Even my wife calls me Spike,” he laughed, “and the nickname stuck throughout my college career and for the rest of my life, I guess.”
Now “Spike” Thomas is looking forward to the relatively-easy drive (not jet or helicopter transportation this time) to see his alma mater play Rice (interestingly the host site at Rice Stadium for that historic ’85 Bluebonnet Bowl) Dec. 29 from his home in Wichita Falls to Fort Worth.
“It really should be an interesting bowl,” said the aviator and Hall of Famer. “When we played at Air Force, our goal was to win the Commander-in-Chief Trophy (AFA accomplished that three times and was a combined 7-1 against Army and Navy during his career) and get to a bowl game. Our coaches Ken Hatfield and later Fisher DeBerry emphasized that every week in practice and meetings. I’m looking forward to attending and cheering on Air Force.”
Thomas cherishes both the AFA and bowl experiences and remains active in his community, college football and athletics.
“I live about four houses down from Midwestern State,” he noted, “and they have had me come out and speak to the team on occasion. They run a great program and (MSU head coach) Bill Maskill, a two-time assistant coach at Vanderbilt but not on the 1982 Hall of Fame team opposing Air Force, and his staff heve become friends. My son also is a promising baseball player and junior at Wichita Falls High School, so I’m over there watching games as you can imagine.”
Life and bowls have been good to Scott “Spike” Thomas, and he has developed a great appreciation over the years for college athletics and the opportunities that postseason games present for student-athletes, especially seniors completing their careers.