Eric Thomas, whose 53-year-old body is still chiseled tighter than a Bengals-49ers Super Bowl, probably told the kids the Jerry Rice story while he drove them through the 5:15 a.m. shuttle. The Woodlawn Loop, they call it. The 30-year-old yarn is still as fresh as a morning lift, which works since as their new cornerbacks coach Thomas drove his kids that needed a ride to the workouts in the Princeton High School weight room launched at dawn before the school buses hit the streets.
He could have told his kids the story hunched into his Infinity (he saves his Lexus for the summer), or he could have told it somewhere among Princeton’s vast facilities, or he could have told them before last week’s seven-on-seven match against the defending Div. III state champ from Trotwood.
But where ever he told it, they were listening. Thomas, the poster child of that ‘88 turnaround, finds himself celebrating the 30th anniversary of the AFC title as a first-time coach doling out those bumpy rookie lessons to kids that have to Google him to discover he played 111 NFL games with three teams during nine seasons in the last century.
“I really don’t ask many questions. I just try to take it in when he talks. If he talks, I make sure I listen,” says Elijah Eberhardt, Princeton’s precocious junior-to-be corner. “He was telling us how there was supposed to be help over top from the safety. The safety wasn’t there, so he just ran and tried to guard him.”
Translation from the man the kids call Coach E.T: “I tell my kids, if you’re supposed to get help from the safety, forget it. If he’s your man, he’s your man. The safety has eyes, too, and he may be seeing something differently.
“So I learned early on … don’t worry about the safety. I can’t tell you how many times I looked for the safety in the post and he wasn’t there. You’re getting no help. What that play did is it brought my awareness about every time the ball was snapped, I thought it was coming my way.”
If there’s one play that typifies how far the Bengals came from their 1987 reel of bloopers to the 1988 highlight film that features a Super Bowl, it is the rookie Thomas flailing in the end zone against the great Rice on the last play of a 27-26 Theater of the Absurd loss to the 49ers before he reached the Pro Bowl in ’88 as a charter member of the S.W.A.T team secondary.
You think the Wild Card loss to the Steelers a few years back grabbed a loss from the jaws of victory? Houston on Christmas Eve? The 37-37 blood-fest with Carolina a few years back? Try this one.
Sept. 20, 1987. The Bengals lead the Niners, 26-20, with six seconds left at Riverfront Stadium and have a fourth down from their 30. They’ve just lost 15 yards running out the clock and lose five more while failing to burn off the last two seconds, giving the Hall-of-Fame combo of Rice and quarterback Joe Montana one last shot from the 25.
Touchdown. Not only a touchdown, but a touchdown to the greatest receiver on the planet singled up against a rookie. Not only that, Thomas had to stew about it for the next month since it was the last snap before the strike. Not King Lear in the rain, but who would write that?
“We were on the sidelines running out the clock. We didn’t think we were going back out on the field,” Thomas says. “Then when we got out there we were in the wrong defense. It was pandemonium and that happens in situations like that. That’s the nature of lessons learned.”
And what a lesson.
“I didn’t get beat because I was a bad player. I got beat because I had bad technique,” Thomas says. “Don’t expect help. Cover the man.”
Thomas isn’t so sure he gets to the Pro Bowl without that gaffe and that’s why he’s a mirror of that 1988 team. His Pro Bowl matched that Super Bowl. Young. Talented. Worn down by a bad year but hungry for caviar and resilient enough to taste champagne.
“It might have been the worst thing for that moment, but it turned out to be good for me,” Thomas says. “I could play, but I got beat my technique. By the time I got done with my rookie year I was ready to say, ‘What am I going to do to take the next step?’ With my young guys, I try to tell them we’ll be here for a while. Understand how we’re going to be working and what’s expected. Put in a little extra work for yourself.”
Thomas, on the cutting edge of personal training after he retired in the mid-90s, is now a realtor that had been approached often down through the years about coaching. But it had to be a special job. He wasn’t looking to be a hired in a factory producing a coach’s next rung up the ladder.
“I’ve always felt like I wanted to do things where it really made a difference. At this age with high school kids is where the impact is big,” Thomas says. “I’m looking to have an impact on their lives, not just winning football games … I’m just trying to reach my guys and I kind of fell right into it because I know these guys and where they’re from and that had a lot to do with it, too.”
Thomas is here because of Princeton head coach Mike Daniels, a 33-year-old ball of electricity trained under three different head coaches at the University of Cincinnati with the last, Brian Kelly, offering him a G.A. job. Thomas remembers talking to Daniels even before that. It was back in the day Daniels was The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Player of the Year setting 10 Princeton records while leading the city in passing and runner-up in rushing his senior season. The Vikes haven’t been to the playoffs since Daniels graduated in 2003.
“Yeah, I remember that talk,” Daniels told him when Thomas interviewed during a Princeton-Winton Woods basketball game back in December after the first season of Daniels’ reclamation project.
Not only did that help, but Thomas was also drawn to Daniels’ evangelical charisma (“You could hear the passion,”) and his mission of restoring Princeton to an Ohio power with a coaching staff stacked with alums establishing an intense blue-collar-make-us-better-every-snap football culture balanced by a commitment to community service. All the coaches have some version of a Woodlawn Loop in a sprawling district of six neighborhoods. Thomas brings his Pro Bowl to an already eclectic group of coaches on defense that includes the owner of a personal trainer business and the law committee chair of the Lincoln Heights council. After the game (“A big night for Vikings athletics,” Daniels says) Thomas immediately accepted Daniels’ offer. Daniels didn’t blink hiring a grumpy get-off-my-lawn guy when it comes to old school fundamentals that fears the game is losing its touch with the youth.
“Fifty is the new 40, right? Always in great shape. E.T. is a leader that teaches with love,” Daniels says. “He’s got a Tony Dungy style. I’ve got coaches that allow me to run free and be crazy. While I’m getting after them, he takes the emotion out of the game. He’s got a unique aura about how he approaches these kids.”
Watch Thomas work his drills and it’s easy to see where he acquired his coaching style. He gently tugs on senior-to-be Cameron Thomas’ face mask to remind him to keep his hands active. He pats Eberhardt on the back to praise him for flipping his hips. His voice doesn’t rise an octave as he pantomimes them through the stance drill. He was stunned when he first took the job. So much talent and yet no confidence and so Thomas is on a crusade of positive reinforcement.
“He cares,” says Cam Thomas, who lives in Woodlawn ten minutes away and got the E.T. ride most mornings. “He wants to make sure we’re better. He actually cared enough to come and get me. He made it an emphasis that we had to be there for morning workouts.”
If that reminds you of a couple of assistant coaches he had by the names of Dick LeBeau in Cincinnati and Pete Carroll in New York, it’s because it should.
“You have to teach football,” Thomas says. “I don’t remember Dick LeBeau yelling at me or anyone else. I just don’t remember it. He was a hugger. He would say, ‘I can see what you’re doing wrong on the field. I’m going to teach you to correct it.’ Those two minds and what they instilled in me is what made the difference.”
Thomas can still see the fall of 1987. Everyone has left the DB room, except LeBeau and two rookies, Thomas and Solomon Wilcots. The kids are riveted to LeBeau’s rich stories from another time coated with that syrupy twang.
“He’s got a thousand different stories. Endless with the stories,” Thomas says. “For us as young pros, we’re just sucking all that in. He was basically giving us a little bit of him.”
So Thomas is free and easy with the stories around the kids, starting with his and how he grew up the baby of eight kids in Sacramento, Calif. “I tell them my story so they can dream big for themselves. I want to tell them who I am.”
Cam Thomas likes the other Rice story. Before Eric Thomas’ last season in 1995, the Broncos played the 49ers in Japan during the preseason, so he had a lot more time to worry about Rice than two seconds because he practiced against him before playing against him in the game.
“Oh yeah. Sure. That’s a legend right there,” Cam Thomas says when asked if he knows who Rice is.
“He was telling us he was going against Jerry Rice and about some of the technique he had to use to guard him. You’ve got to keep working on your technique because he was saying they got to practice against him for a day in Japan and Jerry Rice was going full speed every rep.”
Good story. “That’s greatness,” Coach E.T. says.
Cam Thomas also liked hearing another story. He’s visited Louisville and Pittsburgh. Urbana is interested “for real.” But no one has called.
“He was telling me not to get discouraged about having no offers,” Cam Thomas says, “because when he came out of Juco he went to college and then to the NFL. That was encouraging for real because I don’t have any offers yet.”
That’s the American River College story, a Sacramento community college where Coach E.T. went basically because he also ran track and it was a good track school. He ended up at Tulane, where the Bengals found him in the second round.
“Nobody thought I was going to get drafted,” Eric Thomas says. “Except me. I thought I was going to get drafted. Nobody knows who those guys are going to turn out to be. I told the guys nobody hands you anything.”
Thomas also tells them the things LeBeau taught him. About cocking their feet a certain way to take away the inside and reading the receiver’s hips up until the last instant and getting their hands on them as soon as they can and not waiting. Eberhardt remembers after a practice they had trouble giving up the inside and Thomas got them on the field during some down time for an extra session.
“He makes sure that I keep my head on straight on and off the field,” Eberhardt says. “A lot of people are watching and paying attention to what we’re doing over here because we’ve got some highly recruited guys and he tells us to be careful on social media because he hears about it. He’s not on it much. But he hears about it.”
Thank God there was no Twitter on Sept. 20, 1987. But that’s OK. He needs more than 288 characters to build some.
“What I realized is that I also made some good plays against Jerry Rice,” Eric Thomas says. “But the headline said, “Rookie gives up two touchdowns.’ One player doesn’t lose a game. That’s football 101. Those are the plays we made in ’88.”
Pretty good way to celebrate the 30th. Passing it on. He’ll let the kids give up that completion.
“He doesn’t have to yell to get his point across,” Cam Thomas says.