If there was one player whose string of injuries took an enormous toll on his once-promising NFL career, it’s Blair Thomas.
The New York Jets made Thomas, the Penn State Nittany Lions’ second-most productive rusher of all-time, the second overall selection of the 1990 NFL Draft.
Thomas seemed destined for stardom in the Big Apple. Football experts thought he was the next big thing in New York.
For their part, the Jets were all in on Thomas and even passed up on future Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith.
The Jets also passed up on two other future Hall of Famers in Cortez Kennedy and Junior Seau.
Alas, Thomas crashed and burned during his brief four-year tenure in New York.
Regrettably, Blair Thomas would become one of the biggest draft busts in New York Jets history.
Blair Lamar Thomas was born to parents LeRoy and Barbara in Philadelphia, PA on October 7, 1967.
Thomas attended Frankford High School in his hometown of Philadelphia.
His mother Barbara encouraged him to attend Frankford High instead of nearby Gratz High School. She felt the former offered a better education to her son.
Thomas took his mother’s word for it and took the one-way, forty-five commute at six o’clock on school days.
Thomas, who starred in football and track, didn’t get home until eight o’clock at night in the spring and fall when track and football practices were underway.
It turned out somebody important in Thomas’ life was paying attention all along.
It was no other than his Frankford High football coach Al Angelo.
“Not once was that kid ever late to one of my practices,” Angelo told The Los Angeles Times‘ Bob Nightengale in December 1989. “Not once did he even miss a practice. He didn’t even skip a class the whole time here.”
Angelo concluded Thomas was a cut above the rest during his time at Frankford High.
Thomas was a late bloomer who first put on a football uniform when he suited up for Angelo. The Northern Philly ghetto where Thomas grew up didn’t have Pop Warner football leagues.
That didn’t dissuade Thomas, who wound up playing street football with older kids. Guys his age didn’t want to take a chance getting banged up whenever they got tackled on the asphalt.
Football seemed easy to Thomas, who racked up an incredible six touchdowns in his first high school football game.
#ThrowbackThursday Fall of 1984, with Vince Pinto #12. We were the QBs of @centrallancers Football 🏈. We lost to Frankford High w/Blair Thomas in the Public League Championship game. In addition to starting Vinny was a comedian, great memories! @Centralalums #244 @jbarber26 pic.twitter.com/kho4Tc3pI3
— Seth Williams (@newsethwilliams) August 19, 2021
Thomas’ 1,551 yards on the ground helped Frankford High clinch the Public League title during his senior campaign in 1984.
When Blair Thomas played his final down on the high school gridiron, he had 3,941 rushing yards and 59 touchdowns.
Thomas also displayed amazing strength in other athletic endeavors.
He pulled his hamstring while running track as a junior. He was sidelined for two months.
Thomas, who thought his days on the football team were numbered, tried his hand at the shotput.
Angelo encouraged him to do it even though Thomas had no idea what it was at first.
Before long, Blair Thomas threw a school-record fifty-two feet in the shotput.
Legendary Penn State Nittany Lions head football coach Joe Paterno had Blair Thomas on his radar.
He made the three-hour drive from University Park, PA to Philadelphia to recruit Thomas.
Paterno told Angelo that Thomas made the cut for Penn State.
However, Paterno got a copy of Thomas’ college board scores.
Paterno realized he couldn’t offer a PSU scholarship to Thomas after seeing them.
For his part, Angelo told Paterno that Thomas was one of the hardest-working players he had ever coached.
He also told the Nittany Lions mentor that Thomas would eventually keep up with his school work. He just had to be patient with him, per The Los Angeles Times.
Blair Thomas eventually committed to Penn State and went on a memorable four-year run on the Happy Valley gridiron.
College Days With The Penn State Nittany Lions
Blair Thomas majored in recreation and parks at Pennsylvania State University.
He suited up for Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions from 1985 to 1989.
Blair Thomas | Penn State Running Back 1985-1989 | 2nd Overall Pick in 1990 pic.twitter.com/r7V0ul0fGS
— Random Penn State Athletes (@PennRandom) June 25, 2021
Thomas experienced tremendous heartbreak during his college days at Penn State.
His father LeRoy passed away due to stomach cancer in November 1987.
His older brother Lawrence succumbed to a heart attack traced to a drug overdose just three short months later.
“You think about things like that,” Thomas told Nightengale in December 1989. “And then you realize it’s crazy to think you got things so bad.”
Between those two heart-breaking moments, Thomas had to prepare for the Citrus Bowl showdown against the 14th-ranked Clemson Tigers.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Thomas and several of his Nittany Lions teammates were fooling around at State College on December 11, 1987.
Thomas fell on the dirt after he planted his right leg and made an effort to cut toward the opposite direction.
Thomas compared the ensuring noise he heard to somebody “cracking their knuckles,” per Nightengale.
He had a trainer ice it up and thought it wasn’t a big deal.
Thomas couldn’t have been more wrong.
After Thomas underwent several X-rays, doctors confirmed their worst fears: he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
Thomas was in disbelief. He even sought second and third opinions from physicians in other states but received the same diagnosis.
It was the first major injury of Blair Thomas’ football career.
Surgeons at the Hershey Medical Center took out Thomas’ patellar tendon from his lower leg and placed it inside his knee to repair the damaged ligament.
Doctors told him it would take him approximately eight to twelve months to fully recover from his ACL injury.
Thomas, whose 1,414 rushing yards in his junior season in 1987 was the third-highest in program history, couldn’t believe what he had just heard.
Thomas remained undaunted: he hit the weights like a madman and ran up and down the bleachers to prepare himself for his senior campaign in 1988.
Alas, Thomas knew he couldn’t play by the time Penn State played its third game of the 1988 NCAA season.
Blair Thomas wound up sitting out the entire season. He was also ruled ineligible for the 1989 NFL Draft.
With the turn of events, he announced he would take the field for the Nittany Lions in 1989, per Nightengale.
Paterno threw caution to the wind when Thomas’ senior season kicked off.
He didn’t allow Thomas to record more than 21 carries through Penn State’s first six games.
Paterno cut Thomas loose when the Nittany Lions reached the heart of their schedule.
Thomas averaged almost a workmanlike 30 carries during a five-game stretch against the Alabama Crimson Tide, West Virginia Mountaineers, Maryland Terrapins, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and Pitt Panthers from late October to late November 1989.
He never had fewer than 125 rushing yards during that torrid span. It was also a far cry from the 42 rushing yards he had on 14 carries as a freshman several years earlier.
Penn State won two, lost two, and tied one game during Thomas’ incredible streak.
Blair Thomas finished his senior season at Penn State with 1,341 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 264 carries.
The Nittany Lions had an 8-3-1 record in 1989. They beat the BYU Cougars in the 1989 Holiday Bowl, 50-39.
Blair Thomas wound up with 1989 Holiday Bowl MVP honors after rushing for 186 yards on 35 carries against BYU.
Thomas concluded his four-year college football career with 3,301 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on 606 carries.
He earned Second-Team All-American honors in 1989.
Thomas also took home 1990 Senior Bowl MVP honors after he had 137 rushing yards on just eleven carries.
No less than the legendary Paterno sang Thomas’ praises at the conclusion of his college football career.
“I’m saying it now, and I’ll probably say it twenty years from now: Blair Thomas is the finest all-around tailback we’ve ever had,” Paterno told The Los Angeles Times in December 1989.
Little did Joe Paterno know that Blair Thomas’ pro football career would take an entirely different turn several years later.
Pro Football Career
The New York Jets made Blair Thomas the second overall selection of the 1990 NFL Draft.
Thomas recalled Jets general Dick Steinberg calling him before they drafted him.
The former Penn State Nittany Lions standout was excited the way things turned out the way they did, per NYJets.com’s Jim Gehman.
Thomas split carries with Brad Baxter, Freeman McNeil, and Johnny Hector during his rookie year.
Despite four players sharing the rushing load, Thomas still led the Jets with 620 rushing yards in 1990.
However, he only had one touchdown in fifteen games that year.
It wasn’t the kind of production the Jets expected from a rookie taken second overall in the draft.
Success with former New York J-E-T-S 1st round pick (2nd overall) from the Penn State Nittany Lions Blair Thomas. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist and the Holiday Bowl MVP in 1989. #blairthomas #pennstate #nittanylions #jets #ttm #ttmsuccess #ttmautograph @autographblog pic.twitter.com/wJslRJQYbL
— Chris @ SASE Sports Sigs.net (@sasesportssigs) May 16, 2020
Thomas told Gehman in 2019 he wasn’t accustomed to carrying the pigskin just ten or eleven times per game.
It was a far cry from his workload on the gridiron at Penn State, which was nearly double what he had as a Jets rookie.
Consequently, Thomas became frustrated as the season wore on.
“It was tough because I was used to getting twenty, twenty-five carried a game (at Penn State, and) to get that limited to ten or eleven carries a game was kind of frustrating,” Thomas told NYJets.com.
The Jets won six games in 1990 and missed the postseason for the fourth straight year.
Things seemed to look up for Blair Thomas the following season.
His 728 rushing yards led all Jets running backs once again. He had three touchdowns in the 1991 NFL campaign.
It was the most number of touchdowns he’d ever score in an NFL season.
However, Blair experienced a turning point in his pro football career during a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier field in September 1991.
With the Jets ahead 13-6, they simply had to run out the clock to secure the road win.
Instead, Thomas fumbled late in the fourth quarter.
Chicago eventually tied the game to force overtime.
Unfortunately, Jets kicker Pat Leahy’s 28-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left during the extra period.
The Bears quickly pounced on the opportunity once again.
Quarterback Jim Harbaugh’s one-yard touchdown run several plays later secured Chicago’s 19-13 comeback win.
Thomas’ fourth-quarter fumble weighed heavily on his conscience.
Thomas, an introvert, became even more reclusive and hardly talked to reporters since then, per The Athletic’s Bob McGinn.
Despite a mediocre 8-8 win-loss record, the Jets finally ended their postseason drought.
Unfortunately, they lost to the Houston Oilers in the AFC Wild Card Game, 17-10.
Blair Thomas had several injury issues over the next two seasons.
Injuries limited Thomas to just nine games in the 1992 NFL campaign.
He finished his third pro football season with 440 rushing yards on 97 carries. He failed to score a single touchdown in 1992.
— Crow Hop Sports (@CrowHopSports) September 20, 2018
As for the Jets, they began an ignominious six-year stretch of missing the postseason.
Thomas split carries with Johnny Johnson and Brad Baxter the following year.
Thomas injured his hamstring in the Jets’ fourth game of the season. He had to sit out the next five games.
He finished his fourth pro campaign with just 221 rushing yards and one touchdown on 59 carries.
Despite getting bitten by the injury bug yet again, Thomas remained confident in 1993.
“I had confidence in myself; that’s the main thing,” Thomas told Gehman some twenty-six years later. “I never had that many little strings of nagging injuries. A medial collateral (injury), lower back problems, having to take pain killers before the game even started.”
Regrettably, Blair Thomas had officially played in his final down in New York Jets Green and White following the 1993 NFL campaign.
Legendary head coach Bill Parcells had an uncanny eye for talent.
However, signing Blair Thomas to a one-year, $500,000 contract to play for the New England Patriots in 1994 was one of his most glaring career mistakes.
Thomas’ bad luck with injuries continued. He sprained his ankle during New England’s second preseason contest.
He eventually sat out seven of the Patriots’ first eleven games in the 1994 NFL season.
Parcells released Thomas after just 19 carries in New England.
“I still love the game,” Thomas told reporters on his last day in Patriots jersey (via The Athletic). “It’s just that I’ve had an unfortunate stretch of luck happen to me.”
During Thomas’ short tenure with the Patriots, they asked him to undergo further testing after his electrocardiogram (EKG) test revealed irregular results.
The turn of events was an eerie precursor to several health scares Blair Thomas endured seventeen years later.
The Dallas Cowboys signed Thomas after the Patriots released him late in the 1994 NFL campaign.
Thomas sustained a hamstring injury after he carried the pigskin just seven times in Dallas’ 35-9 rout of the Green Bay Packers in the 1994 NFC Divisional Round.
Despite scoring two touchdown runs in the postseason, Thomas saw his brief stint in Dallas end following the 1994 NFL season.
Blair Thomas’ gridiron career somehow still had a pulse in 1995.
The Atlanta Falcons signed him to a contract but released him before the 1995 NFL campaign kicked off.
The Carolina Panthers then took a chance on him in November 1995.
Thomas had 22 carries in seven appearances for the Panthers before they waived him.
After Thomas’ release from Carolina, no other NFL team signed him. He eventually retired from pro football at the age of twenty-eight following the 1995 NFL season.
The Jets have clinched the 2nd overall pick.
Last time Jets picked 2nd overall, they selected RB Blair Thomas in 1990.
Blair Thomas had 2,009 rush yards in 4 seasons with Jets.
The following RB selected in 1990? Emmitt Smith. pic.twitter.com/Q0iFpOHrPw
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) December 27, 2020
Blair Thomas concluded his pro football career with 2,236 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 533 carries.
Thomas surpassed 100 yards rushing just twice in 64 career NFL games.
His 125 rushing yards against the Bears in September 1991 was his career-best, per McGinn.
Blair Thomas and his second wife Lisa have two sons Blair, Jr. and a daughter Lakeisha. They reside in the suburban Philadelphia, PA area.
Thomas also has a son Preston from his first marriage and one granddaughter named Ava.
The only consolation Thomas gained from his underwhelming career in The Big Apple was developing relationships with several of his New York Jets teammates.
He admitted to Gehman in 2019 that he missed the camaraderie he developed with them over the years.
Thomas became a football coach after he retired from the pro gridiron.
Thomas previously served as an assistant football coach of the Temple Owls in his hometown of Philadelphia for eight seasons.
He also has been coaching at different football instructional camps across the country.
Thomas is currently coaching the Upper Merion Vikings, a Philadelphia-based middle school football team.
Thomas told Gehman in 2019 that he prefers coaching football at the middle school level because he wants to help lay the foundation for young players before they reach high school.
He felt younger football players aren’t well-versed in the fundamentals of the gridiron. He wants to change that.
“I try to give back to a sport that’s been very generous and gracious to me, and pass on the knowledge that I have to the younger players,” Thomas told NYJets.com. “I enjoy that aspect o my life.”
Aside from Thomas’ coaching endeavors, he also works as a motivational speaker through the Penn State Alumni Association.
Thomas is also a consultant of eMMortal Enterprises, a company that manufactures the natural healing product eMMortal Magnesium Therapy 360.
“It’s done wonders for my body,” Thomas told Gehman in 2019. “Hopefully some other guys come on board and give it a try. I wish I felt this good while I was playing.”
Blair Thomas endured several health scares during retirement.
Thomas lost his balance twice within a span of sixty minutes while he was preparing the house for his son’s birthday party on May 27, 2011.
Back then, the forty-three-year-old Thomas spent three consecutive Fridays in the emergency room.
The first time around, his doctors acknowledged he had some plaque buildup but it wasn’t enough to warrant major surgery.
They gave him three IVs. He also underwent catheterization.
Disaster struck exactly a week later.
Thomas blacked out and drove his car into a guardrail while driving along I-80 during rush hour.
Paramedics rushed Thomas to a nearby hospital. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him again.
Thomas credited the guardrail for saving his life.
“It kind of knocked my heart back into rhythm,” Thomas told The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Kern three months later. “That’s why I know God was looking over me.”
Emergency responders rushed Thomas to Bryn Mawr Hospital a week later.
His heart rate raced to an alarming 240 to 260 beats per minute. His blood pressure was also in the 60/40 range, per Kern.
A team of cardiologists put in two stents and eventually a defibrillator in his heart.
Thomas’ health ordeals weren’t over yet.
He found himself sprawled on the floor inside his house a month later. Fortunately, he never lost consciousness.
Thomas’ doctor changed the parameters of his defibrillator and gave him new medication. His intervention stabilized the former New York Jets draft pick’s condition.
It turned out Thomas’ mother Barbara suffered the first of her two heart attacks when she was fifty-two years old in 1987, per The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Thomas believed the experience gave him a brand new perspective on life. He has been eating a plant-based diet with fish as his protein source since then.
Blair Thomas became a member of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.