1970s: The Shutdown Cornerback

Earlie Thomas
Earlie Thomas, a 1967 walk-on to the Rams football team, overcame injury and became a standout defensive back who was runner-up as 1970 National Football League Rookie of the Year. In 2018, CSU football fans voted him to the “All Time Rams” squad. Trained in entomology, he was longtime director of CSU’s Environmental Health Services. Photo: Colorado State University Libraries, Archives & Special Collections

Football star studied insects, went pro, and became a respected community leader

The “bug in the sock” tale might be the definitive story about Earlie Thomas.

Thomas, a star defensive back on the Colorado State football team, was as passionate about academics as he was about football, and an interest in insects made entomology his natural major. But football and academics are a tough combination for anyone, and Thomas struggled to collect 400 insects for a class project in Fall 1967.

That’s when he saw the praying mantis.

The Rams were playing University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., when Thomas spotted the bug on the field. During the game. He didn’t have a praying mantis in his collection, so he grabbed it and rolled it into his sock. CSU running back Oscar Reed saw the whole thing and yelled at his teammate, “Leave the damn bugs alone, Earlie!”

Yet, even as he fulfilled entomology requirements, Thomas earned a conference reputation as a shutdown cornerback, giving up just one touchdown during his CSU career.

“Earlie was a great athlete and he really was a cornerback ahead of his time,” said former Rams teammate Bill Schmitz. “Most cornerbacks back then were 5-foot-10, but Earlie was 6-1 and could really run. I’ll always remember him 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.”

Thomas excelled in both football and academics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1970 and a master’s degree in 1975, both in entomology. Thomas is also one of CSU’s greatest players and was inducted into the CSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1994; he played six seasons in the National Football League, with the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos.

After retiring from pro football, Thomas returned to CSU, where he worked for nearly 30 years, primarily as director of Environmental Health Services, a unit that monitors and promotes health and safety on campus. He also ran a consulting business, working with farmers across four states to help manage pest-caused crop damage.

“Earlie carried himself in such a way that he earned respect not just on campus but throughout the community,” said Ken Quintana, emergency management coordinator in Environmental Health Services.

Thomas and his wife of nearly 50 years, Kathy, raised three sons in Fort Collins and watched them blossom. As a father, he fulfilled another deep passion: working with kids.

He spent more than 20 years volunteering with the Fort Collins Track Club, coaching aspiring athletes ages 8 to 18 along with organizing practices, fundraising, and handling myriad duties that come with mentoring a large group of youngsters. He also coached Junior All-American football for nearly three decades. In addition to coaching his sons Garrett, Ryan, and Jeramie Thomas helped develop some of the city’s finest athletes, including several CSU track-and-field standouts.

“Earlie worked with so many young men and women who might not have otherwise had the opportunity to get quality coaching,” said Doug Max, former CSU track coach and senior associate athletics director for facilities and event management. “He taught my daughter, Rachael, how to run the hurdles. He was a leader people really respected. He would do anything for you. So many of the athletes he worked with excelled, and I think that brought him a lot of joy.”

Thomas, 73, has struggled with Parkinson’s disease for the past several years and rarely gets out in the community he loves. Still, the man who grew up in poverty in Denton, Texas and used education and his remarkable athletic ability to create a better life has no regrets.

“I’ve been blessed with a wonderful life, family, and a couple of exciting careers,” he said. Citing biblical passage 2 Timothy 4:7, he added, “‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,’ and I intend to stay strong.”