His given name was Harold Jerome Thomas, but no matter how he tried he couldn’t shake the nickname, which was coined by his mom when he was young.
“Spanky” isn’t exactly a tough-guy name for a football player. Also, his build was slight for a linebacker, a position typically requiring size, height and speed.
But Spanky had something else: a knack for excellence, a quiet, steady bearing and an unstoppable work ethic.
As a black youngster growing up in Wiregrass Alabama, Thomas broke through the last remnants of racial divisions.
When his all-Southern Conference college football days at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga were over, the NFL wasn’t waiting for him. Instead, he returned to his hometown, Dothan, to assist a Boys Club, to mentor youth who needed a role model like Spanky.
Eventually, he moved on to central Florida to lead a Boys Club of his own.
He died in a car accident 20 years ago yesterday — Feb. 27, 1990. He was 24.
Two decades later, when friends and former teammates speak of Spanky Thomas, they express the same thoughts.
Spanky was a natural leader, in the classroom, on the field and in life.
Spanky had a great smile.
Spanky is missed.
I met Spanky in the fall of 1983, when we were freshmen on the Tennessee-Chattanooga football team. I was in over my head, reeling from post-high school changes, launching what turned out to be a brief and undistinguished college football career. Spanky, on the other hand, was talented, quietly confident and destined for immediate playing time.
Joe Pate, the then-defensive coordinator at UTC and currently the director of football operations at North Carolina State University, spoke last week about how he came to recruit Spanky.
During an early 1980s recruiting swing, Pate had a question for the coach at Dothan’s Northview High: Who’s the best player in Dothan?
The high school coach answered, “Spanky Thomas,” a 5-foot-9, 190-pound offensive guard who was a junior at rival Dothan High.
Pate chuckled, and said that short, 190-pound offensive linemen weren’t exactly in hot demand.
Pate returned the next season on a scouting trip. Spanky Thomas was a senior and he’d moved from offensive guard to quarterback for Dothan High, a transition Pate termed extremely rare. But again, Pate noted, 5-foot-9 quarterbacks weren’t in vogue, either.
The Dothan High coach mentioned that Spanky had played defense in one game. Would Coach Pate like to see the film?
To this day, Pate remains impressed with what he saw. “He must have made 30 tackles,” Pate remembered during a phone conversation last week. Being a crafty recruiter, Pate borrowed the game film to make sure it didn’t land in the hands of any rival college recruiter until after signing day.
“One of (Spanky’s) best traits was he just had a great awareness of what needed to be done on and off the field,” Pate said.
Mike Makins, another UTC football team freshman in 1983, remembers Spanky as “a natural leader.” Makins recalls thinking no one as small as Thomas could play college football. That notion was dispelled once practice started. He played more like he was 6-foot-9, Makins said.
“On the field, he outworked everybody,” Makins said last week. “He helped motivate you.”
Makins was a “shy and introverted” college freshman who admired Spanky’s outgoing personality. “His smile was infectious, and I never saw him meet a stranger.”
Makins, who played pro football as a defensive lineman, is now a graphic designer in Atlanta, but his passions are his work as an ordained minister and as a youth football coach, leading a program called Drills For Life Skills. “No doubt Spanky left a legacy, and my mission is to do the same,” he said.
Brent Thomas, a Dothan native who now works as an engineer in Huntsville, remembers looking up to Spanky (no relation) as he was growing up. Brent’s older brother and Spanky were teammates at Dothan High. Brent was five grades younger.
He remembers joining the bigger boys during summer preseason workouts in the brutally hot south Alabama sun. For him, it was like working out with his heroes. “(Spanky) was older than me and in high school, but he never treated me as if I was just some kid,” Brent recalled. “He treated me like one of the team.”
Brent, who developed into a college football prospect, credits Spanky with pushing him to improve during those workouts. “He gave everything he had in everything he did. Everybody wanted to emulate that,” he said. “I know I did, and it had a huge impact on my playing days.”
Brent, with the blessing of Spanky’s mom and sister, has created a tribute Web site — http://spankythomas.com — as well as a Facebook page dedicated to him. He wanted others, especially youngsters in Dothan who might think of Spanky Thomas as only a name on a school award, to know more about this inspirational figure. “I wanted to have something for posterity’s sake,” he said.
Spanky was “like nobody I’ve ever known or seen or heard about,” Brent said. “He was just a very special human being.”
Charley Camp remembers Spanky as an 11- or 12-year-old who first began to visit the Boys Club where Camp was director.
When Spanky was young, his father died. Even then, Camp could tell there was something special about this poised young man who was mature beyond his years.
Camp, who hired Spanky after he graduated from UTC in 1987 with a degree in criminal justice, called him a “great student” and “a fantastic role model.”
Camp, who is now retired from Boys and Girls Clubs after 40 years of service, helped Spanky find the job in Sanford, Fla., in the Orlando area.
On the day of the fatal accident, Spanky was driving a young club member home when a truck collided with his car. Camp, who delivered Spanky’s eulogy at a packed funeral, learned that Spanky had shielded the youngster with his body as the other vehicle crashed into them. The young boy survived, but Spanky didn’t. “That was Spanky,” Camp said by phone last week. “That was the kind of human being he was.”
In a world where thousands of books attempt to show how to be a leader, what lessons can we take from Spanky Thomas’ short life? In an age where leadership, decency and humanity often seem in short supply, where shall we find someone like Spanky Thomas?
The friends I spoke with last week offer the best comfort I can think of.
“In the process of making peace with what happened,” Camp said, “you begin to realize that in his death, he was even more remarkable as a role model … because he impacted so many more lives in a meaningful and lasting way.”
“He did more in 24 years than most of us do in our entire lives,” is how Brent Thomas put it.
“We have all been guilty of taking life for granted a time or two. I don’t think Spanky ever took anything for granted,” Makins added.
Agreed, Rev. Makins. That’s something none of us should be guilty of.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.