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Thomas Finds the Open Field : Record-Setting Cal Lutheran Tailback Dashes Past a Series of Obstacles, Finally Gaining a Starting Position as a Senior


THOUSAND OAKS — Terrence Thomas is at Cal Lutheran football practice, sprinting up to obstacles, bouncing off or slide-stepping around them. Legs churning, direction changing, Thomas darts away from one, only to hit another. Finally, he reaches the end zone.

For Thomas, the drill seems symbolic of the past seven years of his football career.

Beyond every obstacle, another looms:

Thomas' opportunity to play college football immediately after high school is pulled away at the last minute because of academic red tape.


He travels 3,000 miles to a strange junior college, only to find himself stuck on the bench, behind one of the top runners in school history.

Pop .

A Division I college finally offers him a scholarship and playing time, but after he arrives, the school produces neither.


After he spends a season as a redshirt, the school drops football.


Finally finding a home at Division III, Thomas becomes the No. 1 tailback and goes on a record-setting yardage binge in the first two weeks of his senior year.


"I've just been unfortunate," Thomas said. "Something always happens. I always bounce back, though."

Thomas has finally performed the way he always thought he could. After two games, he has rushed for 349 yards, leading the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He broke the Cal Lutheran single-game record last week with 224 yards.

His speed and strength make him equally dangerous to bust over the middle for a first down or to take the ball on a sweep and turn the corner. He will make his 1994 Mt. Clef Stadium debut today, when the Kingsmen play Occidental at 1 p.m.

But at 24, Thomas is facing the final season of his football career, unless he can overcome the biggest obstacle of all--being a 5-foot-9 Division III tailback--and achieve his dream of playing pro football.

A long shot? Yes. But not out of the question, said Cal Lutheran running back coach John Burton. At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Burton coached Louis Jackson, who played for the New York Giants in 1981.

"Terrence can be in there somewhere," Burton said. "If someone was willing to give him a chance, he's got something there."

Thomas' talent was unappreciated by just about everyone but himself until this season.

A star tailback at Brunswick High in southeast Georgia in 1987, Thomas was set to play at Southwest Georgia. The obstacle in this case was the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Thomas finally scored high enough to gain admittance to the NAIA school, but by that time the registration deadline had passed.

Thomas figured he could sit out a year and enroll at Southwest Georgia, but the school dropped football the following season.

He seemed destined for a life of working as a clerk at the post office and moving furniture. He spent two years after his 1988 high school graduation working, sometimes up to 13 hours a day. In whatever free time he had, he went to his old high school to work out, in hopes that he might play football again.

"At first I didn't think I would have another chance to play," he said, "but when James (Williams, a former teammate) called and told me about Moorpark, I started getting excited."

Williams was an assistant coach at Moorpark College when he called his friend on the other side of the continent and convinced him that a college football opportunity awaited him on the West Coast.

Thomas, who hadn't played a down of football in nearly three years, arrived at Moorpark for the 1990 season, but Freddy Bradley was there. Bradley, one of the best junior college backs ever to play in California, left few carries for Thomas.

In 1991, with Bradley gone, Thomas had nagging knee injuries and gained 382 yards in 69--respectable, not eye-popping. But he was still courted by Cal State Fullerton. Coaches there promised Thomas a scholarship and plenty of carries.

"They played with me," he said. "They told me they were going to give me a scholarship, but at the last minute, they didn't.

"I was bitter because I thought you should be up front with me and be a man and let me know what's going on, not pull me with a string."

Thomas was redshirted at Fullerton in 1992, but more disappointment was on the way. After the season, Fullerton dropped football.

"It was like everything was going wrong for me," Thomas said. "I was always at the point to be the top man and something always happened."

So Thomas returned to school at Moorpark. After a few months, Moorpark coaches tried to interest Thomas and Cal Lutheran coaches in each other.

"(Cal Lutheran) was a small school," Thomas said, "but it was a chance to be a big fish in a small pond."

Thomas played sparingly in his first season at Cal Lutheran. Although there were no dominant running backs ahead of him, he carried only 53 times for 151 yards. He had trouble picking up the offense.

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