By DAVID CLAYBOURN
When Spencer Gilbert II carries the football for the Greenville Lions, the sophomore is carrying on a family tradition of excellence on the playing field.
A tradition that includes a father who went on to play college football, a grandfather who was a rookie of the year and a Pro Bowl running back, plus two great uncles who also played in the National Football League.
Gilbert’s father, Spencer Gilbert, played safety and outside linebacker for the Lions from 1986-87, earning all-district honors. He went on to play outside linebacker for NCAA Division II powerhouse Northwest Missouri State. As the offensive coordinator for the Lions, Gilbert coaches his son.
Gilbert’s grandfather, Mike Thomas, earned all-state and all-America honors as a running back for the Lions in 1969-70, plus Little All-America honors at Nevada-Las Vegas and NFL Rookie of the Year honors with the Washington Redskins in 1975. Thomas also made the Pro Bowl for the 1976 season, when he rushed for 1,101 yards.
Gilbert’s great uncles, Earl and Jimmy Thomas, were standout football players at Carver High School in Greenville and both brothers went on to stellar careers in college and in the NFL. Earl was a receiver at the University of Houston and then for the Chicago Bears, St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Oilers in the NFL. Jimmy ran and caught the football at Texas-Arlington before racking up five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
All three of the Thomas brothers are members of the Greenville Athletic Hall of Fame.
The expectations on a young player can be difficult but young Spencer carries on the legacy without feeling too much pressure.
“I just see family,” when he looks on his illustrious football predecessors. “It can be hard sometimes. I’ve just got to play and execute.”
Spencer Gilbert said he’s very proud of his son, calling him a team leader.
“Coaching him, it has its advantages,” he said. “We’ve got more one-on-one video time because when he’s home we watch football.”
Spencer Gilbert learned from watching his father that success on the playing field comes from a lot of hard work and he’s passing that lesson on to his son.
“Watching my dad on television, I can see some of the work habits that my father had,” said Spencer.
Mike Thomas, who lives in Houston, has kept up with his grandson’s football career in phone calls with his son, who sends his father video of the grandson’s games. Mike visited his hometown this weekend and was really excited about the opportunity to see his grandson play on Friday night against Royse City.
“Lot of talent,” Mike said of Spencer Gilbert II. “He’s a young kid, got a long way to go. You can see the position (quarterback) fits him. He’s fortunate to have a father who’s a coach and knows the game. It’s really up to him. His position is one of leadership, on and off the field because everybody’s watching him. He carries the ball more than anybody else.
“It’s a mental thing. He has to feel the game. It’s the best spot in the world to play. He’s the general of the army,” said Mike.
Mike Thomas noted how support from family, friends and the community helps a player.
“They need encouragement because there’s nothing like having somebody watch you play,” he said.
The Thomas name is still big in Greenville when outstanding football players are talked about.
“I don’t know if it means something to Greenville, it means something to us because this is where we started,” said Jimmy Thomas. “There’s so much talent in this town. We were just very fortunate that we got to go on and play.”
No doubt that Spencer Gilbert II is hoping that he can follow the family footsteps into an extended career in football.