Mike Thomas, a standout running back from Greenville who followed two older brothers into the National Football League, has died at the age of 66.
Funeral services are planned for 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at the Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston for Thomas, who earned NFL offensive rookie of the year honors with the Washington Redskins.
A memorial service is also set for 2 p.m. on Sept. 6 at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville. Thomas died at 10:28 p.m. on Friday in a Houston hospital following a lengthy illness.
Thomas, who was born on July 17, 1953 in Greenville, followed in the footsteps of his older brothers Jimmy and Earl on a path that led first to college ball and then into the NFL. Jimmy, a standout at UT Arlington, played five seasons as a running back and receiver for the San Francisco 49ers. Jimmy died in 2017.
Earl, a marquee player at the University of Houston, was a receiver for the Bears, Cardinals and Oilers in the NFL.
Mike captured rookie of the year honors with the Redskins in 1975 after rushing for a team-high 919 yards and catching 40 passes for 483 yards. He went on to run the football for six seasons in the NFL with the Redskins and the San Diego Chargers, rushing for 4,196 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also caught 192 passes for 2,011 yards and 11 TDs.
“He was a great guy,” said his brother Earl. “He was a great football player. I’m going to miss him.”
Earl said Mike, the youngster member of the family, was “tough.”
“We put him through the ringer when he was younger,” he said.
Mike was a three-sport standout for the Lions from 1968-71, earning all-district honors in basketball and baseball and capturing the Rodney J. Kidd Award in 1970 as the outstanding high school football player in Texas after rushing for 1,672 yards on a 9-1 district co-championship team. Thomas also ran for 1,656 yards on an 8-2 team as a junior in 1969.
“Mike was an all-around athlete,” said Joyce Ashford Thomas, who was married to Mike’s brother Jimmy. “He was good at everything he participated in. I felt like Mike belonged to Greenville.”
Thomas signed with the University of Oklahoma and ran for 90 yards in his first carry as a Sooner against Oregon in 1972.
But he made his mark in college after transferring to Nevada Las-Vegas, rushing for more than 100 or more yards in 17 games, ending up as the Rebels’ all-time leader in career rushing yards (3,149), season rushing yards (1,741), game rushing yards (341), career rushing TDs (37) and points scored in a career (244).
Thomas earned first-team Little All-America honors while with the Rebels. Future NFL great Walter Payton, who played at Jackson State, was a second-team selection.
Mike, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Redskins in 1975, started as a rookie at Washington for head coach George Allen, who was known for preferring veteran players.
Thomas followed his rookie season by rushing for a career-high 1,101 yards and five TDs in 1976, catching 28 passes for 290 yards and four TDs. He earned Pro Bowl honors that year.
He also ran for 806 and 533 yards the next two seasons and then for 353 and 484 yards with the Chargers in 1979 and 1980.
“It was exciting to watch him,” said Mike’s sister Cecelia Thomas Barr.
“I’m proud of all things Thomas,” she said. “That’s the way we were raised. Mike was our baby. That’s why he was special.”
She said Mike “had a pleasing personality.”
“Mike had so many friends, not only in Greenville but down here in Houston,” said Earl Thomas. “He was a true, true friend and a good brother.”
Mike was also a father to Spencer Gilbert, a standout football player for the Greenville Lions and at Northwest Missouri State. Spencer now coaches at Royse City. Spencer’s son Spencer Gilbert II is a running back at Angelo State and son Sterling is a defensive lineman at Royse City High School.
The Thomas family will honor Mike on Saturday.
“We’re planning a big celebration for him,” said Earl Thomas.