Spotlight Feature on Former Athlete: Fernando Thomas - Football 1991-94
Thomas rides the rails after roping receivers
By Bruce Brown
Bloom where you are planted.
Fernando Thomas learned that valuable lesson as a Canadian Football League transplant after starring in a tighly-knit defensive backfield for USL's Ragin' Cajuns in the 1990's.
“A lot of guys who were playing in the CFL didn't think they should be there,” said Thomas, who was afflicted with the same malady. “A lot of guys went to camp with that chip on their shoulder. They planned to use it as a stepping stone to the NFL.
“They didn't understand that you need to enjoy that time when you have it, instead of focusing on being somewhere else. A lot can pass you by when you do that. You can have a great career and wind up in the Hall of Fame.
“You need to work on being the best you can be.”
As with many life lessons, that one came to Thomas only with time.
“It's something you understand when you're much older, when your priorities change,” he said. “You see things from a different perspective and know what's important. That's something I can share with young players.”
Thomas passes those pearls of wisdom along through his recently-formed Covering Academy, which works to develop defensive backs at the high school, college and professional levels.
That's not his main line of work. He works 12-hour shifts as a railroad conductor between Lafayette and New Orleans, a career which began some 16 years ago as Thomas was moving from football to the rest of his life.
“A friend told me about it, and the rest is history,” Thomas said of the railroad job. “I've enjoyed doing it.”
Passing Along Knowledge
The Academy offers Thomas the chance to stay connected to the game he played for so long.
“I'm older now,” he said. “The challenge is to stay as relevant as I possibly can. To evolve. I want to get them to understand the nuances of the game, and I need to understand the physical and psychological makeup of today's athlete and relate to him.
“Receivers today are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, while defensive backs haven't changed that much. I was 6-1, 200, and was considered a big cornerback.
“Receivers walk in, and look like a linebacker. Defensive backs won't be the biggest guy. They need a different skill set to keep up.”
Rules haven't helped corners and safeties to do that.
“Football is more entertainment now,” Thomas said. “People would rather see a 43-38 game than 9-6, so they cater the rules for the offense. When we played, there was a lot of incidental contact.”
Thomas, whose role models were Michael Haynes, Everson Walls and Deion Sanders, changes prospects' focus to adjust to the modern game.
“You start with the basics, with good fundamentals,” he said. “You want them to understand concepts. You need to explain to them why they do what they do. Once you have the foundation, you can just play the game.
“And, if you understand the 'why,' when something different happens in a game, you can make adjustments.”
Down and Up Years
Thomas played for coach Nelson Stokley's Cajuns from 1991-94, enduring losing seasons for two years before helping to create campaigns of 8-3 and 6-5 in 1993 and 1994.
He agrees that the 8-3 squad deserved a bowl bid and would have had one in today's college football world.
“Everybody who played before 2011 was so excited for those guys,” said Thomas, who had 149 tackles with the Cajuns and 30 passes broken up (21 in 1993 alone) to go with two interceptions. “We didn't have all the bowls they do now. We didn't have a chance to go.”
They did have some ferocious defensive players, though.
“I came in with Orlando Thomas, Jeff Mitchell and Patrice Alexander,” Thomas said. “I didn't take my ACT on time and finally got the results in July. USL showed interest in me late and I redshirted my first year.”
Thomas was a starter as a sophomore and was part of a suffocating secondary of himself and Craig Roberts at corner, Tim Sensley as nickel back, Lerodric Gilmore at strong safety and All-American Orlando Thomas at free safety.
USL went from 2-9 in 1992 to 8-3 a year later, and Thomas credits defensive coordinator Vic Eumont.
“He switched us from a zone to a man-to-man defense to fit our ability,” he said. “Lerodric did a lot to keep us together, and Orlando was a very special player – no question the best I ever played with. I saw greatness every day.
“We were very vocal in practice. We didn't want the offense to catch anything. We challenged each other every day,
“I had a unique work ethic,” Thomas added. “I loved to work on fundamentals and technique. And when scouts came to look at you, Mike Doherty (DB coach) made sure to run drills that would showcase your talent.
“I was named Player of the Game for the Utah State and Kansas State games.”
Thomas had 41 tackles and a 41-yard interception return touchdown for the CFL Birmingham Barracudas in 1995, and also saw action with British Columbia and Saskatchewan, before moving on with his life.
Keeping it Current, Look to the Future
Thomas stays on top of the current Cajuns, and likes what he's seen.
“They've made a lot of strides,” Thomas said. “They have a nutritionist, training table, multiple uniforms, an indoor training facility, new weight room. I'm really glad to see how far we've come.”
Married for 12 years - “I got a late start,” he said – Thomas has sons ages 10 and 8 who are enjoying their dad's unpressured approach to athletics.
“They're into sports, but I'm letting them find their own way,” he said. “Football was my game – along with track – but there are other sports. I tell them I just want them to be the best they can be.”
Whether riding the rails, or passing along advice about techniques and perspectives, Thomas has found a good place in life.
“Everybody has something they wanted to do in life,” Thomas said. “I'm thankful I can still move around and can still be around the game. I'm still at my playing weight. I love the game and want to share my knowledge.”
Fernando Thomas's Short List
Best Player Faced (Receiver) – Isaac Bruce
Best Player Faced (Quarterback) – Doug Flutie
Best Player (Teammate) – Orlando Thomas
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Shown below is Fernando and his 1993 USL Football teammates.
Click here for the photo gallery of Fernando and his 1993 Football teammates.
Click here for the chronological listings of the Spotlight on Former Athletes.