Ricky Thomas must have not been familiar with the perceived protocol because as a first-year varsity football player at Niceville High School in Florida, he plowed through that imaginary boundary and challenged any member on the entire team, regardless of age or size.
The confidence and toughness he displayed as a 10th grader would serve Thomas well as the former Alabama defensive back ascended through the ranks to become the tight ends coach of the recently crowned Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts.
Thomas' dad was in the Air Force which meant the family lived around the nation and the world. He was born in London, England, and lived in such places as in North Dakota, South Carolina, Georgia, Germany, California, and from the eighth through the 12th grades at Eglin Air Force Base in the panhandle of northwest Florida. Changing addresses frequently as a child led Thomas to acquire some social skills that became relevant in his coaching career. "It was a great life," he said. "I learned some unique things from military life. You always have to make adjustments and new friends which present you an opportunity to learn to communicate with people in an efficient and effective manner. You also come across different cultures and I'm glad for the experience."
As a member of the Addie R. Lewis Junior High School football team, Thomas played as an eighth and ninth grader for Coach Bill Wilson, where he immediately made a favorable impression. Recalling those days, Wilson said, "We knew right away Ricky was an outstanding individual in every aspect, socially, academically and athletically. He always had his priorities in line. Whatever he was doing at the moment was the most important thing. He was enjoyable to coach and a pleasant person to be around. Running from the power I offense Ricky was the starting tailback as well as an outside linebacker on defense. He could play just about anywhere and would play anywhere you asked him. Being a small school, we moved him around and he played special teams too. He was in the game most of the time. He was always an extremely hard worker and an outstanding young man. He set his goals high and was able to obtain them. He's a class act. He's matured and grown up."
Playing for Coach Frank Sorrells at Niceville High School, Thomas contributed on offense as a running back and on defense as a strong safety and outside linebacker as well as on the special teams. "He was a very good player at an early age and started for us for three years. He was an outstanding to above average player and a very dedicated young man," Sorrells said.
Colleges in the South started to take notice of Thomas as recruiters admired certain aspects of his game. Sorrells said, "They liked his overall aggressive play and they viewed him primarily as a defensive back which he went on to play at Alabama. They also liked the fact that he was a hard worker and a dedicated young man with a lot of desire to tackle. He had a lot of toughness to him and was very intelligent."
Speaking of Thomas's intangible qualities, Sorrells said, "He was a very good student and worked hard at his studies. He never got himself into position where he had to be sent to the principal's office. He was a straight-laced young man and the kind of player you liked to coach. I have a lot of respect for Ricky. I consider him to be one of the pioneers of the Niceville program where in my 22 years as head coach we had been to the playoffs eight or nine straight years. He was one of the premiere players during my career at Niceville and instrumental in us getting the program going in a positive direction."
Former Alabama Assistant Coach Bruce Arians, presently the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, recruited Thomas to The Capstone. Alabama was an easy choice for him as he sifted through the various scholarship offers. Thomas said, "Coach Bryant was still the head coach at the time I was recruited and he was the reason why I went to The University of Alabama. I had four other visits lined up and Alabama happened to be the first visit. I had a great time. Alabama was still running the wishbone at the time and I was viewed as a running back prospect. Coach Bryant was looking for me to make a commitment in his office. My original intentions were to take the other four visits, but suffice is to say I ended up committing to Alabama in his office. I didn't take any of the other four visits."
Even though his time with the legendary Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was brief, Thomas still acknowledges him to be an influence on his coaching style. Thomas said, "I admired the way he did things with class and won and did things the right way, although I never played or coached for him."
Another compelling force in Thomas's life was the coach he played for at Alabama, Ray Perkins, who taught him the value of organization. Perkins spoke about his feelings for Thomas proclaiming, "I feel privileged and honored that he says that I was one of his influences as a coach. Ricky Thomas is one of the people over the course of your career that you definitely remember and the reason for that is Ricky is such a tremendous person. It didn't surprise me a bit that he went in to coaching and he's very successful at it. I don't think he would be any less successful at anything else he wanted to do. He has such a strong belief in his God and it's just non-wavering and that gives him a fulfillment in life. That's how I picture him and that's how I got to know him. He was a tireless, dedicated worker and a really good player."
Perkins' respect and admiration for Thomas is deeply rooted. "Ricky is one of those guys that when I talk to him, I'll say, ‘Hey man I love you.' And he'll say, ‘I love you too,. Coach.' We are not beyond telling each other as guys that we love each other. I love him and I'm not afraid to tell you that," Perkins said.
Perkins has known another figure whom he met many years ago who became an influence in Thomas's career. "Ricky is somewhat of a mirror image type of the guy (Tony Dungy) he works for now," Perkins said. "Tony is the same kind of person. I cut Tony out of the league (NFL) in 1980. We brought him into our camp (New York Giants). I talked to him when I released him, as I did with all my players, and during our heart-to-heart talk he expressed to me that he would like to get into coaching. I felt he would have been a good coach back then. Tony's a great guy and I'm happy to see him win the Super Bowl this year."
Along the coaching trail, Thomas served as a graduate assistant in 1996 at the University of Kentucky under the direction of Coach Bill Curry who remains one of his mentor's to this day. Thomas's younger brother, Andre, was a defensive back and four-year lettermen (1985-88) at Georgia Tech where he played for two years under Curry.
Since receiving a telephone call in 1997 from a former Alabama teammate, Thomas has been a part of Tony Dungy's staff for the past ten years in Tampa and Indianapolis. Explaining the association with the Super Bowl winning coach, he said, "The connection was Mike Shula. We played together at Alabama and we were in the same recruiting class of 1983. He was the offensive coordinator at Tampa Bay at the time and they had an offensive assistant position open. Mike gave me a call and asked me if I would be interested in the position. I interviewed for it and got the job and here (Indianapolis Colts) we are today."
Coach Dungy recognizes Thomas's value and contributions. "Ricky came up with me from Tampa Bay and under his leadership with the tight ends–Dallas Clark, Bryan Fletcher and Ben Utecht–have all showed improvement in a variety of areas. He started as an offensive quality control coach and worked his way up with his hard work and dedication," Dungy said.
Regarding preparation for this year's Super Bowl played at Dolphins Stadium in Florida, Thomas said, "In terms of the approach and preparation, it's like any other game. The things you have to continue to focus on are the techniques and the fundamentals. You know there is a lot more on the line for a game of that magnitude. You want to make sure you are on top of the details and you leave no stone uncovered so that your people can go out and execute and are productive."
Winning the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts was an achievement that Thomas cherishes considering he had been close on two other occasions to be a part of a championship team. Serving as an academic advisor for Alabama's football and men's basketball teams from 1989-1992, Thomas accepted a position in the spring as a coach and on the faculty of the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee just missing the Crimson Tide's 1992 National Championship football season. When Tampa Bay made a coaching change after the 2001 season, Thomas once again missed another championship as the 2002 Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.
Thomas was able to celebrate the Super Bowl victory with a contingent of family and friends who were present at the game. His dad, John, is a Pastor at the New Song Missionary Baptist Church and his mother, Isadora, is a board member. They are also the co-founders of Community Outreach Service Center in Warner Robbins, Georgia, which is a non-profit organization that relies on donations to operate two homeless shelters, one for men and the other for women and children. Younger brother, Andre, is a recruiter for the school of medicine at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, as well as an assistant pastor at his parent's church in Warner Robbins. Sister Takisha is an English teacher at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She and her husband serve serve as dorm parents.
Talking about the last few moments with the clock ticking down as the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, Thomas recalled, "It's an exhilarating feeling that we were finally going to achieve a goal we had set for a long time, this being the tenth year that I've coached with Tony Dungy. We've talked about this for ten training camps in terms of where we started and where we want to be and what we liked to accomplish, being the best team in the NFL. In Tampa we weren't able to see that come to fruition with our staff, but we left a lot of good building blocks in place. So it was very gratifying as a team and personally as well. Not only to do it as a team but its meant a lot for Tony Dungy as well with all he's endured both professionally (dismissal at Tampa Bay) and personally (death of his son). I kind of reflected on the journey with all the people that have helped me be the person I am today ever since I've been involved with this game. There were fleeting thoughts about all of those people. It was a great feeling to win."
Thomas has ambitions. "I do have aspirations to take on more responsibility whether as a coordinator or a head coaching position," he said. "I am in a unique situation where I am working with some real good people who are very knowledgeable and I have a great group of players that I work with. When the opportunity presents itself, it is one that I will pursue with a great level of passion and we look forward to that day coming. In the mean while I'll just continue to try to be the best tight ends coach that I can possibly be. I do want to be a coordinator and then a head coach."
Speaking about his strengths as a coach, Thomas said, "I would say my ability to communicate information effectively. Also I have the ability to listen to what my players are saying and try to help them make the necessary adjustments so that we as a team can be efficient and productive."
Analyzing the differences of coaching in college and the NFL, Thomas explained, "The biggest adjustment is not so much the coaching. Coaching at any level is having the opportunity to teach techniques, fundamentals and philosophies. The greatest difference is the amount of time you have with each individual in college as compared to the professional level. In college you have a certain block of time that players are devoting to academics as well as practicing. In the NFL, you have a significant more amount of time from 8 to 5 during the week to implement the schemes and philosophies."
A milestone moment for Thomas happened off the field while he was a student-athlete in Tuscaloosa. "I met my wife, Kimberly, who is a native of Montgomery and a die-hard Bama fan. She is a proud alumnus of The University of Alabama where she received her undergraduate degree in 1988 and her law degree in 1991. We have a marvelous marriage and two wonderful kids, Kaitlyn (13) and Ricky, Jr. (10)."
Expressing his thoughts on wearing the crimson and white, Thomas said, "It was an honor to be able to don the crimson and white. Not only do you wear that with pride but you had a lot of respect for what it represented. It represents class and doing things with a lot of pride. You understand that not only do you represent your team but you represent the state of Alabama and all of its graduates. There is a high responsibility and calling that goes with having an opportunity to be an ambassador for the school. It's something I didn't take lightly. I am grateful I had an opportunity to be in such a position. That is one of my great memories as I reflect on my time in Tuscaloosa."
Thomas clings fondly to his days at The Capstone as he reminisces about being part of a team. "I cherish the camaraderie with the players and the coaches at Alabama during that time which still resonates in my mind and my heart. I have a great love for The University of Alabama–for the history, the tradition and doing things with class and the right way and winning. I hope one day I am able to come back in a role where I assume more responsibility that I have at this point and be an integral part in helping my university move forward."
Throughout his football career, Thomas has been surrounded by men who made a difference in his life. He now continues their legacy of leadership by encouraging others as he guides young men in the National Football League as an assistant coach for the World Champion Indianapolis Colts.
Editor's Note: Comments from Coach Dungy provided by Vernon Cheek, assistant director of Public Relations for the Indianapolis Colts.