Sooner Legend: Clendon Thomas

Sooners Illustrated catches up with former great Sooner Clendon Thomas.

Oklahoma City, Okla., arose from the Central Great Plains at noon on April 22, 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison sanctioned the opening of Indian Territory to anyone fast and strong enough to stake a claim. From the 1889 population of approximately 9,000, OKC had grown to double that size by the turn of the century.

Since the discovery of oil in the "Roaring ‘20s," Oklahoma City has been at the heart of the oil industry. And the State of Oklahoma suddenly found itself on the map as one of the top oil-producing states on the continent.

The first ‘gusher' was discovered at the corner of SE 59th and Bryant St. in December 1928 and flowed with such force that it couldn't be capped until 27 days had passed and 110,496 barrels of crude were lost.

By the late 1940s, the city had finally emerged from the last vestiges of the depression and began to experience prosperity; and along with that prosperity came the growing pains that generally accompany a healthy economy. The city grew by leaps and bounds as it expanded geographically, adding new commercial areas, public trolleys and housing projects. And Oklahoma City's population grew as well as it enjoyed an influx of new citizens who had joined the great urban migration.

As the city mushroomed, more schools were added to the Oklahoma City school system. Among those new schools was Oklahoma City Southeast High School, which opened in 1951 to accommodate excess enrollment at neighboring Foster High School. Southeast was to provide the same excellence in staff and curriculum as the other schools in the OKC area, which were widely considered to be among the best public schools in the nation. Southeast was also to produce another valuable commodity — future Oklahoma football star Clendon Thomas.

When asked why so little information could be found about Southeast's football team in the early 1950s, Thomas chuckled and replied, "It's probably because we weren't very good. We only won two games my senior year."

But despite Southeast's lack of gridiron success, Thomas was noticed. The tall, lanky high schooler proved to be a fast runner and a relentless ball carrier.

"In ninth grade I was already 6-1 and 150 pounds — a beanpole," said Thomas. "I played for coach George ‘Sonny' Frank. Coach Frank had been a Marine pilot and an All-American player at Minnesota — on the same team as coach (Bud) Wilkinson (note: Wilkinson and Frank played for legendary Minnesota coach Bernie Bierman, whose 1936 Gopher squad, with Wilkinson at quarterback, won the first official Associated Press national championship). Southeast High was coach Frank's first job as a coach and even though we didn't have a lot of talented athletes, he was a terrific coach.

"I was lucky enough to have grown up around some men who really helped me," said Thomas. "My dad was a great player and had had a chance to play professional baseball. But in those days, a man with a family couldn't survive on the salary it paid. Each summer I played Y baseball with Dad as coach. Through the years, he always thought I was a better baseball player than football player. Ironically, my professional career in football allowed me to play in nearly every baseball park in America. I just played with an oblong ball.

"I had been playing for coach Frank at Southeast High for about a week when he called me over and said, ‘Clendon, I want to talk with you for a second. Would you like to play professional football someday?' He didn't ask me if I wanted to play college ball. So I said, ‘Well, sure!' And he replied, ‘Son, if you don't get hurt, you will.' Remember, this was in ninth grade after knowing me only a week. I've thought about that through the years and I decided that what coach Frank saw in me was a big, raw-boned kid who'd probably develop some muscles at some future point. And he probably also noticed the speed I had — I could outrun everyone in school."

Thomas might not have been noticed by Wilkinson had it not been for Daily Oklahoman and Times writer Hal Mix, who became Clendon's biggest supporter during his high-school years.

"Hal wasn't a sports writer but he filled in for Volney Meece on occasion when Volney was busy," said Thomas. "Hal attended a couple of games and had seen me play at Southeast and somehow became a fan of mine. Benton Ladd and Bill Krisher were very highly recruited high-school players on state championship-caliber teams. Bill was with Midwest City and Benton was with Capital Hill. Both were great players. Hal used to pick them up to take them down to Norman and he'd swing by and pick me up, too. While everyone else was buzzing around Bill and Benton, I'd overhear Hal telling Pop Ivy, Pete Elliot or one of the other coaches that they needed to take a look at that ‘tall, skinny kid over there, too.'

"But I was not highly sought after out of high school," laughed Clendon. "I have to give much of the credit for my being a Sooner to Hal Mix. I had the opportunity to thank him years later when he was a writer in San Francisco. I was playing for the Rams and made sure he was provided Ram-49ers tickets for him and his wife. Coach Frank never wavered in his confidence that I would play professionally.

"My first year in Norman we were divided into three freshman teams. Those new freshmen who didn't make the first three teams were referred to as the ‘AOs,' which stood for ‘all others.' The AOs consisted of everyone they didn't consider good enough to play on the first, second or third unit. I mean, if you couldn't make the first three teams, well, let's just say you probably weren't very highly though of," chuckled Thomas.

Jack Santee, a former quarterback and law student, was in charge of freshman football at the direction of Port Robertson.

"Jack and most of the other assistant coaches didn't think I was a player. I assumed they thought I was loafing because my stride was long. I admire coach Wilkinson to this day for his ability to recognize my potential and ignoring the obvious. You typically don't look for a tall, slender running back. You want guys who are more compact since they tend to easily change directions and are more durable. I simply didn't fit that mold.

"Toward the end of our freshman football season, we began to prepare for the OSU and Tulsa freshman games. A few weeks before, Leon Manly (former OU player with the Detroit Lions at that time) had broken an arm, was lost for their season and was helping as an assistant coach with the freshman. We freshmen had to wear tape across the front of our helmets with our names written on it so coaches could easily know who we were. By this time of the season, most of the ink had faded off. Leon had no idea who I was; he thought I was Carl Dodd because we were about the same size and build. In preparation for these games, we scrimmaged against some sophomores. I remember making a hard tackle on Bill Brown, got off a pretty good punt or two, and Leon walked over a couple of times during the scrimmage and asked me who I was. I was promoted from the AOs to the second unit the very next day and I started those freshman games.

"In 1955, Tommy (McDonald), Bob (Burris), Billy (Pricer) and Jimmy (Harris) were the starting backs. I was on the alternate squad with Carl (Dodd), Dennit (Morris) and Jay (O'Neal). Coach Wilkinson didn't call us the second team. Whether it was motivational or tactical, he attempted to balance these squads as equal in talent and ability as possible, building the teams around defense and alternating us in game situations pretty freely. Each unit would play approximately one half of each quarter. In '55, coach Wilkinson called me to his office and told me I had earned a starting spot. In fact, our team, the alternates, felt that we were the No. 1 squad.

"We had a scrimmage one evening and Coach, wanting to get an effort out of everybody, told us that whoever won the scrimmage would start the following Saturday. The second unit had the first unit down and we kept them down until after dark. It was past suppertime and someone said, ‘We're gonna be out here all night if we don't let them score,'" said Thomas with a laugh. "So we just looked at each other and that was exactly what we did. As soon as they scored, Coach blew that whistle instantly and we got to go in. I'm sure Miss Smalley (the lady who managed the dining hall) had held supper back all she wanted to by that time.

"And that's also when the hurry-up offense began to evolve. Coach Wilkinson always expected us to go full throttle in a game and not look back. He asked for hustle. If you ran out of gas, he would substitute. We all learned that we had endurance and will power that we didn't realize we had. Coach showed us how to find it and use it. We competed with many great athletes with tremendous talent and strength, but when they were pressed to their limit of exhaustion, they could not compete with us. It was a matter of will. We began getting plays off so fast that most teams had real problems keeping up with us. I credit Tommy's hustling back to the huddle for cementing this approach with coach. In the 1956 Orange Bowl against Maryland, Bob Pelligrini (Terp middle linebacker) got hit in the back while he was still calling defensive signals. Jerry Tubbs (Sooner center) flattened him — knocked him on his face. They had to call time out to get their breath. Truth is, if they had not called time by the next play, we would probably have had to.

In 1956, Thomas found himself in the same backfield as Jimmy Harris, Billy Pricer and Tommy McDonald. The Sooners were riding the crest of a 35-game winning streak and just came off of a nationally televised 40-0 blowout against Notre Dame in South Bend in which Thomas had returned a Paul Hornung interception for a touchdown. But the next Saturday, November 3, 1956, they suddenly found themselves down 19-6 at halftime in Boulder, Colo. — the first time that Oklahoma had trailed any opponent that year.

"We got behind in Boulder," said Thomas. "They ran a single-wing offense, pulling guards and tackles, which caused us some trouble the first half. We were concerned about our poor defensive effort but confident we could handle them in the second half. We knew fully well that there were other Oklahoma teams before us that had participated in building the current streak we were on. And here we were in Boulder, down 19-6, getting ready to blow it. Even though nobody was panicking, we all knew coach Wilkinson would be upset with our effort. But it turned out to be the shortest halftime talk I'd ever heard from him. I really don't remember exactly what he said or the way he said it. Maybe it was drama or maybe it was real, but he walked in and said something like, ‘Men, you don't deserve to wear the red jerseys you have on your backs.' We knew he was referring to the legacy left us by all of those previous Sooner teams and players who'd helped start and build this streak."

On the first possession of the second half, the Sooners found themselves facing a fourth and two at their own 28-yard line. Deciding to go for the down, Sooner quarterback Jimmy Harris handed the ball to Thomas who busted through the Colorado defense for 3 tough yards. Minutes later, Tommy McDonald hit Thomas for Oklahoma's first second-half score, cutting the Colorado lead to 19-13. The Sooners continued their rally as they held the Buffs scoreless in the second half while scoring twice more — Thomas caught the winning touchdown pass from Jimmy Harris — en route to a 27-19 victory, their 36th in a row.

"Clendon ran with a full stride," said quarterback Jimmy Harris. "He'd be going full speed after his first two steps. He kept his head up and hit the open hole as well as anybody I ever saw."

"I don't mean to sound cocky," said Thomas, "but we knew we could do anything we wanted to do. Nobody could beat us. Nobody could handle us. That '56 team in my junior year was the best team I ever played on. We were a significant part of a record that still stands. Five teams contributed to 47 straight games won, extending into the 1957 season. Unfortunately, our '57 team didn't have the depth that previous teams had enjoyed and time ran out before we beat Notre Dame.

"I led the nation in scoring my junior year," said Thomas. "And what's phenomenal about that is Tommy and I were tied for the national scoring title going into the last ball game. We each had 17 touchdowns. Think about it … here are two kids on the same ball team in the same backfield leading the nation in scoring. Both of us were averaging about 8 yards per carry, which speaks volumes about the offensive line's play and Billy Pricer's ability to block at the corners. Fans have often overlooked Jim Harris' ability to throw and keep a defense honest.

"After I got my 18th touchdown, we were on the Aggie 2-yard line late in the game," said Thomas. "In the huddle, ‘Beaky' (Ed ‘Beaky' Gray, Sooner tackle and co-captain) said, ‘I've never scored — ever!' and wanted to carry the ball. Jim said he could take care of that. So Ed and I switched positions and he scored over me. It was his first time to score and my first time at tackle. Beaky trotted off the field with the ball under his arm and coach Wilkinson, who hadn't realized what had happened until the play was over, was just laughing his head off. So I got Tommy by one touchdown. Beaky cost him a share in the title. Tommy was deadly in that run-pass option; he could throw as well as catch the ball. I couldn't have set that record without those passes."

After college, Thomas was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams and played in L.A. for four seasons.

"I was drafted as a running back," said Thomas. "Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles, Les Richter (Rams co-captain and middle linebacker) came up to me and said, ‘Clendon, I want to talk to you. I've been around 13 years and I just want to give you a piece of advice, for whatever it's worth: you need to get off of offense. You're big and fast and you hit people. Get on the defensive side of the ball. You can play 10 or 12 years in this league and then walk away. If you stay on offense, they'll carry you out that tunnel on a stretcher after two or three years.'

"And he was right. The average running back in the NFL today can expect to play 2.7 years. Billy Sims and Steve Owens are only two examples of great players with injuries that shortened their professional careers. Running backs get beaten up and just don't last that long. I did play some offense (in '60 for the Rams and '64 and '65 for the Steelers) and scoring is a lot of fun and very satisfying; but moving to defense was a good decision.

"I played for Sid Gilman in Los Angeles in my first season. Our team was ankle deep in talent. We came in second in the NFL and everyone knew we could win it all the next year. But Pete Rozelle (general manager of the Rams at that time, and later commissioner) sold 13 of our best players at the end of my first year — that's how they made their money back then — and it decimated our team. I think coach Gilman got sideways with Pete after that happened and left the team soon afterwards.

"I was coming up on the third coaching change in my fifth season with the Rams so I asked to be traded to Dallas. I knew coach Landry through his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I knew he was doing a great job with the Cowboys. He wanted me, they were getting better and that he'd probably be there as long as he wanted to be. When the Rams finally did trade me, I found out about it on the evening news — they wouldn't look you in the eye and tell you that you'd been traded back then. But I didn't care. I knew the Rams weren't going to be a championship-caliber team. I'd gone from a great team in college to a playoff-caliber team my first year in the pros to an average team after Rozelle sold our Pro Bowl players. I wanted to play for a team with the opportunity to compete for a championship. So, they traded me to the Steelers — a team that hadn't won a championship in the history of the franchise.

"When I heard I'd been traded to the Steelers I went back to Oklahoma City and stayed for about a month. I had a prosperous building business and I didn't have to play pro ball. But after a month it started sounding interesting to me again. I had heard that the Steelers were a bunch of bad guys. But I had learned to respect them on the field. They were tough and well coached by Buddy Parker (who coached the 1952 and 1953 Detroit Lions to NFL championships). Most of their bad-guy reputation was fiction. The Steelers defensive coach, Buster Ramsey, convinced me to give it a try and I've never regretted it. As it turned out I loved the Steelers, Pittsburgh and I respected Mr. Rooney and his family. In addition, I met Soni, my beautiful wife of 38 years.

"We had a terrific season in 1963. I went to the pro bowl that year," Thomas said. "We had Ernie Stautner, John Henry Johnson, Johnny Sample, Brady Keys and an all-around fine team. We played great defense and good offense and, again, we came in second in the league. We actually went to Cleveland and beat the Browns, easily one of the best teams in the league. I played defensive end and linebacker that day. You talk about an experience! Because of injuries we were down to one linebacker and one defensive end. I was lined up in a three-point stance on the right side or standing as a linebacker. All we did was stunt and do crazy stuff the entire game. Browns quarterback Frank Ryan (and Thomas' former teammate in L.A.) was laughing when he looked down and saw me at that position. But he wasn't laughing at the end of the game — we beat them 26-6.

"After I'd played 11 years in the pros, Mr. Rooney asked me to come back for my 12th season, but I didn't really believe that they had a chance for a championship. I talked with incoming coach Chuck Knoll. We had a brief conversation and basically I indicated that I knew what it took to win and it would be difficult with all the young players. They put a great team together and won the championship three years later."

After his professional football career, Thomas went back to building homes with his own company. Later, he founded Chemical Products Corporation and served as its owner and president until it was sold years later.

Thomas finished his career at Oklahoma after the 1957 season. He scored 36 touchdowns, amassed 2,120 yards averaging 7 yards per carry, and tallied 216 points. He made first-team All-American in both 1956 and 1957, led the Sooners in scoring in '56 and '57, led the nation in scoring in '56, and placed ninth in Heisman voting in 1957. A key player on Bud Wilkinson's historic 1955 and 1956 football teams, Thomas was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.

Today, Thomas is still involved in business. But as time consuming as that may be, he still stays in touch with Oklahoma football.

"Since I live in Oklahoma City it's easy to keep in touch with the program. Bob (Stoops) and Joe (Castiglione) have been marvelous making the older players feel welcome and opening the program's doors to them.

"I really enjoyed following the Sooners this last season. With all the problems Bob Stoops had to face, I thought he did a terrific job. It was fun to watch ‘em."

Thomas attended the 50th anniversary reunion of the 1956 national championship team in Norman last November. University of Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione stated, "This special group of men remain the standard-bearers of championship football. Their magnificent run of victories is, without question, the most impressive feat ever produced at this level of collegiate football. We are honored to have them back on campus to commemorate what they accomplished as Sooners."

During that semi-centennial celebration, each member of the team was measured for a national championship ring; a custom that while not observed in 1956, provided a fitting, albeit belated, tribute in 2006 to the men who added so much to the tradition that is Oklahoma football.

A group of men with whom Clendon Thomas unquestionably belongs.

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