Anthony “A-Train” Thomas learned his powerful running style by playing in the street.
In the historic timber town of Winnfield, Thomas was a skinny but athletic little kid living with his mother at the H.Y. Bell Memorial Apartments, known to locals as “The Bells.” It was during mornings before the school bus arrived that Thomas and other neighborhood kids would get bruised and bloodied playing football on the unforgiving pavement.
For the younger and undersized kids like Thomas, the only way to carry the football was to take the handoff and power forward.
“I had to work harder because of my size,” Thomas said. “I always played with the bigger kids. They would always rough me up, but that helped me later on.”
The experience would help Thomas become an All-American at Winnfield High, a three-year starter and record holder at Michigan and eventually the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Now, it has helped Thomas take his place in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined Saturday, June 25 as part of the 11-member class in Natchitoches.
“It was weird to me,” said Thomas of getting the news he would be inducted. “When I think of the Hall of Fame, I think of all these great players that played in Louisiana. I feel very fortunate to be considered one of those players.”
Thomas may have never become a Hall of Famer if he hadn’t changed positions at the end of the freshman season at Winnfield. That year, Thomas lined up at wide receiver and safety, but he also ran the scout team offense in practice.
In Winnfield’s 1993 Class 3A state playoff game against Bossier, the starter suffered a high ankle sprain. The coaching staff turned to Thomas to step in and fill the void.
“The coaches asked me if I remembered the plays we practiced,” Thomas said. “I said yes and just went out there and ran.”
The Tigers lost 41-12, but Thomas had found his place.
Thomas went on to become of one Winnfield’s greatest players. In his career, which spanned 1993-96, Thomas set a then-state record of 106 touchdowns, rushed for 7,594 yards, had 31 100-yard rushing games, 16 200-yard games, earned all-state honors and district MVP honors three times and was named an All-American and placed on USA Today’s Top 25 Blue Chip Prospects list. His touchdowns and rushing yards were 11th-best all-time nationally.
Two decades later, Thomas still holds school records, including most rushing yards in a season and a game, career rushing touchdowns and most touchdowns of 50 yards or more.
Thomas went on to Michigan, where he was second on the team in rushing as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. That season, Michigan finished undefeated with a 21-16 victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl and was crowned co-national champions with Nebraska.
Thomas, bestowed the nickname “A-Train” while at Michigan for his straight-forward running style, went on to produce one of the best careers in the Wolverines’ storied history. He left campus with 15 school records, including career rushing yards (4,472), rushing touchdowns (55) and touchdowns (56). In addition, he ranks fifth on most plays in a career, where he is the only non-quarterback among the top 8.
He was the 2000 recipient of the Bo Schembechler Award for team MVP and a 2000 finalist for the Doak Walker Award.
Thomas also helped lead Michigan to four consecutive bowl wins for the first time in school history. He was a two-time Citrus Bowl MVP and in 2000 led Michigan to the school’s first FedEx Orange Bowl, a 35-34 overtime victory over Alabama.
“He was always a very smart player and a guy who was loved by his teammates.” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “Despite all of his success and the records he set he never changed.
“He is one of the very special guys you will ever meet, much less coach.”
The Chicago Bears drated Thomas in the second round (38th overall), and just like he did in high school and college, it wouldn’t take Thomas long before making an impact.
Thomas rushed for 1,183 yards and scored seven touchdowns as he helped the Bears go 13-3 and win the NFC North title. Thomas was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, beating out LaDainian Tomlinson.
Thomas led the team in rushing next two years before losing his starting job to Thomas Jones in 2004. Thomas went on to see limited action with the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and the Buffalo Bills before ending his playing career. In his seven-year career, he rushed for 3,891 yards with 23 touchdowns to go with 756 receiving yards.