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Thomas' moral fiber now helping with Falcons' rebuilding process

CANTON, Ohio -- They celebrated Emmitt Thomas, the player, Saturday night.

Celebrated his 13 seasons as a cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs. Celebrated his 58 career interceptions, which ranks eighth in NFL history. Celebrated the fact he had an interception in every season except his first. Celebrated his five Pro Bowl appearances. Celebrated his contribution to a Super Bowl victory.

Emmitt Thomas, the coach, might never receive an honor as prestigious as the one he received last February (and made official Saturday night) -- induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Yet, it is what he does today as a coach that reflects so well on what he did in a playing career that began 42 years ago. How well? He was a position coach of two of his fellow inductees -- Art Monk and Darrell Green -- when he worked for the Washington Redskins, one of six stops he has made as an NFL assistant since 1981.

Thomas has spent the past seven seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, with whom he serves as an assistant head coach.

And it was in 2007, after the sudden and surprising resignation of Bobby Petrino, that Thomas demonstrated extraordinary leadership under extremely difficult circumstances. The season, which began with the suspension of Michael Vick after his involvement in dog fighting, already was in shambles. Petrino walking away, before the end of his first NFL season, added insult to injury to the entire Falcon organization.

The Falcons desperately needed someone to provide some measure of stability and dignity. They turned to Thomas as their interim head coach.

His only victory came in the season-finale, giving the team at least a small foundation to try and build with a new quarterback, rookie Matt Ryan, and a new head coach, Mike Smith.

Many observers dismissed Thomas' three-game stint at the Falcons' helm as a meaningless "transition" period. But it meant plenty to Thomas and to his son and presenter, Derek, who proudly pointed out that his father was the first black coach in Falcons history.

"I called it an opportunity," Thomas said. "I had been there six years with the guys. I knew them; they knew me. And it was something that I had wanted to do my entire career. And to be fortunate enough, even though it wasn't under the right circumstances, to get that opportunity and the guys rallied around trying to put the Falcons back for the last three games to be a productive football team was an honor to me."

Thomas followed a humble path to football success. He joined the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent from the tiny town of Angleton, Texas.

There were about 25 other defensive backs during his rookie training camp. He was assigned jersey number 63, which he would trade for 18 once he showed he was going to stick around for a while.

"I did play the game with passion, I did play the game with respect, and I played it with a lot of heart," Thomas said. "But perhaps the most important reason I'm here: I played the game with a lot of respect and honor that the game so very much deserves from everyone who has ever had the privilege of strapping on a shoulder pad or bucking up a chinstrap."

He praised his late coach, Hank Stram, for guiding the Chiefs in a way that allowed them to outwork, out-coach, and out-scheme many of the opponents they faced in the 1960s and 1970s. The lessons stuck.

"My personal road to Canton is very simple: I love playing football," Thomas said. "I never wanted to cheat the fans, my organization or my teammates, or my coaches by not giving my best at all times. It wasn't a complex formula. It boiled down to desire, preparation, and effort.

"That's how I played the game ... and that's how I'm teaching it."

The Falcons are going through a delicate rebuilding process. They are trying desperately to win back the faith and trust of their fans, who have plenty of reason to abandon them the way they felt abandoned.

That was why team owner Arthur Blank hired a new general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, and Smith to lead a massive rebuilding process. That was why they used the third overall pick on Ryan.

But the Falcons also know they need the wisdom and guidance that Thomas can give.

"We're not very good right now," he admitted. "I've been in training camp for the last week and a half, and the guys are working hard. We're excited about our quarterback. The fans in Atlanta are going to have to be patient as we put some pieces around this young man.

"We'll put a product out there that's going to be competitive. Some teams that come in there and play us a little cheap are going to get a surprise, so I'm looking forward to the season."

At 65, Thomas has come to grips that the lone NFL head-coaching stint of his career was during those final three games of last season. But he is not resentful. He is thankful.

He still feels blessed and honored to be an assistant coach.

"To still be in it with young men, giving me the highs and lows on Sundays and Mondays, is very rewarding," Thomas said.

It is that sort of mentality, as a player and a coach, that helped pave his way to enshrinement.

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