Kevin Thomas was excited to take part in pregame ceremonies as UNLV’s player alumni representative for the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1.
It was the Rebels’ first bowl appearance since 2000, when a team that included Thomas defeated Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl, so he knew what the game meant to the football program.
But Thomas also knew what should be about an hour drive from his home in McKinney, Texas, to Cotton Bowl Stadium for the New Year’s Day game could be anything but routine. So Thomas left 2½ hours before kickoff, relying on GPS to help him find the way.
Thomas still barely made it in time for the opening coin toss.
These are not easy days for the greatest cornerback in UNLV history. He faces depression and memory loss, sometimes finding it difficult to get out of bed. And on days that he’s able to get moving and get behind the wheel, Thomas sometimes forgets his way on even the most familiar routes.
He blames his four seasons with the Buffalo Bills, saying he lost probably three jobs in his post-NFL life, doesn’t want his 10-year-old son to play the sport, and is fighting to get the help that has been lacking.
“There’s no reason why I should be sleeping in the bed and I wake up and my legs are numb, or I have headaches for two or three days straight,” Thomas said. “Something’s wrong.”
Depression and memory loss began about the time Thomas, who turns 36 on July 28, was inducted into the UNLV Athletics Hall of Fame in October 2012.
Then his life began to spiral, and Thomas relies on the calendar on his smartphone to remind him of even the simplest occasions, such as birthdays.
Concussions weren’t in the forefront of the public or player conscience when Thomas played for the Bills from 2002 to 2004. He was on the roster in 2005, but didn’t play because of a right knee injury that needed two surgeries and eventually affected his left knee and now requires him to walk with a cane.
He can remember being throttled on several shots in his NFL career, including being run into by bruising running backs Jerome Bettis and Corey Dillon.
The code, especially at the time, was find a way to stay in the game.
Thomas said the Bills would bring in nonroster players every Thursday to try out for the team, increasing the pressure to get on the field as much as possible.
“When I came off the field, I’m not going to tell anybody that I’m not going to play,” he said. “I’m coming in as a nickelback, and I’m trying to get as much playing time as possible. There have been plenty of times out there on that field where I’m seeing stars and I’m not knowing where I’m at.”
The first hint that something was wrong above the neck came shortly after Thomas’ career ended. He went to see his personal doctor, who traced Thomas’ headaches and numbness to his playing days with the Bills.
Given a four-year post-career window by the NFL to apply for disability benefits, Thomas was instructed to see a league doctor in 2008, who asked questions about the knee but, Thomas said, didn’t do a thorough exam. The NFL denied his disability claim.
Thomas appealed the decision and was seen by another doctor in 2011 but was turned down again. He said he again wasn’t thoroughly examined.
He later joined the concussion lawsuit filed by more than 4,500 former players, and was disappointed when a settlement was reached for $765 million in August. Federal judge Anita Brody, however, rejected the settlement in January because she wanted to see a more detailed plan of how the money will cover the plaintiffs.
What happens next in that case is a matter of speculation, and Thomas is hopeful the players will receive the money to be properly treated.
“You can talk about the money and all that, I want to know what’s going on with my body,” Thomas said. “I want to know what’s breaking down, why is this happening, what do I need to do — physical treatment, therapy — to better my everyday living.”
In the meantime, he is looking forward to meeting with another doctor Aug. 18 at Tulane University, an examination that is part of a new program to evaluate and assist players and was established by the NFL Players Association. Thomas hopes to receive enough documentation from the visit to convince the NFL he qualifies for disability assistance.
The Thomas of today is a far cry from the one who dazzled while playing for coach John Robinson.
He was the 2001 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, making a still school-record seven interceptions and leading the league with 17 passes defended. Thomas also returned three interceptions for touchdowns, a UNLV record.
His most famous moment occurred Sept. 11, 1999, when Thomas returned a fumble 100 yards with no time left to shock Baylor 27-24 just as the Bears were trying to run up the score.
He still is the Rebels’ record holder with 55 career pass breakups and 24 single-season breakups in 1999. His four career interceptions returned for touchdowns and six total defensive TDs also are a school record.
Thomas was selected in the sixth round of the 2002 draft by the Bills and wound up making an impact as a nickelback.
Now he has a bitter taste when thinking about the NFL, and watching games on TV is difficult.
He works part time as a special-education teacher at a middle school, saying landing a full-time position is difficult because “nobody wants to hire anybody that can’t be here all the time.”
Thomas’ wife, Schameka, a Bank of America claims manager, is the main bread winner.
“If it wasn’t for my wife, I don’t know where I would be,” he said. “She’s pretty much my caretaker right now. Over the years, it gets worse and worse.”
So Thomas waits and manages and hopes for better days.
This isn’t the kind of life he envisioned when he was making all those plays at UNLV and later playing in the NFL.
“There are some days I can’t get out of bed because I’m so depressed, so mad,” Thomas said. “I’ve got to go, but my body isn’t going anywhere.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.