Thomas died Saturday at the home in Groveton, a small East Texas town where he grew up, that he bought for his mother after signing his first professional contract, Groveton Funeral Home owner Terry Cartwright said Sunday. The cause of death wasn’t known and an autopsy was underway, he said.
The Oilers selected the Texas A&M running back in the third round of the 1995 draft, and he ran for 947 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season. The team finished the season 7-9, though, and drafted Heisman Trophy-winning running back Eddie George in the first round the following spring, making Thomas a backup.
Thomas remained with the team as a backup after it moved to Tennessee and became the Titans, but eclipsed 200 rushing yards in a season only once more, when he ran for 310 yards during the Titans’ 1997 campaign.
He played in Super Bowl XXIV, when the Titans lost to the Rams, and played his seventh and final season with the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. He finished his career with 1,973 rushing yards, 631 receiving yards and 15 total touchdowns.
Cartwright said Thomas had been living in Spring, near Houston, with his wife and 4-year-old child, and that he often visited Groveton on business and to see his mother and other relatives who live in town. He said Thomas was well-liked in the community because he was “down to earth and humble.”
Thomas led the high school football team to two back-to-back state championships, in 1989 and 1990. He led the Aggies in rushing for four straight seasons, and in 1994, his teammates gave him the Aggie Heart Award, an award for a Texas A&M senior football player who demonstrates effort, determination, leadership and courage.
“What a great young guy he was,” former Texas A&M football coach R.C. Slocum told The Associated Press. “He made the greatest impact on his teammates of all the guys I’ve ever coached.”