Thomas died on Saturday in Houston following an illness.
Earl, who was born on Oct. 4, 1948 in Greenville, was a standout athlete at Carver and Greenville High School before the 6-3, 215-pounder played tight end on three nationally-ranked teams at the University of Houston.
He was selected in the sixth round of the 1971 draft by the Chicago Bears. Thomas played wide receiver in six NFL seasons with the Bears (1971-73), St. Louis Cardinals (1974-75) and Houston Oilers (1976). He caught 106 passes in his NFL career for 1,651 yards and 14 touchdowns and also returned a kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown.
His brother Jimmy Thomas, who excelled at Carver High School and then at UT-Arlington, played as a running back for the San Francisco 49ers from 1969-73. Jimmy Thomas died in 2017 at the age of 69.
Another brother Mike Thomas was an all-American as a running back in high school for the Greenville Lions and then in college at Nevada-Las Vegas, before playing for the Washington Redskins from 1975-78 and the San Diego Chargers from 1979-80. Mike Thomas was named the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1975. He died in 2019 at the age of 66.
All three Thomas brothers are in the Greenville Athletic Hall of Honor. Earl Thomas was inducted in 2009.
Earl Thomas settled in Houston following his retirement from the NFL, becoming a businessman in the petroleum industry and also coaching youths in track and field.
“He was a really hard worker,” said his nephew Spencer Gilbert, the son of Mike Thomas. “He loved his family. We all miss him. He was overall a good guy. He did a lot with track. He was always helping kids.”
“He gave me a place to stay while I was training,” said Henry Neal, Greenville’s former national record-holder in the 100-meter dash. “He was a good guy. He did love track, sports, period.”
“Thanks for all you’ve done for the city (of Houston),” wrote Chanelle Parks on Thomas’ Facebook page. “You believed in many kids. Most kids only had you.”
Gilbert, who was recently named as the head football coach at Dallas Carter, said he’d grown closer to Earl following the death of his father.
“He always had something to make you laugh,” said Gilbert. “Once I got the Carter job he was telling me he’s got some plays for me to run.”
“Jimmy, Earl and Mike were my heroes,” wrote former Greenville football player Elbert Burley on Facebook. “Everywhere I traveled while in the military I spoke highly of the Thomas brothers. A talented group of brothers who remained humble throughout their careers.”
“I am so very proud of our classmate,” wrote Kathy Dawson Lewis on Facebook. “Earl lived a good life and inspired many who needed a strong leader.”
“RIP to our Gentle Giant from GHS class of 1967, Big Earl,” wrote Jean Magness, also on Facebook. “Thoughts and prayers are with your family and all that have loved and respected you.”In Memoriam