KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Long after he left school, Emmitt Thomas remained a student.
Quick and agile, the undrafted cornerback from tiny Bishop College became a five-time Pro Bowler. His 12 interceptions in 1974 were two shy of the NFL record. His 58 interceptions in a 13-year career are fourth most among cornerbacks and stand as the record for the Kansas City Chiefs.
But teammates also admired a quietly studious approach to an inherently violent craft, the way he used his mind to complement his speed.
Thomas would analyze every aspect of football. He wanted to know where everyone else was going to be and what they were going to do and when they were going to do it.
"He was a scholar of football," said Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell, who teamed with Thomas to form one of the NFL’s great defenses of the ‘60s. "Emmitt was so smart. He always knew what was going on. Nobody who played with him was a bit surprised that he became a successful coach."
They’re also not surprised that he’s finally headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nominated by the veterans committee, Thomas will be taking a few days off from his duties as assistant head coach and secondary coach of the Atlanta Falcons to be enshrined Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
"It’s overwhelming," the 65-year-old Thomas said. "My last playing days were 1978, so I figured it was all over. I didn’t think anyone else from the Chiefs in my era would possibly make it. After so long, I just kind of gave up. But my son and my wife kept saying, ‘It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen."’
In 181 games, all with the Chiefs, Thomas led the NFL twice in interceptions. One of his three picks in the playoffs in the 1969 season stopped a drive in KC’s 23-7 upset of Minnesota in the Super Bowl.
"Emmitt seemed always to know where to be," former Chiefs linebacker Jim Lynch said. "You could always go to him with a question and he would give you a straight, direct answer. This may sound like a cliche, but he really was like having a coach on the field."
During the rigorous practices Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram liked to conduct, Len Dawson would use Thomas as the gold standard for cornerbacks.
"I would throw a pass in Emmitt’s direction and then go over to him and ask him if he could have caught it or not in game conditions," the Hall of Fame quarterback said. "He would give me an honest answer, and that was a huge help.
"I would throw a pass and the receiver would catch it and I’d go to him and say, ‘Emmitt, could you have been there?’ If he said, ‘Yeah, Len, I think I could have been there,’ that told me my timing had to be a little sharper. We’d keep practicing and finally Emmitt would say, ‘Yeah, that was good.’ I figured if I could beat Emmitt, then I had a darn good shot at beating anybody."
When Thomas came into his first camp as a bashful, undrafted free agent in 1966, the Chiefs were loaded with talent. Tom Bettis, their defensive coordinator, pulled him aside.
"He said, ‘Emmitt, you’re going to have to learn everything,"’ Thomas recalled. "So I learned the safety position and both corners. Then I learned about the linebacker play, which was very instrumental in me knowing where to leverage the play because I would know where the linebackers were going to be. Yes, it really helped me."
Shortly after retiring as a player, Thomas began a coaching career that’s included stops with the St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings along with the Falcons.
Now he goes into the hall with Stram and five other players from KC’s Super Bowl team — Bell, Dawson, Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan and Jan Stenerud.
"To be signed as a free agent and walk on and make the team, and to get in there with a group of great athletes in a nice community in Kansas City — and look where I am now," he said. "It’s fantastic."