By Shamus McKnight
Why would a student-athlete take on the rigors of tackling two sports at the Division-I level?
For Wilson Thomas, it is all about the challenge. The senior from Omaha relishes the chance to test himself not only on the gridiron, but also on the hardcourt during the winter.
For the last two years, the 6-foot-6, 215-pounder has effortlessly made the transformation from split end to small forward and back again, lending his talents to two of the Huskers? most prominent athletic programs.
During the fall, he is one of the Big 12?s top wide receivers, setting a position record with 616 yards while catching 37 passes as a junior en route to helping the Huskers to an 11-2 mark and a Rose Bowl appearance. His receiving yards were the most by a Husker receiver since former All-American Irving Fryar had 780 receiving yards in 1982. In fact, only Fryar and 1972 Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers totaled more receiving yards in a single season from the wide receiver position.
Within days of the Rose Bowl, Thomas was beginning his second season for the Husker men?s basketball team, traveling to Allen Fieldhouse, as NU took on the top-ranked Jayhawks in his 2001-02 debut. Thomas, who is also one of the team?s best interior defenders, averaged 4.6 points and 3.8 records per game in 16 contests last winter.
"The best thing about competing in two sports is the competition level," Thomas said. "If I were playing just football, there are almost seven or eight months between games after the season. I have always enjoyed competing, and playing both sports gives me that opportunity."
During his multi-sport career, Thomas has shined in some of NU?s biggest games.
An honorable-mention All-Big 12 selection in his first season as a starter on the football team, he hauled in a career-best six passes in a 20-10 win over No. 2 Oklahoma that snapped the Sooners? 20-game winning streak. Thomas recorded his first career 100-yard receiving day at Colorado, catching three passes for 109 yards. Thomas led NU with three catches for 36 yards in the Rose Bowl loss to Miami.
During the basketball season, Thomas also showed the habit of rising to the occasion. His best performance of the year came against Missouri, a team which eventually reached the NCAA Elite Eight, when he recorded his first double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. He also played a major role in NU?s upset win over Texas Tech, coming off the bench for six key second-half points and three rebounds in an 80-69 win. The effort earned him praise from Texas Tech?s Hall of Fame Coach Bob Knight following the win.
"He told me that I could come play for him at any time, because he liked the way I got control of my team in the final minutes and led my team through clutch times," Thomas said in the aftermath of the win.
Receivers Coach Ron Brown believes that playing both sports has helped Thomas to become a more effective receiver.
"Playing basketball has been a positive experience for Wilson," Brown said. "Not only has it helped him physically with his hand-eye coordination and his quickness, but also with the intangibles. While he is a starter on the football team, he is the sixth or seventh man in basketball, and it has helped him to become a leader and learn how people fit into particular roles within a team."
While Thomas relishes the challenge of balancing two sports, it was not always that way. Until his junior year at Omaha North High School, Thomas was exclusively a basketball player, a sport where he eventually earned first-team All-Nebraska honors, when coach Herman Colvin talked Thomas into giving football a shot.
"I played sports year-round when I was younger, but when I got to high school, I tried to focus on basketball," Thomas recalled. "It was basically him telling me that I couldn?t do it, and I wanted to prove him wrong."
Thomas proved to be a quick study, making 90 tackles and recording 14 sacks on defense while averaging 15 yards per catch on offense, earning first-team all-state honors from both papers. Blessed with exceptional athletic ability, Thomas became only the second high school athlete to eclipse the 2,000-point barrier on NU?s Performance Index, consisting of marks in the 10-yard dash, 40-yard dash, vertical jump and agility run, joining current Green Bay Packer All-Pro Ahman Green.
The learning curve has continued during Thomas? Husker career. With his large frame, some things came easily, while other tasks, like blocking, were more of a challenge.
"It?s usually tougher for tall receivers because of their height," Thomas said. "Usually, your best blockers are players who had been converted from running back because they are smaller and built for hitting."
The Husker football program has had a long history of exceptional dual-sport athletes dating back to the early 1900s. In addition to their football exploits, these former standouts have ranged in sports such as track, wrestling, baseball and in Wilson Thomas? case, basketball. The following is a brief look at some other famous Husker multi-sport performers.
Brown notes that Thomas is one of the team?s best blocking receivers.
"Wilson has worked hard on that phase of the game," Brown said. "When he gets his hands on you, he has exceptional strength and leverage.
"We have brought him in on crack blocks and he has been able to whack people around, and has done a very good job at that."
Thomas? blocking abilities allowed him to earn ample playing time early in his career. Although he had appeared in 20 games, including four starts, in his first two seasons, his resume consisted of one catch - an eight-yard grab against Kansas as a sophomore.
Entering last season, few outsiders believed that Thomas would become a go-to receiver for the Huskers. It would take all of one play to change the minds those doubting Thomases who questioned his big-play potential.
NU?s first pass of the 2001 season against TCU would be a preview of things to come. On that play, Eric Crouch found Thomas for a 37-yard gain. Although the play was nullified because of a penalty, Thomas? catch proved that he was primed for a big season. Thomas caught three passes for 53 yards in the 21-7 victory over the Horned Frogs, setting the stage for one of the best receiving seasons in school history.
While fans may not have expected as much production from Thomas, his coaches knew his value all along.
"A lot of people think Wilson has only been a productive player for the last two years, but last year was the first chance he had to become a go-to guy from our perspective," Brown said. "In his first two years, he really blocked well and had a chance to play and become a major part of our offense."
This season, Thomas has been the primary focus of defenses that have tried to shut down the Huskers? passing attack. Despite being defended harder than ever, Thomas still leads NU with 15 catches for 132 yards and has scored a pair of touchdowns. His first score came on a nine-yard reception against Arizona State in the season opener, while his second touchdown of the year was a 23-yarder against Utah State in NU?s 250th consecutive sellout.
Although Thomas began his Husker career slowly, he is finishing with a flourish, putting up numbers comparable to some of the finest receivers in school history.
With 53 career catches entering this week?s game against McNeese State, he became only the 21st player in school history to catch 50 passes in a career after recording a season-best five catches at Iowa State. He will likely finish his career among the top 10 receivers in school history, and if he duplicates the success of his junior campaign, his total catches would crack the top five.
While Thomas downplays such records and accomplishments, his position coach knows that the senior not only has the natural ability, but the drive to become a successful player at the collegiate level and in the NFL.
"Wilson does a lot of things well." Brown said. "He has worked on his hands and has made some great catches over the past two seasons. We use him as either a wingback or at split end because he is so versatile."
Brown knows that as hard as Thomas has worked, there is always room for more improvement.
"I?m challenging him to be exceptional at some things, so there are a few things that I like to push him on hard," Brown said. "He may wonder why I am doing that all the time, but it is because I want to see him succeed and become a big-time receiver."