Date: September 12, 1970
Location: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Florida
Opponent: Louisville Cardinals
Some players change games. Some change seasons. But very few players truly change programs in a lasting and indelible fashion. James “J.T.” Thomas did precisely that at Florida State University.
The 1960s were a time of great civil unrest. Much of this unrest was centered on the stark inequities existing between whites and minorities— particularly blacks. Sports represented a microcosm of these inequities, particularly in the Deep South.
Despite being three decades after Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and two decades after Jackie Robinson first suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, most major universities in the south still featured all white football and basketball teams. But the times, they were a changin’.
In 1966, Lenny Hall became the first African-American to play varsity basketball at FSU. He scored four points in four minutes before a knee injury ended his career.
Two years later, Calvin Patterson became the first black football player on the FSU team. However, Patterson never played in a varsity game (here’s a good read on Calvin Patterson, who tragically died at the age of 22, never seeing the impact of his courage).
J.T. Thomas arrived in Tallahassee in 1969 along with four other African-American football players. In those days, freshmen couldn’t play on Saturdays with the varsity team. So Thomas spent the 1969 season as an unknown to the fan base, suiting up with the “Green Turds” on the practice squad and trying to find his way at a university that was 99% white. His time as an unknown would not extend into the 1970s.
Thomas, a Macon, Georgia native, moved into a starting cornerback role for the 1970 season. On September 12, Thomas became the first black player wearing a Seminole uniform to step on the field during a varsity game. A day before the game, FSU assistant coach Bill Parcells challenged Thomas in front of the team. As he would do throughout his career, Thomas rose to the challenge. (Read more about that story and much more on the integration of FSU’s football team in this article from Jim Henry).
To call this game a defensive struggle would be an understatement. Bill Peterson’s teams were known for their high flying, innovative offense, but Louisville head coach Lee Corso had the Cardinals ready for battle. In fact, FSU’s only touchdown came on a 71-yard punt return in the third quarter.
With FSU clinging to a 9-7 lead with less than 30 seconds to play, Louisville lined up for a 33 yard field goal. Flying off the corner, Thomas blocked the attempt. But there was one problem. There’s a reason he reached the kicker so fast, and it wasn’t just his sub-10 second 100 yard speed. Thomas had jumped offside.
The penalty moved the Cardinals five yards closer, setting them up for a 28 yard chip-shot game winner. Or so they thought.
(Play starts at 10:35 on this video, but I’m linking it from a couple minutes earlier to include a nice interview with Thomas about breaking the color barrier.)
Screaming off the edge, Thomas blocked the kick again. This was his second official blocked field goal of the game, as he’d rejected a 47-yarder in the second quarter.
FSU would finish the 1970 season 7-4, including a 27-3 win at Miami. J.T. Thomas went on to be an All-American, a first-round draft pick, an NFL Pro Bowler, and a winner of four Super Bowls while playing for the iconic “Steel Curtain” defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1979, Thomas was inducted into the Florida State Hall of Fame. However, none of these accolades will ever come close to encapsulating the lasting impact that J.T. Thomas had in Tallahassee.
In all walks of life, titans of today stand on the shoulders of giants who came before. Athletics are certainly no different. Rashad Greene followed a path illuminated by Peter Warrick. Dalvin Cook followed in the footsteps of Warrick Dunn. Jalen Ramsey continued the long and proud tradition of DBU, featuring names like Xavier Rhodes, Bryant McFadden, Tay Cody, Clifton Abraham, Corey Sawyer, Terrell Buckley, LeRoy Butler, Deion Sanders, and Bobby Butler (and yes, J.T. Thomas too).
But all of those players, all of those black Seminole legends, have one thing in common. They all walked through a door of opportunity that was first kicked down by J.T. Thomas.