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Gold Jacket Spotlight: 'Lockdown' Cornerback Emmitt Thomas

Gold Jacket Spotlight: 'Lockdown' Cornerback Emmitt Thomas

11/21/2021
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Calling a member of the secondary a “lockdown defender” hadn’t fully entered general usage when Emmitt Thomas played cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs from the mid-1960s until the late 1970s.

But if any fan needed an example of what a difference-making player looked like, Emmitt provided it.

This week, Emmitt’s brilliant career, which included election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2008, takes center stage in the Gold Jacket Spotlight.

Over 13 seasons, Emmitt missed only three regular-season games, playing a total of 181 – nearly all of them as the Chiefs’ right cornerback, where he neutralized many of the game’s best receivers.

He finished his career with 58 interceptions – a number that still ranks 12th in National Football League history, fourth for pure cornerbacks, and places him one theft ahead of teammate Johnny Robinson for the Chiefs’ franchise record. Emmitt led his league in interceptions twice: with nine in the American Football League in 1969 and with 14 in the NFL in 1974, an All-Pro and Pro Bowl season in which he also led all players with 214 yards and two touchdowns on interception returns.

As a rookie in 1966, Emmitt contributed in the secondary and on special teams as the Chiefs posted an 11-2-1 record and reached Super Bowl I. It was the only season in which he did not record an interception.

Entering his second season, Emmitt became a part-time starter and picked off four passes. From 1967 to 1978, he did not miss a game in averaging five interceptions per season.

Some of Emmitt’s finest moments came in the postseason, most notably the 1969 season in which the Chiefs finished as world champions. He intercepted two passes and helped hold Oakland to 233 total yards in a 16-7 victory over the Raiders in the AFL title game, then added an interception in the 23-7 upset of the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Not bad for a player who had attended tiny (and now defunct) Bishop College – an historically Black college in Marshall, Texas – to play baseball. Spotted by a coach who saw his athletic talents, Emmitt joined the football team as a walk-on.

Continuing to defy the odds, he made a pro roster despite not being selected in either the AFL or NFL drafts. He signed a free agent contract with the Chiefs, who had spotted him while scouting an opposing player who had been on their radar.

Emmitt retired as a player at age 35. He told an interviewer many years later, “I didn’t really lose speed, but I lost quickness and redirection. When I could not make the tight ‘speed turns,’ I knew then it was over.”

But only over as a player.

Emmitt immediately entered coaching, spending two years at Central Missouri before returning to the NFL as a receivers coach with the St. Louis Cardinals. Stints in Washington, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Minnesota and Atlanta followed before he returned to Kansas City for nine seasons as coach of the team’s defensive backs before retiring after the 2018 season.

He developed a few “shutdown” corners in 38 years of professional coaching but said it’s tougher and tougher on the defensive players nowadays.

“I have a lot of empathy for today’s defensive backs,” he said in a recent call with the Hall of Fame. “The rules geared for wide receivers to be successful and for the defensive backs not to be successful.

“The defensive back is in jeopardy back there. You need a pass rush to be successful or have no chance.”

With Emmitt locking down his side of the field, the Chiefs of the 1960s and 1970s always had a chance.

 

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