Bob Ford: Tra Thomas found a home and father figure with Eagles

Posted: August 17, 2012

Tra Thomas has some pain in his back these days where he had surgery once, and his knees bark at him occasionally, but for a man who played a dozen seasons of offensive tackle in the NFL, Thomas got away almost clean.

He came out of the game physically whole, but he didn't get away clean from the part of him that will always remain with the Eagles. Thomas came home Thursday to officially retire as a member of the team once again.

"All I ever wanted to be was a Philadelphia Eagle," Thomas said.

He got his wish for 11 seasons before the team set him free to sign as a free agent for one season in Jacksonville. He bounced to San Diego the following year, but a knee surgery during training camp ended things for good. This will be the third season Thomas hasn't played football, and he knew how and where he wanted to permanently end things.

"The happiest day of my career was when I was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. The saddest day was when I had to leave," Thomas said. "Being able to retire as an Eagle erases all that."

Thomas was drafted in the first round in 1998 and was the starter at left tackle for all 11 seasons here. Among all-time franchise offensive linemen, his 166 games played is second only to the 169 played by Chuck Bednarik. Thomas missed just eight games because of injury while with the Eagles and was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. Mostly what he did was keep Donovan McNabb from being pummeled by a blindside rusher. Nobody was better.

Thomas was here so long, he changed his name twice. He decided to switch from his given name, William, to his nickname, Tra, during his rookie year in deference to a Pro Bowl linebacker on the Eagles also named William Thomas. He remained Tra (pronounced "trey," since his given name was William Thomas III) until the 2006 season, when he requested that he be called "William" again. Two years later, he went back to "Tra" because that's what everyone kept calling him anyway.

Whatever he was called, he was the rock of the offensive line, eventually bookended by Jon Runyan at right tackle. During his long tenure at left tackle, Thomas lined up next to nine different starting left guards, an indication of the stability he brought to a line that had been anything but stable for a long while.

When Thomas was taken with the 11th pick of the 1998 draft and installed at the left-tackle position by Ray Rhodes, he became the seventh starter at that position in a span of 10 years. He also was the fifth tackle taken in the first round of the draft by the Eagles since 1991, a list of missteps that included spectacular busts in Antone Davis and Bernard Williams. With Thomas' arrival, Jermane Mayberry, another first-round pick at tackle, was shifted over to guard, and for the next 11 seasons, the Eagles didn't have much to worry about at left tackle.

"I have to thank Coach Reid for always being like a second father to me," said Thomas, who had to stop after that and regain his composure. "He set such a great example of what it takes to be a father, to be a husband, to be a professional in this game.

"And I have to thank the greatest position coach I ever had, Juan Castillo. As soon as I got off the plane in Philadelphia, it was six or seven o'clock in the evening, Juan met me and took me straight from the plane, and we went on the field at the Vet and started doing pass sets and vertical sets. And I knew this is the city I needed to play for. This is the coach I needed to have."

Reid didn't come along until Thomas' second season, tightening up a ship that, according to Thomas, charted a pretty loose course in the last season under Rhodes. All of a sudden there was discipline and accountability, and Thomas was made for that kind of system.

"Me and McNabb used to joke all the time about our meetings with Coach Reid, and he would always give us a speech about Reggie White and Brett Favre," Thomas said. "We'd say, 'Here we go. Coach Reid is going to talk to us again about Reggie White and Brett Favre.' It wasn't until I was thinking about retiring that it all came together about what [he] was trying to do and what [he] was teaching us . . . how to be a professional . . . how to put in the work to make yourself a legacy, a legend."

Players come and eventually they go, even those who last a long time. Those who have played here for Reid almost always say they emerged as better men. The football part is the business end of things. The rest is what they remember, though. Not the lessons about how to play, but about how to live.

"That's what you were really trying to put into us, and I appreciate it," Thomas said to Reid.

It has been a difficult time for the father figure, and that hasn't been lost on all the surrogate sons who have circled back to find him. Tra Thomas left the stage on Thursday, an Eagle again even if just for a day, and hugged the coach. Both guys seemed to need it.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns

 

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