Thomas Tries Hand at Football : UCLA Sprinter Switches Gears, Wants to Become Receiver

Times Staff Writer

Henry Thomas, who helped lead UCLA to two straight National Collegiate Athletic Assn. track and field championships, disagreed with the way he was used by his track coaches, but said Wednesday that is not why he is trying football.

Thomas, a 6-foot 2-inch, 180-pound senior, joined the football team this month and has been playing on the scout team as a wide receiver for the last 2 weeks.

"Ever since I've been at UCLA, I've been doing what coaches wanted me to do without too much complaint," said Thomas, who came to UCLA from Hawthorne High School, where he was one of the most acclaimed sprinters in state history. "I'm getting older now and making my own decisions, and this is something Henry wants to do."

Thomas, who is not expected to play for the Bruins this season, plans to redshirt next track season so he can participate in spring football practice.

He would be eligible to play football for a single season.

Thomas said he plans to play that season with an eye toward a possible career in professional football.

"Obviously, that's a thought," he said. "I want to open as many doors as I can. And that's one of the doors I would like to open. If there's a chance I could get drafted, why not try and pursue that? That's not my No. 1 priority, but it is a thought, and it's a door I'd like to open if I decide to go in that direction."

Thomas, who finished third in the 200 meters and anchored UCLA's collegiate record-setting 1,600-meter relay team last June in the NCAA meet, isn't turning his back on track. In fact, he'll run for a track club next spring and plans to run for UCLA again in 1990.

He just wants to see if he has the ability to play football.

"It's something I wanted to do so I could look back later in my life and say, 'I'm glad I did that,' " Thomas said. "When I look back over my high school career, I say I wish I would have played football. I don't want to say that when I leave UCLA."

Can he play?

"He obviously has a lot of speed," UCLA football Coach Terry Donahue said. "It would be hard for me to evaluate him, just because he hasn't been around. He hasn't played in so many years that he's just a novice. But I'm optimistic and hopeful that he'll be able to display some skill and get used to being a football player."

This season?

"He really isn't ready to play at this time," Donahue said.

Thomas, 21, said he hasn't played football since he was a running back on the freshman team at Hawthorne in 1981. He was out for the team as a sophomore, he said, when the Hawthorne track coaches convinced him that his future was in track.

At the end of his sophomore year, he won the 200 meters and finished second in the 100 at the State meet.

He won both events in the State meet as a junior and, as a senior, established all-time State bests in the 100, 200 and 400.

UCLA won a recruiting war for Thomas, who has twice finished third in the 200 at the NCAA meet.

Last season, the 1,600-meter relay team that he anchored set a record of 2 minutes 59.91 seconds at the NCAA meet.

Thomas, though, was bothered throughout the season by allergies, which affected him enough to cut into his training time.

And his coaches, he said, rushed him back into competition too quickly, hindering his chances of making the U.S. Olympic team. Thomas, who said he had been told he could redshirt last season, finished seventh in the 200 last summer at the U.S. Olympic trials.

"After we won the NCAA championship in 1987, they got on the kick of winning back-to-back NCAA championships," Thomas said of his coaches. "And me being a quiet person, trying not to cause any problems, I said, 'Well, OK, I'm going to run.'

"If they had been thinking about what Henry wanted to do, they wouldn't have used me in the Pac-10 and NCAA meets. They didn't need me in those meets."

Thomas said the collegiate meets drained him because he had missed so much training.

"I didn't have a good base, a good foundation to carry on from there to the Olympic trials," he said.

Was he mishandled?

"No," he said. "The coaches have been good to me. But what I'm saying is, coaches have high expectations of you and sometimes they fail to realize what the student-athlete really wants to do, what he really wants to accomplish.

"Of course, they want to win. Their main thing is winning. But I don't think they should do that at the expense of the athlete. I'm not saying I was mishandled, but I was . . . "

Misused? "I don't want to say those words, but people can look and see," Thomas said. "It's been nice at UCLA. I don't want to say anything negative, but I want to be honest and open and let people know the truth.

"I don't want to say I was misused, but I wanted to concentrate at UCLA on an individual event. But it seems like I'm a jack of all trades and a master of none."

Bob Larsen, UCLA's track coach, was surprised by Thomas' comments and said that he and sprint coach John Smith told their athletes that it would be beneficial for them to go through a modified collegiate schedule in 1988 to prepare for the Olympics, and that they agreed.

"He's really cautious on how the guys are used," Larsen said of Smith, a former Olympian. "He doesn't let them race too much."

Thomas, who has run the 100, 200, 400 and both relays at UCLA, will now try to master football.

"He's just got to refine and rebuild his talents," Donahue said. "It's going to take training and spring practice and off-season work."

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