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Jesse L. Thomas, Colts player

College SportsFootballBaseballMorgan State UniversityThe Pennsylvania State University

Jesse L. Thomas, a Baltimore Colts defensive back in the 1950s who then spent four decades at Morgan State University, serving for several years as its head football coach, died of dementia complications May 16 at his Columbia home. He was 83.

Born in Guthrie, Okla., and raised in Flint, Mich., he was a much-praised athlete at its Central High School, where he was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. He was Flint's 1945 Athlete of the Year and held letters in basketball, baseball, track and football. He was also the 1945 Michigan broad jump champion.

He earned a degree at Michigan State University, where he ran track and played football. In 1951, he represented the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union on a tour of Japan and competed in the decathlon. He was the 10th draft choice for the old New York Yankees football team and was also drafted by the old Dallas Texans, Baltimore Sun news articles said.

He served in the Army in Korea and also played on military teams. He tried out for an Olympic team in the broad jump and the triple jump.

In 1954, Mr. Thomas played a season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Western Interprovincial Football Union. The next year the Colts signed him.

"I used to call him 'The Lieutenant' because of his time in the military," said Colts Hall of Famer Art Donovan, a Towson resident who recalled him from the 1955, 1956 and 1957 seasons.

"Weeb Ewbank [the Colts' coach] was impressed because he could jump so high," said fellow team member Jim Mutscheller, who lives in Baltimore. "He was an excellent athlete."

Sports writers noted his ability as a fast runner. "Because of his great speed, Thomas frequently was the nearest defensive man to a receiver," a September 1958 Sun article said when he was placed on waivers. The article also commented, "Some other team in the N.F.L. wouldn't be taking too great a gamble in picking him up."

Mr. Thomas played in 1960 with the Los Angeles Chargers of the American Football League. He later became a teacher at the Hickey School and at the old Samuel Gompers Vocational School, where he taught health and physical education. He was also a junior varsity football coach at Carver Vocational-Technical School.

In 1964, he joined Morgan State University's faculty as assistant football coach, working under Earl Banks. Mr. Thomas was also a track coach and physical education teacher. He coached wrestling and handled classes in tennis, tumbling, badminton, touch football and lacrosse as an assistant professor of health and physical education.

In 1985, he was named Morgan's head football coach. A Sun article said he "faces a gigantic rebuilding task and he has an extremely young and inexperienced group of players."

He lamented the school was unable to recruit top players who would go on to Maryland, Penn State or Virginia. He said he looked for local talent.

"We do most of our recruiting from the back of a car," he told a Sun reporter in 1986. "That's why we have to get most of our players from this area and make Baltimore coaches aware we are really interested in their top players."

Mr. Thomas held the position until 1987 and then returned to teaching. He retired in 2010. He also directed National Youth Sports Program for 9- to 13-year-olds at Morgan.

"My father had principles that were stiff. He did not suffer fools," said his daughter, Marzelle Thomas Smith of Abingdon. "He hated excuses. He would say, 'Just do it.' He cared about the total student athlete. He had high expectations for those he was teaching or coaching."

In recent years, Mr. Thomas enjoyed going to M&T Bank Stadium to sign autographs. He also competed as a celebrity golfer in charity events.

He collected food from local restaurants to be distributed at homeless shelters.

He was a fan of Western films and televised sports, including baseball. He enjoyed travel and fishing.

"On Sundays he kept two televisions on simultaneously and switched back and forth and checked out golf, too," his daughter said.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at St. John Baptist Church, 9055 Tamar Drive in Columbia, where he volunteered to cut the grass for many years.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Ida Paige; and two grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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