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"We loved him," says Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird, the beneficiary of Thomas's Tiger football scholarship. "He was fun to be around—always smiling, always bright-eyed. I never saw what I thought was a football player's mentality with Frank. He was very focused, but never in a head-banging way."
But as a nine-year-old tight end, Thomas was laying out 12-year-old linebackers like bathroom tile. Chester Murray, his Pop Warner coach, returned with nine-year-old Frank from one bludgeoning of 12-year-olds in Savannah and said to Frank Sr., "This kid will be a professional athlete. I don't know in what sport. But he will be a professional athlete."
The words warmed the heart of the boy's father and occupied an anteroom in his mind. In the 1950s, Frank Sr. had little opportunity to be discovered by college recruiters or professional scouts as a centerfielder and shortstop on the sandlots of Columbus. He could hope, however, that things would be different for the youngest of the five children born to him and Charlie Mae Thomas. "I'm not bragging," says Frank Sr., 49, relaxing in the den decorated with a Frankophile's souvenirs. "But Frank did so well in all sports. And he loved them all. I never crammed them down his throat. I never had to worry about him. It didn't matter what time of day or night it was, I knew Frank was at the Boys Club or the playground, somewhere with a ball in his hands."
As a senior at Columbus High, Frank was a 6'4" forward who could smoke the jump shot from the corner and evoke images of Auburn's Charles Barkley on the break. He hit .440 for the baseball team and 1.000 for the football team, converting all 15 of his extra-point attempts as a placekicking tight end. Word was out among baseball scouts that Auburn football coach Pat Dye had visited the Thomases in that den on Dunhill Drive. But it was only the lack of interest from the scouts that led Thomas to accept a football scholarship to Auburn.
"If I were a [baseball] scouting director, I'd have fired some scouts," says Baird. "I truly believe Frank would have signed out of high school if he'd been drafted. A lot of scouts now say, 'Well, we knew he was going to play football at Auburn.' That's bull. If they had asked him, he probably would have signed for a pittance."
Dye gave Thomas playing time as a freshman for a team on which P.T. was a precious thing. The 1986 Tigers finished sixth in the final Associated Press poll after beating Southern Cal in the Citrus Bowl. Thomas caught three passes for 45 yards that season and might have followed teammates Lawyer Tillman, Brent Fullwood and Aundray Bruce to the NFL had Dye not exempted him from spring practice to play baseball, as Dye had also done for 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson.
"Frank was really a baseball player who played football," says Baird, who had watched Thomas loop balls over light towers when Thomas was in high school. "He was a baseball fan. He followed the game and knew all the league leaders. When Bo was here, I don't think he knew who George Brett was."
As a freshman first baseman at Auburn, Thomas hit .359, led the Tigers in RBIs and set a school record for home runs with 21, almost all of them prodigious. "He hit a huge one at Georgia," recalls Baird. "He hit one over the scoreboard in centerfield at Georgia Tech Stadium," says Frank Sr. "That was a driiive." Frank Thomas, it appeared, would never look back.
He should have, however. On the first day of full-contact football drills in his sophomore year, a ball carrier for whom he was blocking ran into his right leg from behind, straining ligaments in the knee. Thomas abandoned football, but baseball followed him, slobbering on the heels of his hightops even as he was cut from the '88 Olympic team.
"It was a constant battle to prove myself in baseball," he says. "My junior year , I had to prove to the Olympic team that I could play. That was my best year. I hit .403 and my stock really rose."