Throwback Thursday: The greatest USC football player you’ve never heard of

USC football championships. (Getty Images)
USC football championships. (Getty Images) /

Lloyd Thomas was the hero of the first ever USC football national title team and he deserves to be recognized among the all-time Trojan greats.

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On this Throwback Thursday, it’s time to right a wrong.

The history of USC football is rich and storied. Modern day fans might not know everything about that past, but chances are they’ve at least heard the names of old-time Trojan greats like Howard Jones, Morley Drury, Mort Kaer, Erny Pinckert and Irvine “Cotton” Warburton.

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Chances are the name Lloyd Thomas, on the other hand, doesn’t ring any bells.

That needs to change.

Who he was

Lloyd Thomas was a three-year letterman on the USC football team from 1926 through 1928. He joined the Trojans soon after Jones, the legendary head coach, and played an integral part in building the foundation for national titles to come.

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He played right halfback, which at the time did the job of a fullback. Occasionally he would carry the ball or go out as a receiver, even throwing as needed, but mostly he was responsible for clearing the way for his teammates in the backfield.

He was also a defensive specialist, one who made a living by swatting balls out of the air in an era when passing was becoming increasingly involved.

On top of that, he was the captain of the Trojan basketball team.

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What he did

Thomas’ claims to fame came in the 1928 season, when he was a senior with a penchant for producing important plays in important moments.

He returned an interception for a touchdown in a 40-12 drubbing of Utah State to start the season.

In Week 2, Oregon State proved a more difficult test. Though USC would win the game 19-0, it was plenty nervy when the Trojans, up by just seven, put the ball in the hands of dangerous Beaver playmaker Howard Maple. On a kickoff, he burst through USC’s coverage team to the horror of the Coliseum crowd.

“It looked like a cinch for the fast-traveling visitor when all of the a sudden, out from nowhere, came the bulging form of Lloyd Thomas, galloping along in hot pursuit of the fleet Maple,” Braven Dyer wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1928. “Sure, Thomas got him—brought him down with a crash on the Trojans 43-yard line.”

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It wouldn’t be the last time Thomas would make a game-saving tackle for the Trojans.

First, he was called upon to fill in at quarterback against St. Mary’s. That didn’t go particularly well, prompting Jones to return “Dynamite Don” Williams to the position midway through the game, but Thomas still caught a touchdown as USC notched another victory.

The team suffered a setback with a 0-0 tie under dubious field conditions at Cal, but they bounced back with a win over Occidental ahead of a pivotal game against Pop Warner’s Stanford.

Jones had never beaten Warner, Stanford was heavily favored and USC’s title hopes were entirely wrapped up in finally getting over the hump.

Lloyd Thomas made it happen.

The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 4 Nov 1928, Sun · Page 18
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 4 Nov 1928, Sun · Page 18 /

With USC leading 7-0 and Stanford at the 40-yard line with 20 seconds remaining in the first half, Biff Hoffman lobbed a pass to Chuck Smalling who broke free from the Trojan defense with an unobstructed path to the endzone as time ticked down.

Thomas had already intercepted a pass earlier in the half, but here he delivered his crowning moment.

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Here’s how Dyer described it in the LA Times:

“And as Smalling ran on and on, this same Lloyd Thomas fought his way out from a mass of player and took off in pursuit of the Stanford quarterback. It looked almost hopeless to those in the stands but Thomas had other ideas.

“Finally, just when it appeared that Lloyd would never catch his foe, the Trojan halfback lurched forward, wrapped his powerful arms about Smalling’s legs and brought him down-down with a thud on the 10-yard line—down just as the timekeeper’s gun barked the end of the half. And that was the play that took most of the steam out of the big Red steam roller, for Stanford was never dangerous after that.”

A headline in the Times the next day left no doubt as to the importance of the play.

“Feat of Lloyd Thomas in Catching Smalling From Behind Turning Point of Battle.”

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The Trojans won the game 10-0, exorcising that particular demon. They went on smash Arizona 78-7. They survived Washington State, 27-13, including a Thomas touchdown pass. They rallied against Idaho, 28-7. They topped it all off by besting Notre Dame for the first time, 27-14, with the help of a slew of Thomas pass breakups.

USC ended the season with a record of 9-0-1 and were named national champions of college football by the Dickinson system.

Why you’ve never heard of him

Here’s the sad thing about the passing of time: Every generation has unheralded, unsung heroes who are worthy of praise, but whose memories are lost to the annals of history.

They’re the players who just missed out on official measures of glory, like an All-American nod.

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That’s what happened to Thomas, who has not been recognized as an official USC All-American even though he was voted to unofficial All-American teams in his final season.

While the likes of Morley Drury and Erny Pinckert have gone down in Trojan lore, inducted into the college football and USC Halls of Fame, Thomas has largely been forgotten.

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One writer for the LA Times explained that “Lloyd Thomas did everything that Pinckert does. Erny has color, however, where Lloyd was so quiet he made the sphinx sound like Bob Shuler on one of his big nights over the radio.”

And that’s a shame because he truly was one of the great figures of the Howard Jones era.

In fact, Jones could hardly have spoken more highly of Thomas.

“He is my idea of an All-American football player,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times upon the completion of Thomas’ career. “I am convinced that no team in the country during the past three years has had a player of more dependability than Lloyd Thomas.”

There were other votes of confidence. Thomas was awarded a “diamond medal,” the highest honor given at USC at the time for athletic and scholastic achievement. He also received the University Club plaque which was given to the “best player and best sportsman” in California. His teammates voted him the winner of the Davis-Teschke Medal as the most valuable member of the 1928 national title-winning team.

Thomas, whose quiet, unassuming demeanor was highlighted by the nickname the “Silent Knight,” didn’t put up the big stats of his teammates, so he didn’t get the glory that would ensure his name would live on his Trojan history.

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Paul Lowry writing in the LA Times in 1929 captured Thomas’ essence:

“But for Lloyd Thomas there would have been no all-American Morton Kaer, no all-American Morley Drury, no all-American Don Williams. He made stars of these players through his wonderful interference, his superb blocking, and Southern California’s crack defensive play this year was due largely to his marvelous work back of the line.

“When everything seemed lost there was always Lloyd Thomas to fall back on. He saved many a game and won many a battle for the Trojans.”

Now you know his name.

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