When people meet Henry Thomas for the first time, he says they usually tell him he looks like a football player. That calculation isn’t too surprising considering his 6-foot-2, 280-pound frame. But little do these new acquaintances know that they are selling Thomas short. He wasn’t merely a football player. He was a great one.
Thomas wreaked havoc for 14 seasons in the NFL as one of the top nose tackles in the game. Unlike most at his position, Thomas did more than consume space and blockers to allow teammates to make plays. He made plays himself, with 93 sacks and 900-plus career tackles to his name. Whether neutralizing the opponent’s ground attack or swarming the quarterback, Thomas used savvy and quick reflexes to be a catalyst for top-ranked, suffocating defensive units in Minnesota.
Now 10 years removed from his final NFL stop in New England, the reflexes have slowed a bit, but the gregarious Thomas still relies on his savvy to keep tabs on the four daughters he shares with his wife LaCina in his beloved hometown of Houston. “Hardware Hank” spends his days as a full-time, dedicated dad.
“It took me a while to get over the shock of the first one,” Thomas says with a laugh.
“The first one,” Natasha, is now 23. Thomas also has Sydney (14), Monica (12) and Peyton (11). “I do all the dad stuff. I’m the taxi cab and half coach, half consultant. The girls have so much going on. I love it.”
Family life has helped Thomas, 46, leave behind the aggressive nature of football that he once craved.
“The violence and collisions were the only things I couldn’t replace after I retired,” he says. “Football was the only job in the world where you could get upset with a guy, knock the crap out of him and your boss would say, ‘Good job.’
“Throwing myself into helping make my girls all they can be and making sure their childhood is great and being the best dad I can be for them took all that aggression from me. I want them to have the best, so when I threw myself into parenting it was easier not to struggle with the violent part of football.”
Life is also comfortable because Thomas planned for the future financially, unlike many of his contemporaries. A Sports Illustrated study found that 78 percent of former NFL players are broke or financially stressed after retirement. Thomas credits his agent, Jeff Durand, with helping him to avoid being part of that sobering statistic.
“In everything we did, we tried to prepare for later on, especially for the kids,” Thomas says. “Jeff and I had a great rapport. When it came to the financial part of it, he gave me things to look over. I was actually one of the guys who looked it over. I got to the point where I understood there was a future. There was more than just football.”
But Thomas has not divorced himself totally from the sport. A few years ago, Thomas served a coaching internship with the Indianapolis Colts, who at the time were led by his former defensive coordinator in Minnesota, Tony Dungy. Thomas enjoyed the experience; however, family commitments prevented him from seeking a permanent coaching post at that time. He says he might consider becoming a positional coach in the NFL in the future. For now, Thomas is content to be an acute observer of the league, especially his former team in Minnesota, which struggled pressuring the passer in 2010 after leading the league in sacks a year earlier.
“In my opinion, the Vikings have an outstanding (defensive line) coach in Karl Dunbar,” says Thomas, who played with Dunbar at Louisiana State University. “He does a phenomenal job of teaching guys how to play, but this year they kind of got away from working as a unit. Last year, they fed off each other’s energy. This past year, I didn’t see that until later in the season.”
Thomas is a “huge follower” of defensive line play throughout the league and enjoys being a few steps ahead of his friends when they are watching games together.
“I’ll tell them a team is going to run a draw,” Thomas recounts, “and my friends will say, ‘Shut up. You think you know everything.’ Then the team runs the draw and my friends ask, ‘How did you know?’ Well, every time the team has been in a third-and-three in that formation, they have run a draw. If the tight end goes in motion then it’s a screen pass.
“I’ll ask my friends, ‘How do you think I played for so long?’ Those were the kinds of things I looked for to give me an edge. I was never the biggest, strongest or fastest.”
Like most kids, Thomas dreamed about playing pro ball. Realistically, though, he believed he was more likely to take over his dad’s restaurant in Houston than appear in 213 games as a member of the Vikings (1987-94), Lions (1995-96) and Patriots (1997-2000). As a star defensive tackle and tight end in high school, Thomas earned a scholarship to LSU. By his senior year, he blossomed into an All-SEC selection as a defensive tackle. But even then, the NFL seemed like a long-shot.
“I didn’t think about the professional level until two or three games were left in my senior year,” he says. “The coaches told me that teams were coming over to look at me. I’m thinking, ‘Look at me for what? What did I do?’”
Thomas’ play at LSU did enough to convince the Vikings to select him in the third round of the 1987 draft (72nd overall). When the rookie arrived at his first minicamp that spring, he hatched a plan to climb the depth chart come summer in Mankato.
“They gave us a playbook at minicamp and I took out all the pages and copied the defensive plays and brought them home with me,” he says. “Between May and June, I was practicing in the driveway, and my mom would call out the plays and stunts. When camp started, I had it all down. So while everybody else was second-guessing themselves, I was balls to the wall 100 miles per hour. I knew where I was going and what I was supposed to do.”
By the end of his second preseason game, Thomas not only secured valuable playing time, but also the “Hardware Hank” nickname that endures to this day.
“Everybody called me Hank because that’s the common name for Henry,” he says. “At the Metrodome there was a sign for a sponsor, a hardware store called Hardware Hank. I made a good tackle and someone yelled, ‘Hardware Hank with the hard hit’ and that was it.”
Besides the nifty nickname, Thomas secured the starting nod at nose tackle as a rookie and paced Minnesota’s defensive linemen with 81 tackles, the first of five consecutive seasons in which he would record at least 80 tackles. With his cocked stance over center, No. 97 proved to be lightning quick off the ball to disrupt the opponent’s offensive attack.
“I had to be quick because I was a little guy,” he says. “By today’s standards, I would not be a nose tackle at 270 pounds. I took risks within our scheme. If we had a stunt coming from the right, I cheated more to the left. I wanted to make sure the guy on the left didn’t beat me because I had support coming on the right.”
A strong commitment to studying tape also contributed to his success.
“As a D-line in Minnesota, we sat together and broke down film,” he says. “We tried to pick up things on tape. We did that a lot as a group.”
That group—Thomas, ends Chris Doleman and Al Noga, and tackle Keith Millard—proved to be a force in 1988, sparking Minnesota to the top of the league’s defensive rankings. By the following season, the foursome made distant memories of the Purple People Eaters come to life as the Vikings recorded 71 sacks, just one shy of the NFL record.
Doleman led the league with 21 sacks with Millard close behind with 18. Noga contributed 11.5 sacks and Thomas had nine.
“We all played as if we were supposed to make every play,” says Thomas, who finished his Vikings career with 56 sacks. “If we had two guys on one of us, our attitude was to take up the two guys and then go make the play. That was our mentality as a defensive front.”
Thomas always tried to shorten the path to the quarterback for the front four. “We brutalized the neutral zone,” he says. “I would line up right up on the ball, and every center would come up to the ball and move it forward to get it ready to snap. I was already set so once he moved the ball forward there was no such thing as a neutral zone.”
All the members of the close-knit defensive line had a friendly rivalry when it came to collecting sacks.
“We celebrated each sack,” Thomas says, “but in the back of our minds we were thinking, ‘I’ll show you. The next sack is mine.’ If a quarterback tripped and fell, we all looked like Superman diving to be the first one to touch him to get credit for the sack. We had so much talent and we had a lot of fun.”
After 118 games, six playoff appearances and three times leading the league in total defense, Thomas decided to leave the Vikings following the 1994 season. The two-time Pro Bowler took advantage of the burgeoning free-agent market by signing a $7.35 million deal with Detroit.
“Did I still love Minnesota? Absolutely,” Thomas says. “This offer came up and I had to move on for the good of my family. The Vikings were telling me that I was only worth so much and then somebody else comes in and told me that I was worth so much more. You have to think about the good of your family, being the provider for your family.”
Thomas made his mark in the Motor City his first year with the Lions as he was voted the team’s defensive MVP. After a nagging groin injury hampered him throughout 1996 and the Lions were forced to penny-pinch because of big bucks owed to Barry Sanders and Scott Mitchell, Thomas and the team parted ways. New England became his home for the final four seasons of his career, including 1998 when Thomas became the first Patriots interior lineman to lead the team in sacks in 29 years.
“I have greater allegiance to the Vikings because they were my first team,” he says. “But each team had something that made me love and want to be a part of it. When I got to Detroit, I had never met an owner before. There was just one guy (William Clay Ford) who owned the team. When I was in Minnesota, what did we have, 12 or 13 owners? (The answer is 10.) I could have run over one of them with my car and not have known them.
“Then I go to New England and get to play outside on grass. I had no idea what 10 years on artificial turf did to me.”
During his last season in the league, Thomas played for Bill Belichick, who was one year away from achieving Super Bowl stardom with the Patriots. New England went just 5-11 in Belichick’s first year on the job, but Thomas says it was easy to see that the seeds were being planted for future success with the way he assembled the team, promoted the team concept and employed his football IQ.
“Playing under Bill Belichick was phenomenal,” Thomas says. “When he became the coach I was in my 12th season and thinking, ‘What’s he going to teach me?’ The first preseason game, we are getting beat and he draws up something on the sideline and I’m blown away by how he deciphered it.”
Regardless if he was in New England, Detroit or Minnesota, Thomas admits that it would be challenging for him to play today with the league’s shrinking strike zone for permissible hits on the quarterback.
“We took the quarterback down any way possible,” he says. “I’m looking at some of the hits today and thinking they are good hits and then finding out that, no, they are $25,000 hits.”
Player safety should be a paramount concern, according to Thomas, but he believes fines shouldn’t be the way to address the matter.
“You have to do something about safety because players are so much bigger, stronger and faster,” he says. “I wouldn’t say that I’m in favor of the fines. I think what should be done is putting more resources into developing better equipment. These guys are going to continue to get faster and stronger. We see linebackers today who are 270 pounds and run a 4.5 40. They are flying.”
Kind of like this phone interview with the fun-loving Thomas, who was ready to head out to the bowling alley to work on his 191 average. When he’s not chauffeuring his daughters to their myriad activities, Thomas can usually be found bowling or more likely on the golf course. But all this talk regarding his career and football seems to have him seriously thinking about entering the coaching ranks in the future.
“Coaching is definitely on my mind,” he says just prior to hanging up. “I’m kind of leaning toward it but I’m not sure yet. My girls are at an age where they are saying, ‘I think you ought to coach, Dad.’”
If he follows his daughters’ advice, maybe years from now when he enters a room, people will say Henry Thomas looks like a football coach. And this time, their assessment will be correct.
EXTRA POINTS WITH HENRY THOMAS
On the toughest quarterback he faced …
“Dan Marino. It was very difficult to get a sack on that man the way the ball came out.”
On the best running back …
“Barry Sanders was by far the best running back I ever saw. He was a joy to watch. I have a picture at home of him catching a screen pass, and I’m ready to demolish him. I’m glad it’s a picture because if it was a video it would show that 38 yards later he was in the end zone.”
On the offensive lineman he dreaded facing …
“(Jay) Hilgenberg from Chicago. He was so quick and crafty. It was always an epic battle between us.”
On keeping in touch with ex-teammates …
“Chris Doleman and I go on trips two or three times a year. We go play golf or hang out. John Randle and I talk all the time. When he got inducted into the Hall of Fame, we had a ball.”