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May 23, 2017

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Man, it was crazy’: Former UNLV quarterback on the Rebels’ rivalry with UNR

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Jason Thomas spray paints the Fremont Cannon after UNLV’s 38-7 victory against UNR in 2000.

Fremont Cannon game

• When: 1 p.m. Nov. 26

• Where: Sam Boyd Stadium

• TV: Webcast on ESPN3

• Betting line: UNLV minus-10

• All-time: UNR leads the series, 24-17

• Last year: UNLV 23, UNR 17

Jason Thomas grew up in Southern California attending the annual football rivalry game between UCLA and USC. It would be tough to top those afternoons of packed stadiums and intense games that gave the winner a year’s worth of bragging rights.

Thomas came to UNLV in 2000 not understanding the history of the Fremont Cannon game against UNR. It wasn’t the same magnitude of UCLA-USC, he imagined.

But he quickly learned. The Rebels won his first game against the Wolf Pack, 38-7, at Sam Boyd Stadium to snap a five-game losing streak in the series and cue the celebration of a lifetime.

Thomas passed and rushed for a pair of touchdowns that day, adding to a debut season that was so impressive that experts touted him as a top NFL draft prospect.

He never did play in the NFL — teams wanted him to switch positions but he wanted to play quarterback — but Thomas won the games that mattered. He led UNLV to a victory against Arkansas in the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl and has three rivalry game victories against Reno (Thomas and Glenn Carano are the only UNLV quarterbacks to win that many). Still, that first win stands out. Here’s why, in his own words.

• • •

That was the first time I experienced anything like that. To see the fans rush the field, you realize that moment how important the game was, not just for the team but for our community.

So one of the fans gives me a paint can, and I’m thinking, “Man, we are going to paint this thing red right here?” The fans got excited, they carried the cannon, and that’s when I realized it wasn’t a replica. They dropped it and it broke.

One of my vivid memories before the game was sitting in the locker room and all the anxiety. Steve Newton was doing a beat on his pads like in Pop Warner, and was freestyle rapping. He would say, “What are you plannin’?” And the whole team would say, “We are going to get the cannon!”

We got on the field and beat them pretty good. We had that attitude. It is our cannon. It is ours now. We kept it as long as I was at UNLV.

The next year, we go up to Reno. I didn’t realize how much they didn’t like us. They hit coach (John) Robinson with a can in the head from the stands. At the end of the game, we are running out the clock and (the coaches) have me run a bootleg with under a minute left. They weren’t too happy about that, but it’s a rivalry game. All the politics and pleasantries go out the window.

Just to be part of the rivalry was one of the highlights of my career. You never forget being on the field and feeling the energy in the stadium, and being part of the celebration with my teammates. One of the things I’m proud of is beating Reno three times.

UNLV was good to me. Even though things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to with my career, I left a good legacy and something to be proud of. Those games against UNR are part of that legacy. I’ll never forget that first game. We had a great time afterward with our cannon.”

Thomas now lives in Oklahoma City with his wife, former UNLV volleyball player Blair Wilkes, and their two children. He’s a probation officer.

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