Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Lexington Thomas has a complicated relationship with football.
He’s fine with the game itself. The senior running back has proven that over his four years at UNLV, showing an innate ability to find the tiniest of creases and then speed toward the end zone faster than just about anyone in the country. He’s naturally graceful, determined and hugely productive. When he’s running, everything is right. Finding the open field is Thomas’s sole purpose.
It’s the ancillary stuff that comes along with the game that tends to trip up Thomas more often than the flailing defensive linemen who swipe at his ankles as he hits top gear. Stuff like practice, school work, interpersonal relationships and accepting coaching — that all tends to take a backseat to the thrill of the run.
On the field, Thomas has been nothing short of a star during his time at UNLV. He has surpassed 1,000 yards rushing each of the past two seasons, he is the school’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns, and as the Rebels get set to take on UNR in Saturday’s season finale, Thomas is approaching the school record for rushing yards, just 219 shy.
But those off-the-field obstacles have never subsided. Thomas has had to overcome more than a few — many of his own design, he admits — to reach the point where his name is all over the UNLV record book.
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Even stepping onto the field for the first time was a chore. As a 4-year-old, Thomas had to be dragged to the park in tears. His father took him to a field in their hometown of Houston, put him in full pads and “made” him play catch, just like his older brothers. Thomas hated it — until he realized how good he was at it.
By the time he joined his first peewee team a year later, he was so self-assured that he walked into the huddle at the squad’s first practice and called out the best player.
That player went by the nickname "Popcorn," because he was so quick. But Thomas was convinced he was quicker.
“Once I realized I was good, I started getting cocky,” Thomas recalls. “Popcorn was the best player on the team, and he was the running back. I went up to him and said, ‘You’re the running back? Well not anymore. I’m the running back now.’ And ever since that day, that’s how I’ve always felt.”
That confidence propelled Thomas through high school, where he put up big numbers despite attracting relatively little recruiting attention. The disinterest from college coaches was Thomas’s own fault, as his grades were extremely shaky. He didn’t qualify for Division I until the final day of his senior year, which scared away a lot of teams.
Thomas puts the blame for his slow recruitment on himself.
“I didn’t take school seriously,” he says. “I was lazy. I still get careless sometimes today. When the coaches get on me, it’s never for football, it’s for the school part.”
UNLV was one of the few programs that recruited Thomas with vigor, partly because newly hired head coach Tony Sanchez wanted to infuse his first recruiting class with speed at the skill positions. Then-running backs coach Jamie Christian and recruiting coordinator Cedric Cormier were high on Thomas despite his lackluster academic record and brought him to Las Vegas for a visit.
Thomas roomed with fellow running back recruit Xzaviar Campbell on that visit, and the two bonded so quickly that on the final day of the trip, they agreed to commit to UNLV together.
Campbell remains one of the few teammates with whom Thomas has developed a close friendship. He counts former wide receiver Devonte Boyd as another friend and tabs sophomore running back Charles Williams as a “brother.” But the list pretty much ends there.
Thomas, by his own admission, keeps a tight circle of acquaintances. Getting close to him is nearly impossible, and those who have relationships with him are in danger of being cut off at the slightest provocation.
It’s how Thomas protects himself.
“I feel like I don’t really need anybody,” he says. “If you didn’t help me get here, there’s nothing that you can really do for me. Even now, it’s not that hard for me to stop talking to somebody. I’m bad at that. It’s something I’ve got to get better at. I do like being around my teammates all the time. I love those guys, all of them, but it’s easy for me to not talk to someone. I can go as long as I want not saying a word to someone.”
After committing to UNLV, Thomas dedicated himself to his studies and passed the ACT exam. He arrived on campus as a 2-star recruit in 2015 and mostly kept quiet in team settings.
“He’s a secluded type of guy,” Cormier says. “That’s Lex. He’s going to keep to himself for a while. He doesn’t hang with a big circle of people off the field. He’s going to play video games and take naps. That’s kind of what Lex does. I wouldn’t say he’s Mr. Outgoing.”
Thomas let his play do the talking as a freshman, as he averaged an impressive 6.2 yards per carry on limited touches. It wasn’t enough action for his liking, of course. Just like his first practice with Popcorn, Thomas knew he deserved to be the No. 1 guy.
But Thomas wasn’t good at communicating with coaches and instead of embracing his role, he brooded and sulked.
“There was a point during my freshman year when I wasn’t playing that much, so I didn’t care what was going on in the game,” Thomas says. “I was just there. When I got in the game, I was thinking I was going to give my all, it didn’t matter if we were winning or losing.”
Thomas got more carries as a sophomore, turned in four 100-yard games and led the Rebels with 10 total touchdowns. Heading into his junior year, he believed he had finally earned the right to be UNLV’s starting running back.
After spring practice, however, the coaching staff listed Williams as the starter and slotted Thomas into his hated No. 2 role. It was a shot to Thomas’s pride and only eroded his already shaky relationship with the team’s decision-makers.
It didn’t help that Christian, one of the only coaches with whom Thomas felt comfortable, had left UNLV and been replaced on the staff by current running backs coach Travis Burkett.
“I felt I was doing pretty well, to the point where I would have been the starting running back going into the season,” Thomas says. “When the depth chart came out before fall camp, I didn’t know. Everybody kept sending me screen shots of it, saying, ‘You see this? You see this?’ So I opened it, and it had Charles over me. I texted coach [Burkett] and I was like, ‘Charles starting?’ And he was like, ‘Let’s have a great fall camp.’ There was no explanation of why. I would ask them what’s up, and I never got the explanation why I got [demoted]…That was the hardest time for me.”
Wounded, Thomas withdrew from the team and into his own head. He sequestered himself and considered transferring to another school. He consulted his mother for advice. Friends on other college teams courted him with the promise of more carries and more respect.
Ironically, it was one of his rare personal relationships that kept him at UNLV, as Campbell played a big role in convincing Thomas to stick it out and fight for the job.
“We just talked a lot,” Campbell says of that tumultuous period. “It’s hard to tell sometimes with him, because you never know he’s down until he’s down-down. There have been times he’s been down and you wouldn’t notice. He’s not asking for help unless he’s in a really bad spot.”
With encouragement from Campbell, Thomas resolved to stay at UNLV. He never got his explanation from the coaching staff, and he stopped looking for one. His only focus was on fighting for the job and producing for the team.
“I was thinking in my head, it’s not like I’m not going to play,” Thomas recalls. “I’m a good running back. I’m going to get my touches regardless. What I was doing, I was being selfish. I can’t be selfish because if I’m being selfish, we’re not winning games. We’ve already had that problem in the past of people being selfish and us not being able to get where we need to go. I said, ‘I’m not going to be the problem. I’m going to take it on the chin and I’m going to practice hard every chance that I get.’”
In his single-minded approach, Thomas drew a line between himself and his coaches and teammates. He went into fall practice with a chip on his shoulder — it was Lexington Thomas vs. everyone, and the way he saw it, he was the only one on Team Lex.
“I stayed to myself. It was really hard not to talk to my teammates. During the whole camp I was to myself. I kept my headphones on, didn’t talk to nobody.”
Thomas was still the No. 2 back heading into the 2017 season, but when an ankle injury in the second quarter of the opener sidelined Williams for the year, Thomas was ready. He started the next game and ran for a career-high 190 yards and three touchdowns.
The fact that the injury happened to Williams, one of his closest friends, helped Thomas get over his ill will toward the team and harness his anger in a productive way on the field.
“Before that, I was like, ‘I’m not even playing for this school because they’re screwing me over,’” Thomas says. “But as soon as Chuck went down, I was like, ‘This is why I’m here, to hold my brother up.’”
By the end of the year, Thomas had blazed his way to 1,336 rushing yards, five 100-yard games and 17 touchdowns. On the way, he earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous big-play threats in the nation by averaging 6.3 yards per carry and racking up seven touchdown runs of 40 yards or longer.
That put him on the 2018 Doak Walker watch list and the All-Mountain West preseason team, not to mention the NFL radar. More importantly, it also locked him into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart heading into this season, which is what really matters to Thomas.
It didn’t completely thaw his relationship with the team, however. Thomas’s big junior year had vindicated his opinion of himself as a player, but his reluctance to communicate still kept him at a distance from the rest of the program.
Going into fall training camp, Thomas once again put up his shield.
“I still had that same mindset,” he says. “I’m going to go into camp, I’m not going to talk to anybody. I’m going to be cool with people, but I’m not going to be friendly and be all buddy-buddy with everybody on the team. This is my senior year. I’ve still got to go as hard as I can and go through this whole thing…I isolated myself.”
This season has already seen Thomas log six 100-yard games, and he crossed the 1,000-yard barrier last week at Hawaii with his 129-yard, two-touchdown performance. It hasn’t been the smoothest ride, as Sanchez publicly questioned Thomas’s effort level at one point early in the campaign, but Thomas survived and thrived by doing what he always does — he kept his head down and counted on the one guy he could trust.
After his college career ends with Saturday’s game, Thomas plans to stay in school long enough to collect his diploma. He is scheduled to graduate in the spring, an achievement he shrugs off as a byproduct of football — something he had to do to stay eligible and get on the field and break those long runs.
Classes, coaches and personal connections may not matter to Thomas as much as playing football and winning games, but as his time at UNLV winds down, he finds his exterior softening just a little.
When the final whistle blows on Saturday, Thomas’s time as a Rebel will be finished, but he doesn’t want his relationship with the school to end there.
Though such sentiment doesn’t come naturally — or easily — for Thomas, he envisions a time in the future, hopefully after a long NFL career, when he can return to his alma mater and be embraced by a community that cares about him.
“I’m going to come back to UNLV,” Thomas says. “I want to come back. I hope I can come back and everyone wants to see my face."