Dallas Morning News Article- November 27, 2008

Ex-Dallas Cowboy Ike Thomas thankful his daughters are alive

02:44 AM CST on Thursday, November 27, 2008

On Thanksgiving Day in 1971, Cowboys rookie Ike Thomas from tiny Bishop College returned the game's opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. For nearly four decades, that's been Thomas' most cherished Thanksgiving Day memory.

Until now. That's because there have been times this year when he didn't know if he'd share another turkey day with his daughters -- Andrea and Nikki -- each of whom is fighting an insidious strain of cancer.

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Breast cancer took the girls' mother when they were children. It also killed their mother's youngest sister. Another aunt is in remission. Their mother's father passed on a deadly genetic marker -- the BRCA 1 gene -- from his mother, who died of breast cancer. So did three of her daughters. This is already the third battle with cancer for 36-year-old Andrea -- Andi to family -- since she was first diagnosed in 2005. Nikki, 33, recently completed chemotherapy, after being diagnosed in March.

Three weeks ago, surgeons removed a growth from Andi's lung. She's recovering in Houston, where she lives with her husband, Alfred Parker, and 6-year-old son. Andi and Nikki have each had a double mastectomy. They'll gladly accept your prayers but not your pity. Life's too short, and they won't let cancer steal their joy. Besides, they're fighters.

They savor life, appreciating its simplest offerings. Like a sunny day. Or an evening of dancing. Or waking up without nausea. All the things so many of us with good health take for granted.

Thomas, his wife, Toni, and their 17-year-old daughter, Kayla, will spend the holiday with Andi's family. Nikki will relax in Dallas with her longtime boyfriend.

Before Thomas piles his plate high with turkey, collard greens, sweet potatoes and dressing and watches the Cowboys' game against Seattle, he'll thank God profusely for continuing to bless his daughters with life.

"It didn't have to be this way," he said. "They could be with their mother in heaven."

Ticket to college

Ike Thomas still has a professional athlete's gait.

You could tell from his linear frame and his large hands and his long legs as he guided a visitor into the tidy living room of his Cedar Hill home, where a team picture of the 1971 Cowboys is prominently displayed and a book about the franchise's illustrious history sits on a coffee table.

As one of 10 children raised in Hot Springs, Ark., Thomas didn't dream of playing pro football. He just wanted a better life than his parents, each of whom had a fourth-grade education.

As with many of us, a teacher changed his life. When Thomas told his high school English teacher, Dorothy Logan, he didn't have the money to attend college, she made a way.

"She told me she knew the president of Bishop College and she was going to call him," Thomas said. "I went down there, tried out for the football team, made it and got a scholarship."

Wearing Cowboys hand-me-downs -- quarterback Eddie LeBaron's No. 11 and guard John Niland's pants -- Thomas played quarterback at Bishop. He moved to defensive back as a junior, and his combination of size, speed and range helped him become one of the nation's best players. The Cowboys drafted him in the second round. After losing in the Super Bowl the previous season, Dallas was focused
more on winning than on player development.

Only four of 17 draft picks made a team that started six Hall of Fame players and four others in the Ring of Honor. With Mel Renfro and Herb Adderly starting, Thomas didn't play much. When injuries finally gave Thomas an opportunity to contribute on special teams, he excelled. He remains the only player in franchise history to return opening kickoffs for touchdowns in consecutive games. His 89-yard return against the Rams sparked a 28-21 win, and his 101-yard return against the Jets triggered a 52-10 win.

Ike Thomas, a 1971 Cowboy, is joined by wife Toni and daughters Nikki (center) and Kayla. Nikki and her sister Andi are battling breast cancer.

Thomas finished the season with a 42.1-yard average on seven kickoff returns with two touchdowns and a title ring after the Cowboys beat Miami in Super Bowl VI.

The next training camp, Dallas traded him. He spent the next seven seasons playing with four teams in three leagues.

A yellow Charlotte Hornets helmet, a remnant from the World Football League, sits on a bookcase in his den next to a Toronto Argonauts helmet and game balls from Dallas, Green Bay and Buffalo.

Framed mementos adorn a wood-paneled wall, and one push of a button can transport visitors back to 1971, where they can twice see No. 37 eluding tacklers, sprinting the length of the field and emphatically spiking the ball as he crosses the goal line.

Thomas played his final season in Toronto. "I was tired of football," he said. "It wasn't that I couldn't play. I could just never get locked into the right situation."

Tragic loss

Thomas' life changed forever when Wanda, his college sweetheart and the mother of his children, became ill in the fall of 1984. Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. Less than a year later, she was gone.

"She made cassette tapes for the girls because she wanted them to know how proud she was of them," Thomas said, "and what type of young lady she wanted them to become. She didn't get to finish Nikki's tape because she was too weak."

Andi was 12 when her mother died; Nikki was 9. Thomas, who was coaching at Bishop at the time, quit and returned to his previous career as a parole officer so he could raise his daughters.

We're talking about a man who didn't know how to cook much more than spaghetti guiding two girls through puberty and talking to them about dating, sex, monthly cycles.

After the girls graduated from Carter High School, Andi earned a basketball scholarship to Oklahoma State, and Nikki attended Texas Southern.

Andi, who transferred to TSU, where she received a bachelor's degree, is an administrator with the Houston ISD. Nikki, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees, works at Mountain View College.

A few years after Wanda died, a job transfer brought Toni Square to Dallas. She moved in with a friend of a friend who lived next door to Thomas.

There's no greater evidence of the power of prayer. A friendship blossomed into a romance. Thomas married Toni in
1990, and Kayla soon arrived.

Toni never questioned whether she'd earn the girls' acceptance. Or if they would always compare her with their beloved mother. "Toni wasn't like the others. She took interest in us," Andi said. "She wasn't trying to win us over or my dad. She was real."

In 2005, Andi discovered a lump in her breast. Doctors removed it, but the cancer returned two years later. After Andi's initial diagnosis, doctors suggested that Nikki take a genetic test. The results showed she had the same genetic marker as her sister.

The BRCA 1 gene, located on chromosome 17, significantly increases the risk of breast, ovarian, prostate and fallopian cancer when it mutates. Researchers believe the defective BRCA1 gene doesn't fix the mutations that occur in other genes as it's designed to do. That allows cells to uncontrollably grow and divide, creating a tumor.

Last March, Nikki felt a lump. "I just knew it was cancer," she said. "My mom had it. My sister had it. Now me too. It was unreal."

Faith anchors this family. Instead of questioning God, the Thomases simply pray for more strength, grace and mercy.

Nikki wears her bald head proudly, large earrings always dangling from her lobes. For a while, she covered her head with scarves. Then she wore hats. "The scarves irritated me because they would always come loose," she said, "and I didn't have enough hats to match my outfits. Finally, I said just whatever. This is my badge of courage."

Special support

Cancer never lets you forget it. It lurks, always threatening to return. The Thomases refuse to give cancer control of their lives. They've created the I W.A.N.T. Foundation, which provides pillows designed for women who have had double mastectomies.

Women can use the pillows when sleeping. Or relaxing. Or as a cushion when wearing a seat belt. The foundation has already provided more than 300 pillows to patients at UT-Southwestern, Baylor, Methodist and Methodist Charlton hospitals.

"A lot of times when you're going through cancer, you think you're alone -- but you're not," Toni said. "You meet so many wonderful people and you get to know families because you're all going through the same thing. This is our way of trying to give back and help."


Nickname: Ike

Age: 61 (born Nov. 4, 1947)

College: Bishop College

Pro football career: Cornerback/safety with Cowboys, 1971; Green Bay, 1972-73; Charlotte Hornets (World Football League), 1974; Buffalo, 1975; and Toronto (Canadian Football League), 1976-78.

Post-football career: Dallas County juvenile probation officer (retired); executive director, I W.A.N.T. Foundation, an organization supporting breast cancer survivors.

Did you know? He played quarterback at Bishop behind Emmitt Thomas, a future NFL cornerback who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer.

Most memorable Cowboys moment: He's the only player in franchise history to return opening kickoffs on consecutive weeks for touchdowns.