Take a Leap
'51 football star coaches kids to tackle the unknown
A former Washington Redskins and Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals football player and 1951 Dons football luminary, Ralph Thomas ’52 has partnered with the first female Olympic pole vault champion Stacy Dragila to travel the country, inspiring kids to try something new — stick-jumping (a cousin to pole vaulting).
Ralph, 87, a history major, is funding part of the trip to more than 25 schools in 20 states with proceeds from his NFL concussion settlement. The rest is paid for by Try Something New, a nonprofit founded by Dragila and one of her trainers, Steve Thomas (Ralph's son).
Have you ever tried stick jumping?
I did try jumping using a stick that supported the clothesline back in the day at a farm in Wisconsin [laughing]. It snapped, and that was the last time I pole vaulted!
So what made you want to promote stick jumping?
I want to inspire kids with stories about overcoming obstacles. I was told I was too small to make it in football. In 1951, our Dons team was told it couldn’t play with an integrated team, when the Orange Bowl agreed to invite us only if we left our African American players at home. And as late as 1993, women were told that they weren’t fast or strong enough to pole vault. People will always give you reasons why you can’t do something. The message I try to give these children is: Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not big enough or strong enough or smart enough. You decide what you want to do in your life and do the best you can to achieve those goals.
How do you think stick jumping will help kids?
The thing is to do something you haven’t done before. It’s not necessarily sports. We tell these kids it might be music, art, or science. There are a lot of things these kids are not familiar with and are afraid of, and we teach that those are the exact things that you need to go do.
How do USF values continue to influence you?
The Jesuit education that I got, not only in studies but the spirit and attitude that USF exemplifies, made me who I am. USF’s Jesuit tradition of giving back influenced me to use a part of the concussion settlement — money from an unfortunate situation — for a good cause, inspiring kids across the country.
Did you suffer from a concussion while playing in the NFL?
I did suffer from a concussion in 1952 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I wasn't quite knocked out, but for the next two or three plays I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I was just walking around on the field in a daze.
Last month, I was studied by neurologists who recorded my level of brain damage and will use the information as research to hopefully help future players. However, I never regret a minute’s worth of the 11 years I spent playing football.
What is your biggest takeaway from USF?
The lasting legacy of USF is the deep family ties I continue to hold through the men I played with, and now through their families, as my teammates are sadly passing away. We were a band of brothers, like one big extended family. For example, Burl (Toler) was like an uncle to my children, and Burl’s children are like brothers and sisters to my children. It has been my privilege for the past 65 years to call all of my USF teammates family. And that is worth more than any Orange Bowl bid.