DeCoud faces grandfather's former team
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Tied for the fifth-most interceptions in the NFL this season, safety Thomas DeCoud had a Pro-Bowl caliber season in Atlanta, but his football roots go back to San Francisco and the 49ers -- his opponent in this week's NFC Championship Game.
DeCoud's grandfather John Thomas played for the 49ers from 1958 to 1967, earning All-Pro honors as an offensive guard in '66. Coincidentally, John Thomas played in his final NFL season for head coach Dick Nolan whose son Mike is now his grandson's defensive coordinator.
As a result, DeCoud, a native of Vallejo, Calif., grew up a fan of the 49ers with his uncles vying for the rights to the two tickets his grandfather received as a "golden ticket" from the team, based on playing for the franchise for 10 years.
"My uncles (Terry Thomas, John Thomas), they still fight to this day for those tickets," said DeCoud, who has another uncle on his mother's side, Marlon Thomas, who has passed away. "Over the course of growing up, I might have gone to one Niner game. I was lucky enough maybe that once. All the other times my uncles were fighting over those tickets."
John Thomas, 77, takes pride in his grandson's accomplishments and says that as much as the 49ers have been good to him and as much of a spot as they occupy in his heart, this Sunday he will pull for the Falcons.
"It's great for me because family is No. 1," Thomas said. "So I don't care about the Niners that much. I would like for them to win up until this day. So everything as far as I'm concerned is with my grandson – no matter who he plays."
The experiences for DeCoud, who played for four seasons at Cal and was drafted in the third round, and his grandfather differ greatly and illustrate the change not only in sports but in society over three generations. John Thomas went to Pacific (Calif.) on a basketball scholarship and played one season of football as a senior. In making his way as a professional athlete, he battled racism and racist preconceptions.
Trying out for the 49ers in 1957 as a 6-foot-4, 246-pound end, he failed to make the team. Upon being cut, he grabbed a flight for St. Louis to try out for the NBA's Hawks, now located, again coincidentally, in Atlanta. Thomas said during training camp in St. Louis – Missouri was a "slave state" before the Civil War -- he could not stay in same hotel as the white players and was put up at one with a few of the other black players.
Thomas said at the time NBA teams were reluctant to keep too many black players on their rosters and he was cut in favor of a white player who was taller. Thomas then passed up an opportunity to try out for the Harlem Globetrotters and returned to Richmond, Calif., where he worked for a year on the docks, unloading box cars. A year later with a position change, he landed a spot on the 49ers.
He started out as a left tackle but played five seasons as a guard – the position at which he earned All-Pro status – and also said he played three-quarters of one season at middle linebacker. Thomas said he was not among the first black players on the 49ers but he was one of the first guards.
"Back then they did not have black guards," he said, saying the perception was that "we were not smart enough" which he also said was true of middle linebackers.
"Those were positions that were no-nos in those days," he said.
His grandson faces a pro sports landscape that could not be more different. DeCoud signed a contract in the offseason reportedly worth $18.7 million over five seasons. Such sums amaze Thomas.
"I am blown away," he said. "Totally blown away. Back in my day you had to have a second job to work to make it. Oh, man, it's hard for me to comprehend the money they're making. That's why I'm so happy for my grandson that he's getting a part of that."
It isn't just his grandson's earning power that makes Thomas proud.
"Only thing about Thomas is I think he got his ducks in a row," he said. "He knows what he wanted to do. He knows how hard it is to achieve. His mindset is to be the best and it just makes me so happy. He's not letting the fact that he's in the NFL go to his head. He has the right frame of mind for what he needs to be. He can enjoy it. Just stay on top and that's great."
DeCoud is proud of his northern California background. For Sunday's divisional round game with Seattle, he had the area code "707" shaved in his hair on the right side of his head. His mother Angelique DeCoud said that while she grew up a 49ers fan, her husband and Thomas' father Renaldo DeCoud was an Oakland Raiders fan.
"We're all Falcons fans now," she said.
Both are already in Atlanta and will attend the game with a number of Thomas' friends. Because of bad knees, John Thomas cannot attend his grandson's games but he watches them on television and Angelique DeCoud said her father talks to her son afterwards to impart his wisdom.
"He was a big part of my family," Thomas DeCoud said. "… He was at all my Pop Warner games and AAU basketball games, all that. I had a real good support group."
For one day, that support group will pull for the Falcons.