CLEARFIELD — Two of Penn State’s all-time gridiron greats who were first-team All-Americans and became National Football League first-round draft picks will be visiting Clearfield Saturday for autograph and promotional sessions at two establishments.
Blair Thomas (1985-1987, 1989) and Kenny Jackson (1980-1983) were members of Penn State’s only two national championship teams and now are teammates for eMMORTAL Sports and Entertainment, which features the next generation of collectable sports trading cards. The eMMORTAL electronic cards actually are mini CD-ROMs that include video highlights, photo galleries, bios, career stats and even high school data.
“What it does is give you an in-depth look at the player that you purchase,” Thomas explained in a recent television interview.
Thomas, who still is the Nittany Lions’ No. 2 all-time career rusher with 3,301 yards, and nine other Penn State running backs are featured in the first series, which will be available along with t-shirts, playing cards, mini-helmets and footballs, as well as a recently-published book, when he and Jackson greet Nittany Lion fans at Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub between 5:30 and 7 p.m. or at Legends Sports Bar between 7:15 and 9.
Jackson, a flanker who broke 27 records and enjoyed his finest season as a junior on the 1982 team that claimed the school’s first national title, is featured in “What It Takes to Be a Nittany Lion,” written by Lou Prato and Scott Brown about coach Joe Paterno and Penn State’s greatest players.
The two former Lions — and a surprise special guest — plan to mingle with the crowds for autographs and pictures. The road trips are viewed as something special by Thomas, a King of Prussia resident who established eMMORTAL Sports and Entertainment after having been a partner in DreaMedia Ventures, which launched the eMMORTAL cards late in 2005.
“Every time we do an appearance, we try to tie in with a charity in that area,” said Thomas, who noted that Jackson became a partner in mid-2006. “If we don’t, we send a portion of the proceeds to Penn Civilians, an organization started in Harrisburg by Rick Sales, a teammate of mine, to help inner city kids. I’m this year’s chairman, and the big fund-raiser will be a banquet in State College the night before the Blue-White Game.
“Actually, we started this football season going to different restaurants and bars in State College when Penn State played away. Also, Kenny and I went down to the (Outback) bowl game and set up.
“It gives fans a real opportunity to meet us, say hello or ask what are we doing now. Instead of waiting for people to contact us, we’re taking our show on the road and thanking fans for supporting us.
“A lot of times, we celebrity bartend. So many people don’t know what we look like. It’s a chance to meet face-to-face. The biggest thing I always hear is ‘I thought you were bigger!'”
Thomas, listed at 5-10, 195 pounds on one website bio about his pro career, was a sophomore running behind D.J. Dozier and fullbacks Tim Manoa and Steve Smith in 1986 when No. 2 Penn State jolted No. 1 Miami 14-10 in the Fiesta Bowl for the school’s second national crown.
The next season, Thomas rambled for 1,414 yards, No. 7 in the nation in yards per game, and 11 touchdowns but suffered a knee injury during an informal workout in early December and missed the Citrus Bowl. Surgery in January forced him to sit out one year, but he was brilliant again during the 1989 season with eight 100-yard games, rushing for 1,341 yards to rank 10th nationally in yards per game. He set Penn State bowl records with 35 carries for 186 yards in the wild 50-39 Holiday Bowl victory over Brigham Young, sharing player of the game honors with Cougar quarterback Ty Detmer, who completed 42 of 59 passes for an NCAA Bowl record 576 yards.
Thomas, who finished with 4,512 all-purpose yards, was a first-team Walter Camp and Football News All-American.
In the 1990 NFL draft, the New York Jets selected him No. 2 overall, the highest ever for a Nittany Lion at that time. As an NFL rookie, Thomas carried 123 times for 620 yards and caught 20 passes for 204 yards to lead American Conference rookies in total yardage. The next year, he carried 189 times for 728 yards and three touchdowns, had 30 receptions for 195 yards and completed his only NFL pass for a 16-yard TD. Nagging injuries slowed him the next two seasons, prompting the Jets to release him.
After playing in four games with the New England Patriots in 1994, he was released and signed with Dallas as a backup for Emmitt Smith. Thomas made his only playoff appearance in the Cowboys’ 35-9 romp over Green Bay, carrying 23 times for 70 yards and two touchdowns.
In 1995, he was signed by the Atlanta Falcons prior to pre-season camp but was released ended his six-year pro career with the Carolina Panthers.
His NFL totals were 533 carries for 2,236 yards and seven TDs and 71 receptions for 513 yards and two TDs.
Thomas was running backs coach at Temple University from 1998 through 2005 and played a key role in the development of Chicago Bears fullback Jason McKie, who is headed for the Super Bowl, and former Jacksonville Jaguar Stacey Mack.
Jackson, like Thomas, a member of four bowl teams, still ranks as one of Penn State’s all-time leading receivers, second in touchdowns with 25, third in yards with 2,006 and fifth in receptions with 109. Bryant Johnson edged ahead of him by two yards and one reception at the end of the 2002 season.
Jackson was very instrumental in the Nittany Lions’ march to the university’s first national championship with 41 receptions for 697 yards and seven touchdowns. The 6-0, 180-pound flanker caught two passes for 35 yards in the 27-23 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia.
The Associated Press named him first-team All-American, the first Nittany Lion wideout to be so honored. He received similar recognition by the Newspaper Enterprise Association following his senior season.
The Philadelphia Eagles made Jackson the No. 4 pick in the 1984 NFL draft, and his best years were 40 receptions for 692 yards in 1985, 30 catches for 506 yards and six touchdowns in 1986 and 21 catches for 471 yards, a whopping 22.4 average, and three scores in 1987. He retired prior to 1988 spring minicamp but signed again when Mike Quick suffered a broken leg.
After spending the 1989 season with the Houston Oilers, Jackson returned to the Eagles as a special teams player in 1990 and 1991. He made two starts in his final season, one at tailback.
His eight-year totals were 126 receptions for 2,170 yards, a 17.2 average, and 11 touchdowns.
Jackson returned to Penn State as an assistant coach for eight seasons through 2000, helping develop 1994 and 1995 standouts Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott and 1997 star Joe Jurevicius, whose 20.9 yards a catch ranked third among the nation’s top 50 receivers. All were Biletnikoff Award candidates, with Engram being the first Nittany Lion to win the honor after setting 13 Penn State records.
Penn State grid teams were 39-9-1 when Jackson was a player and 75-23 when he was wide receivers coach.
He also coached the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wideouts from 2001 through 2003.
In addition to Thomas, eMMORTAL’s Penn State running back series also showcases Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Curt Warner, Dozier, Larry Johnson, Eric McCoo, Gary Brown and Lenny Moore.
Nittany Lions participating in Saturday’s sessions will have the opportunity to obtain something of value with the Thomas and Jackson autographs while also helping Penn Civilians grow.
“It started in Harrisburg, but it’s branching out into other counties,” said Sales, in his second year working for the Penn State Co-op Extension Office in Dauphin County. “Penn Civilians is a grassroots organization with people combining efforts to target urban youths. I’m the founder and there is a board with C.J. Johnson the chairman. He played basketball at Penn State and is a principal at State College High School.
“Right now, they’re funding a program that I’m manning as a Penn State employee. It’s Carver’s Secret Garden, an urban redevelopment program. Penn Civilians raises funds to purchase Secret Garden plots. We’re giving land, so to speak, to churches, schools and other nonprofit organizations to have kids do agricultural and horticultural activities. Plots come in four-by-eight boxes, and we’re trying to raise an acre’s worth, which is like 1,362 boxes at $200 a pop. That’s where funds go that Blair and Kenny give us.
“It’s a collaboration. Penn State’s co-op extension provides the curriculum. Anybody who wants to start a 4-H club can contact the co-op extension office in that county.”
Sales, a highly-recruited defensive end from McKeesport who ended his Nittany Lion career as a wide receiver, said one of Penn Civilians activities is a day camp on Big 33 Football Game weekend in Hershey highlighted by a Punt, Pass and Kick competition, again with the help of the Penn State Co-Op Extension Office.
“The kids get to meet some of the guys like Blair and Todd Rucci and me and win some prizes,” Sales explained. “We brought in an excellent turf grass educator who talked about different opportunities other than sports and a nutritionist to talk about hot days and dehydration. At the end, we have a little test for an academic component in the program. Last year, Engram got us an autographed Shaun Alexander (Seattle Seahawks) football jersey for the top prize.”