Tiger’s Tale: LSU great Lionel “Tiger” Thomas, how life changed when the Death Valley cheers stopped

Updated: Apr. 5, 2021 at 7:28 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - We’re reminded of a second chance to make a difference and LSU great Lionel “Tiger” Thomas knows that story all too well. The former Tiger lived an LSU football dream, but his life changed when the Death Valley cheers stopped.

Thomas’s story begins when LSU football gave him the ultimate opportunity to enjoy the thrill of Tiger Stadium and how his life changed when the Death Valley cheer stopped.

I think anybody that takes a breath of air on this earth goes like this. We have this long, tough conversation and look at ourselves in the mirror and try to figure out what’s next. He was down and he had to fight to get back up off the canvas.

“You know, I didn’t like to be the star that went from playing football to depression to suicidal thoughts but the resurrection is so much better,” said Thomas.

In Houston, Texas 42 years ago, the story of Thomas begins at a young age. Lionel was given a prophetic nickname once they named a lion and they named Tiger and they picked tiger. And I’ve been tiger ever since.

At the age of two, Thomas and his family moved to Opelousas, La. and Thomas said there isn’t much out here, but there are some great people. It is a great, strong community.

But as time moved forward and his teenage years approached, a tragedy changed his path.

Tragedy struck when “Tiger” was just 11 years old. His dad died.

“I was pretty lost, looking to fill a huge void,” Thomas said.

So, “Tiger” took up sports. He would suit up for the Opelousas Tigers, primarily as a 165-pound offensive lineman.

Thomas was virtually an unknown after three years of high school football. Then, in the summer of 1997, LSU held a one-day elite camp to observe premier prep talent. That’s when Cinderella got an invitation to the ball.

Thomas remembers coach looking at him and was asked if he wanted to go? And I was able to get “Tiger” into the elite one day camp. Coach Catalona was signed and went in and he asked me, said, what position you come in play?

“I’m like, well, defensive back. I’ll go out, get a lot of compliments from coach. I didn’t know who he was at the time it was Carl Reese who was the defensive coordinator,” said Thomas.

After the first practice he was offered. Turning around in the chair, it was Gerry DiNardo and he says, I don’t know who you are. All I know is coach Reese says, I need to offer you a scholarship on the spot

“Tiger” Thomas was an LSU Tiger and he was playing big time Southeastern Conference football. The underdog, Thomas, becoming a three year starter and also connecting with a teammate from the Acadiana area.

“Trevor is one of those guys that is a brother for life,” Thomas said. “Great guy, man, great personality, funny. Got along with everyone,: said Trevor Faulk.

Star linebacker Trev Faulk and “Tiger” would become college roommates and they had each other. And they leaned on each other to kind of help, to build and help to carry the program to where we were trying to take the team to go with a new head coach named Nick Saban.

Thomas and Faulk all came into their own together as LSU went from a loser to a big winner. Despite that, however, Thomas began to have feelings of emptiness during his senior season.

Then Thomas got injured and had to come back in with a reserve role trying to work his way back in.

“I do remember that kind of being a tough time for him, just kind of being happy for the team, being happy for the program,” Faulk said. “But from an individual standpoint, not quite being able to contribute at the level that you once did and at the level that you wanted to.”

“So, I lost a lot of hunger and I didn’t work as hard as I worked like the guy who was trying to get a scholarship,” Thomas said.

Five LSU players were then taken in the NFL draft. “Tiger” Thomas wasn’t one of them.

“That was real tough. I think that’s what started the major depression. I had one goal and I didn’t make it and I shut it down, said Thomas. “You think the world has left you, you think, you know, there’s no one to turn to. I can see why many athletes that don’t have a backup plan fall off the face of the Earth because it’s tough when you’re on TV every Saturday, when you’re walking through neighborhoods and you’re patted on the back, it becomes something that you’re used too and you want it all the time.”

“Of course, I wasn’t working, so I was evicted from my apartment. I went through bankruptcy. I had acquired a lot of debt within two years after playing football and all I did was dig myself a life hole, Thomas said.

The dark path would then lead to thoughts of suicide.

“The closest I came was actually asking my friend for one of his weapons to just end it, that’s the closest I came,” said Thomas. “I was at disappointment, disappointed in myself.”

With the help of counselors at LSU Thomas took a deep breath and a big step back. He then reached out to the beloved Sam Nader for help. Nader has worked with the LSU football program for nearly half a century now, looking for a job. I’m trying to get going again.

Then the very next day Nader called Thomas back and he said got this place in the laboratory.

The job was somewhat like walking onto a football team. The right person could turn that opportunity into something very rewarding if they worked incredibly hard and applied themselves. And that’s exactly what “Tiger” Thomas did.

“They’re running like chemistry experiments over there, the guys that go work over there are not they’re not the chemists. They’re not the scientist, they’re cleaning up afterwards, they’re washing out the Bunsen burners or something,” said Nader.

“So, I went into the lab started learning different techniques, learning the different chemicals and I took a liking to it, it kind of felt like it was filling that void that I lost with football. My growth just kept going,” said Thomas. “I went from a supervisor here to a corporate manager over six labs in the U.S. I was just promoted to a sales manager over the Gulf Coast Region. So, I’m a guy that went from a glass of washer at one place to a regional manager of many laboratories.”

More than two decades have passed since the Tiger Stadium cheers stopped for Lionel “Tiger” Thomas, and although life without football was a jarring and dark lesson. It was LSU football that pushed Thomas down a new and rewarding path.

It’s easy for no one to know why he made it a success out of that good. You got to be able to fight through it on the other end of it. And I think that’s what he’s done. And it speaks volumes about the man he is.

“I just want to be the guy that he could back up, make yourself proud. And that way you can be an example to someone else,” Thomas said.

And “Tiger” Thomas is hopeful that his story can perhaps reach one person out there who’s feeling a little down during this Easter holiday.


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