Scott Thomas and Eric Dodson – “Spike” and “Neck” if we’re going by their Air Force nicknames – were friends from the academy, when Thomas was a standout football player and Dodson played lacrosse and wrestled. And on Feb. 17, 1991, they were finally assigned to fly the same mission, with Dodson as his wingman.
They got to the planes and a crew chief snapped shots of them with a disposable camera, and the two hammed it up for the pictures before their first flight together. Then it dawned on them that, well, this isn’t this how it goes in the movies before something bad happens to one of the people?
“He took the camera and said, ‘That wasn’t a good idea,’” Dodson said. “And I said ‘Yeah, not a good idea.’”
Thomas threw the camera into his helmet bag and put the bag into the plane, which would crash a little while later in Iraq. Thomas – with Dodson monitoring the apparent fuel leak from the plane, and then letting Thomas know his engine was on fire – ejected from the plane and was rescued a couple hours later.
While the plane was faltering, the men kept remarkably calm, but Dodson said that’s how Thomas – who was announced Tuesday as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame’s 2012 class – always was.
“He was always in control, confident and had it together,” Dodson said. “That always trickled downhill to the people he was with.”
One of the things that stood out most to Dodson about his old friend was his leadership ability. He told a story about how the squadron was facing a tense mission of dropping bombs in Baghdad. The young pilots were grim and nervous on the bus ride over to the planes, knowing the danger involved.
“Spike just stepped up and was the leader, and said ‘Look guys, today we have an away game!’” Dodson said. “It pulled people out of their heads and got them to focus on their jobs.”
Dodson said the old Air Force football captain always had a well-timed joke that put others around him at ease before or during a mission, and that Thomas’ leadership seemed to come naturally. Although Thomas wasn’t a major or colonel, he was well respected in the squadron.
“Spike ‘s rank didn’t project him in a role of leadership,” Dodson said. “But the aura about him, people looked to him as a leader, especially the group of younger fighter pilots.”
Thomas has often spoke about how his football career at Air Force was invaluable during his time as a pilot, including when he had to parachute into Iraq after ejecting from his burning plane.
“I don’t want to make it seem like a small thing, but I had been put in pressure situations and had to rely on others to do their job on the football field to have success,” Thomas said a couple hours after the hall of fame announcement. “(Being rescued in Iraq) just all orchestrated like returning a kick. Every guy was doing their job, no matter how big or small.”
Although Dodson joked that he couldn’t believe he had to hear about his old friend’s election to the hall of fame from a reporter and not Thomas himself, he praised his old friend’s dedication to his wife, two children, parents and friends.
“I can’t tell you enough about what a great person he is,” Dodson said. “Down to the core.”