A half century after he became the first basketball All-American in the history of Northwestern State University, and more than 20 years after he became the second basketball player inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, Charles “Red” Thomas acknowledged the probability that he owed both distinctions to a broken nose.
It happened in March of 1941, when a school then known as Louisiana State Normal sent its basketball team to Kansas City for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament.
Josh Briley, Normal’s 6-foot, 9-inch center, scored 24 points and Thomas, a 5-5 forward who was the smallest starter in the tournament, added 13 as Coach H. Lee Prather’s Demons scored a 50-43 victory over the Warrensburg (Mo.) Teachers in the first round. But an unknown Warrensburg substitute came off the bench, and threw a punch that splattered Thomas’ nose all over his face.
When the Demons returned to their hotel, a female doctor was summoned to attend to Thomas’ nose. She inserted sticks into both nostrils, lined them up and literally hammered the nose into place with a mallet.
The following day, Texas Wesleyan overcame a seven-point halftime deficit to score a 56-47 victory over the Demons as Briley scored 17 points, Wiley Cummings added 12 and Thomas tossed in 11. But the wire service account of the game noted, “Charles ‘Red’ Thomas won the crowd’s approval by playing with his broken nose taped securely to his face.“
Briley was the Demons’ leading scorer that season. When Western Kentucky scored a 67-46 victory over the Demons in the semifinals of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament a week before the NAIA tournament, Briley scored 18 points, Cummings added 10 and C.L. Starnes scored seven. Thomas had three points that night.
While the spectators and sports writers were impressed with the courage Thomas displayed in the loss to Texas Wesleyan, Prather wasn’t especially impressed with his team’s performance. He loaded the players into two cars after the game and drove back to Louisiana – pausing only for gasoline and restroom stops.
A few days later, Walter Ledet, who was Thomas’ roommate at Normal, walked into their dorm room holding a Shreveport newspaper. “Congratulations,” he said. “You’re an All-American.”
The article noted that Thomas was a second team selection on the 10-player all-tournament squad, and also was selected “most valuable player to his team.”
Joe Aillet, who was then an assistant football coach on Harry “Rags” Turpin’s Louisiana Normal staff, recruited Thomas out of Texarkana Junior College for the Demons – as a football player.
When Thomas arrived in Natchitoches, there was some question about his eligibility. Thomas scrimmaged against the varsity in the Demons’ perfect 1939 season, but didn’t dress out for the games.
One day, he watched Prather’s basketball team practice – and wasn’t impressed. “I can play better than any of those guys,” he loudly announced.
Prather overheard the remark, and challenged the little redhead to dress out and back up his words. Although he was wearing shoes that were two sizes too big, Thomas was unstoppable that day. “I never played that good, before or since,” he recalled years later.
In his first season as the Demons’ coach, Thomas moved John “Hound” McConathy to the post position and McConathy shattered school scoring records with 562 points, an average of 21.6 per game, to become the school’s second All-American.
Jerry Byrd is the former sports editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune and an award-winning columnist. You can contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org