A second chance helped set Brenda Cliette Thomas on the path as a trailblazer. In fact, that opportunity afforded by Florida State more than 30 years ago still gives Thomas pause for reflection and thanks.
“FSU didn’t owe me that,” Thomas said. “I am still so appreciative.”
An outstanding multi-sport athlete at Northeast High School in Macon, Georgia, Thomas signed with FSU on basketball and track and field scholarships in 1982.
The freshman guard helped lead the Seminoles to their first-ever NCAA Tournament, averaging 13.5 points per game and 9.3 rebounds for coach Janice Dykehouse. A month later in the spring of 1983, Thomas won gold medals at the World University Games and in the Pan American Games.
The following year Thomas did not play basketball to concentrate on track, and the sprinter delivered. She was a four-time All-American and helped lead the Seminoles to the outdoor National Championship under coach Gary Winckler.
Thomas also was selected as an alternate in the 200 meters for the United States Olympic Track team that competed in Los Angeles in 1984. She would later be named FSU’s Female Athlete of the Year.
Despite Thomas’ success on the field, she admittedly lost focus in the classroom. Thomas was ruled ineligible and academically dismissed from the university in the fall of 1984. The shy Georgia teenager was “terrified” to tell her mother.
“I had good intentions but I just lost focus,” said Thomas who was raised in a single-family home. “I had poor study habits.”
Thomas enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, raised her grade-point average and regained her focus academically. FSU wanted her back, too, and to this day that second chance still resonates deeply with Thomas.
“When FSU asked me to come back, even now that raises the hair on my arms,” Thomas said. “They didn’t have to do that. I tell my kids and others, ‘Try to get it right the first time because not everyone gets a second chance.’ I was fortunate. And it meant so much.”
Thomas, 55, is returning to Tallahassee for the Seminoles’ ACC home opener against Clemson Sunday at 2 p.m. The event will include Alumni Weekend for former FSU women basketball players as the university continues its yearlong celebration of the 50th year of women’s intercollegiate athletics.
Her academics in order, Thomas played her senior season at FSU in 1986-87 for first-year coach Marynell Meadors. She averaged 14.9 points, 10 rebounds and, at age 23, provided seasoned leadership. More importantly, however, Thomas graduated from FSU and soon found her passion professionally.
She has enjoyed an accomplished – and historic – career in the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department. In 2016, the 25-year veteran became the first female chief in the department’s history.
Topping it off, Thomas also will be one of eight new members inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame next month. She’s the lone woman in the group that includes former Georgia Tech and professional stars Calvin Johnson (football) and Mark Teixeira (baseball).
Not even recent hip replacement surgery can quell Thomas’ enthusiasm.
“(FSU) Coach Sue (Semrau), I still remember the first time I met her and she was reading us like she knew us for 30 years,” said Thomas, who also credited her former coaches and teammates for their support and direction.
“I think it’s great and I appreciate that she accepts us. It’s so much fun; I love to see all the ladies. Every year we laugh about (past) things like it just happened. I love it.”