The Thomas family in Butte suffered a pair of heartbreaking losses in March.
On March 2, Eli Thomas passed away in Saratoga, California. He died on his 93rd birthday.
Later in the month, Sean Thomas, a 2004 Butte Central graduate, tragically passed. He was still in his 30s.
Sean was the grandson of Eli’s older brother George, who passed away in 2013.
I never met Eli, but I felt like I knew him my whole life. That is because George told me so many stories about his brother.
Eli is a boxing legend. He was a two-time NCAA champion while fighting for Gonzaga University. He was inducted into the Gonzaga Hall of Fame in 1988. A year later, Eli joined the Butte Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the Hall’s second class.
The members of the first few classes of the Butte Sports Hall of Fame are legends to the legends. Eli went in two years before Eso Naranche and Sam Jankovich.
So, yes, Eli was a Butte sports legend.
George was legendary for being a really nice guy. That is, unless you were standing across from him in the boxing ring or, maybe, the handball court.
A great boxer in his own right, George won a stack of doubles handball titles with the late, great Jack Whelan.
He also used a right hook to settle at least one dispute in the court.
That was a side I never saw from George, whom I knew mostly from the golf course and, of course, Thomas’ Apparel. One time, when Thomas’ was still on Park Street, I went in to buy a pair of pants for school.
George charged me half price for the pants I picked out. He also gave me two more pairs and a few shirts for free. I suspected he would have given me the shirt off his back if I would have asked.
His son Paul, who is Sean’s father, has carried on that legacy at the family business. Like George, Paul is not happy unless he is giving you something.
When I worked at the golf course, I would see George almost every day of the summer. Almost every day, he had a story about Eli.
George would let go of his pull cart, and he would start to bob and weave. Then he would start punching in the air as he told stories of Eli’s greatness in the ring.
Even though George would move slowly around the golf course with an exaggerated limp, he was floating like a butterfly when telling those stories.
Most of the fight talk involved the ring. Other times, though, George would mention “putting a head” on somebody.
My grandparents used to say the same thing. To their generation, “putting a head on” is on par with today’s “kicked his butt.”
It was always hard to imagine George putting anything but a sports jacket on anybody, but he sure liked to tell those stories.
I knew Sean Thomas a little bit, but I always felt like I knew him way better than he knew me. That is because George told me so much about his beloved grandson.
Sean was a standout in the classroom and in the athletic arena for the Maroons.
He was not the Hall of Fame athlete that Eli was, but Sean was pretty good.
In the fall of 2003, Sean was part of what is one of the best offensive lines Butte Central has ever produced. He lined up with Matt Crowe, “Big” Leonard Thurman, Billy Robinson and Brian Berger.
According to the roster, those five lineman combined to weigh in at 1,225 pounds.
Butte Central head coach Don Peoples Jr. was notorious for exaggerating the size of his football players in those days. I remember a cornerback listed at 180 going on to wrestle at 125 pounds without dieting.
This time, though, Peoples was underselling the size, if anything. Sean was all of the 6-foot-3, 250 pounds the roster said he was.
Sean went on to represent the West Side in the 2004 Montana East-West Shrine Game. He played for Montana in the Knights of Columbus Badlands Bowl.
Then he went to Columbia University and started on the defensive line for the Lions.
Sean, who had that Thomas charm that made him loved by everyone, was also a solid player on the Butte Central boys’ basketball team.
While Sean did not lead the Maroons to any state championships on the hardwood, he did throw what has to be the greatest punch in the history of the Butte High-Butte Central rivalry.
While only 18 years have passed since the right hook, it is already the thing of legends in Mining City sports lore.
Superstar Micah Downs played for the Bulldogs during the 2003-04 season. The Bulldogs were one of four teams Downs played for in his high school career.
Downs started his college career at Kansas and ended up playing for Gonzaga. It is said he shook the selfish style and became a model teammate before getting a look with the NBA.
When Downs played in Butte, he was clearly a level above everyone else.
At Butte High, though, Downs was not a favorite of his teammates, and he was not very polite to the competition when he played against Butte Central.
In two wins over the Maroons that season, Downs scored 54 points. That includes a 32-point performance in the second meeting.
Downs also dished out a few trash-talking insults. On multiple occasions, he inadvisably directed his insults toward Sean.
Sean just kept playing, but everyone could see that he was not happy.
After the game, the Bulldogs and Maroons headed through the skinny hallway of the Butte Civic Center to their locker rooms, which were only feet away.
Some words were said, and Sean threw a punch. Allegedly.
I have heard two versions of this story. The first one has Sean knocking Downs to the ground, and his Butte High teammates simply shrugged and stepped over the 6-foot-7 star on their way to the locker room.
That the scuffle did not lead to an all-out brawl shows his fellow Bulldogs were not happy with Downs, either.
Had that punch been thrown in any previous era of the Butte High-Butte Central rivalry, there would be a Netflix documentary about the Carnage at the Civic Center. The riot would have gone on for days.
The second version of the story is that Sean threw a punch that he really meant. The punch, however, did not connect solidly because there were too many people in between.
It does not really matter which version of legend is true, because the result of the punch was not the best part of the story for me.
On my way to interview some players and coaches after the game, I ran into George on the northeast corner of the court. The fight took place in the southeast corner of the building, about 60 feet and a few hundred fans away.
Like I did every time I saw George, I stopped to talk.
His grandson’s team just lost a basketball game, but George was floating like a butterfly as he headed in my direction.
At the exact time the fight was unknowingly going down just out of our sight, George started bobbing and weaving as he talked. Then he started jabbing and punching at the air.
As he shadowboxed, George told me, “My grandson is going to put a head on that Downs boy.”
As usual, George was right.
— Bill Foley, who sends his most sincere condolences to his friends in the Thomas family, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. 3 comments
Ted RichardsApril 5, 2022, 11:24 am
Always liked George. One time he gave me a ride home from a handball tournament in Dillon told me all the stories. Great article.REPLY
Maureen & Paul KlaboeApril 5, 2022, 2:27 pm
This was a great article about the legendary Thomas family! We are privileged enough to know the family for a lifetime and have so much affection and respect for all of them. Like all who knew Eli and Sean, we were saddened to hear of their passing. Our hope for the family is that they can take solace in their grief and find comfort feeling in the knowledge that Love and Legends never die.REPLY
Paul and Maureen Klaboe
Matt wernekeApril 6, 2022, 12:17 pm
I briefly met Sean in California in 2017 at CC in Malibu for 6 weeks and we have yearly phoned each other. I’m so saddened at this news. Can someone enlighten me as to what happened?? shocked to say the least.REPLY