”Tank” impressing Saints coaching staff

Published 8:49 pm Wednesday, August 23, 2006

With his bulging belly and ebullient manner, defensive lineman Hollis “Tank” Thomas could easily be mistaken for a tuba player in a brass band.

He could be a good fit in New Orleans for more reasons than that.

For one, he’s the son of two chefs, so he should have no trouble navigating the crescent city’s renowned restaurants.

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Also, the Saints took a beating trying to stop the run last season, and Thomas, now playing at around 335 pounds, has been known to get in the way of ball carriers during his decade-long career.

“That’s one of the reasons they got me, because I’m a fat guy,” a smirking Thomas said between training camp practices on Friday.

In fact, he’s a fat guy with asthma whose favorite TV shows are SpongeBob SquarePants and the Three Stooges. Naturally, teammates and coaches love him.

“He’s a big teddy bear — just a big funny guy,” defensive end Charles Grant said. “On the field he’s an animal, though. He’s one of the guys who’s going to help this football team be successful. I’m just glad to have him here.”

When the Saints acquired Thomas from Philadelphia in a trade on the second day of the 2006 draft, Thomas said that he felt like he finally knew what it was like to be wanted on draft day.

He wasn’t drafted out of Northern Illinois, which recruited him from the Sumner High School team in Missouri, a team Thomas had to make special arrangements to play for.

He was a strong grammar school student who tested into the Academy of Math and Science, a St. Louis magnet school. “So I’m no dummy,” Thomas noted.

But the high school had no football team so Thomas got permission to play elsewhere. He played basketball for his regular school and also tried to play the trumpet, but quit because “it didn’t agree with my mom’s hearing.”

Had he continued to pursue music, “I probably would have been one of those jazz drummers back there with the glasses on,” he said.

But football is what he ended up doing, and doing well for someone bypassed in the draft. Philadelphia signed Thomas as a rookie free agent in August of 1996, and Thomas went on to start 95 of 126 games for the Eagles. Last season he was second in tackles among Eagles linemen with 65.

Thomas said he enjoyed his time in Philadelphia, which included a trip to the Super Bowl two seasons ago. But his move to New Orleans has rejuvenated him, he said.

Last season, his playing weight hovered between 350 to 360 pounds, or about 20 pounds heavier than he is now.

“I’m moving a little bit quicker, doing some stuff I really wasn’t doing last year,” Thomas said.

And his improved mobility has gotten the attention of new Saints coach Sean Payton.

“He got his weight down. We’re going to need his presence inside,” Payton said. “He’s a pretty smart player. He’s been in a lot of games and been in some big games. … I like him a lot.”

Thomas has a tattoo on his left arm of what he describes as the head of a part-man, part-beast, which symbolizes his approach to football.

The beast only seems to show itself from the snap of the ball until the whistle, however.

“I’m not going to fight in practice. I’m not going to be yelling to fire anybody up, because why should you have to get fired up when you’re getting paid to play a game you enjoy?” Thomas explained. “My thing is to come out and make it fun — yell out obscenities or movie lines.”

When television crews gravitate to him before other players, he tells bystanders, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

And when he’s breathing heavily and sweating profusely amid the sweltering heat of training camp in the South, he can be heard saying things like, “Somebody kill me now,” or asking to be struck by lightning.

But while he asks for death in jest, he takes seriously the task of improving the lives of others, especially those afflicted with asthma.

He has a foundation, the mission of which is to educate children on how to manage asthma so they may enjoy vigorous activity as he does.

And as the father of a 9-year-old girl, he also enjoys giving his time to participate in youth events, such as taking a group of kids to a bowling alley.

“Just have them run around and tire themselves out so when they get home they don’t bug their parents,” he said. “They just go to sleep.”

Now if Thomas can continue to wear out offensive linemen and running backs, Saints fans of all ages might sleep a little better.