WHEN HE was small, his mother watched over him.

She’d say, “Don’t go out without your shoes on….”

“Put something on your head, it’s cold outside….”

“Make sure to take your vitamins….”

Anthony Thomas listened, because he was a good son and good sons always listen. But deep down, he believed, as all kids do, that he was indestructible.

Funny. Now it’s his coaches who want to believe it. And they watch him almost as closely as Mom.

That’s because Thomas, 22, is the pony in Michigan’s one-trick-pony rushing attack. How long can U-M roll on one wheel? Thomas isn’t part of the Wolverines’ ground attack — he’s the tanks, the artillery and the air support.

He has 1,146 yards.

The next-closest rusher has 89. And he’s a receiver.

“Do the coaches take extra caution with you in practice?” I asked him this week. “Maybe put you in a shark cage?”

“Nah, nothing like that,” he said, laughing, “but they do hold me out of some of the physical drills. And they’re always asking me to stay healthy.”

Asking Thomas to stay healthy is like asking the last family cow to give milk. Imagine the alternative. If Thomas goes down, the Wolverines’ new nickname is
“shotgun formation.”

All of which makes this season even more amazing. For here we are, the annual finale with Ohio State, and so far, Thomas has only really missed one quarter of football.

Of course, that was the fourth quarter of the Illinois game. The Wolverines had a 20-point lead when Thomas went out. They wound up losing, 35-29.

It was the lowest moment of the year. It cost the Wolverines any hope of a national title.

And it only shows how precious a cargo the guy they call “A-Train” really is.

He shoulders the load

“What are you going to do after the Ohio State game?” I asked Thomas.

“I’m gonna take a long rest,” he said.

Not that shouldering the load is anything new to this kid. He went to a tiny high school in Louisiana, where his entire graduating class was 83 students. Needless to say, everyone on the football team played both ways.

In fact, during the final game of Thomas’ freshman season, the team’s only tailback went down with an injury. The coach was stuck. He looked at Thomas, who was playing receiver, and told him to switch to running back.

Just like that.

“In the middle of the game?” I said. “How did you know what to do?”

“The quarterback told me,” Thomas said. “He’d say, ‘I’m gonna give it to you on the left,’ or ‘I’m gonna give it to you on the right.’ “

“But how did you know where to run?”

“Well, I knew this much. If a guy is coming at you, you don’t need to be going that way.”

Thomas, a junior, has taken that instinct to new heights with Michigan. He runs where they ain’t, and when he runs where they are, he often runs through them or past them. He is averaging 114 yards a game, and follows a great Michigan tradition of running backs.

Of course, that tradition also included stacking rushers like pancakes on the roster, one high school All-America behind another.

Let’s be honest. It used to be if a Michigan running back went down, you just plugged in another one. You were more likely to have a shortage of bookstores in Ann Arbor than a shortage of rushers.

There was always a Jamie Morris, with a Tony Boles waiting in the wings. There was always a Tyrone Wheatley with a Tshimanga Biakabutuka just over his shoulder.

Heck, in the mid-’70s, Michigan had three different rushing leaders in three years — Gordon Bell, Rob Lytle, Russell Davis — and they all broke 1,000 yards. And in 1976, the Wolverines averaged — let’s say it again here, averaged — 345 yards rushing per game!

It takes a small army to do that.

Today, their one-man army does what he can.

All about that nickname

“Do you like the nickname ‘A-Train’?” I asked.

“It’s OK,” Thomas said. “That’s something they came up with when I was a freshman.”

“Do you know where it comes from?”

“I have no clue where it comes from.”

Forgive him. He’s young.

I told Thomas about the A Train. How it is a subway in New York that goes up to Harlem, and was immortalized by Duke Ellington in the song, “Take the A Train.”

“Oh,” Thomas said. “Well, that explains the train thing.”

Hey. What do you expect? The man is busy. You try carrying the ball 252 times, catching 24 passes and returning 11 kickoffs, then see if you have time to listen to music.

Besides, his coaches are less concerned about his lyrics than his legs. And the rest of his general health. One more game to go — and a big bowl, they hope — and the Wolverines will have survived the biggest one-man reliance since the Crickets backed Buddy Holly.

You can almost see the U-M coaches shooing away germs, wrapping Thomas in an overcoat, making sure his hair is dry before he goes out.

Just like Mom.

“I’m here to help the team out,” said A-Train. “Whatever it takes. If I have to carry it 100 times a game, I’ll do it.”

Don’t tempt them, Anthony.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign copies of his books from noon-1 p.m. Nov. 27 at the Borders in Novi.

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