LANSING | Four days before last season's NFL playoffs, Saints' leading rusher Pierre Thomas was placed on injured reserve with an injured left ankle.
Imagine the Kentucky Derby favorite being left at the starting line because the gate wouldn't go up while the rest of the field took off.
"It was very hard for me. I'm a competitive guy and I really want to be out there helping my team," Thomas said Saturday at his free football camp. "I'm getting better now and I can't wait to get back out on this field."
The Thornton Fractional South grad is nearly recovered from surgery to repair the torn ligaments in that ankle.
Thomas scored crucial touchdowns in the 2009 NFC title game and the Super Bowl but appeared in only six games last season -- rushing for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
He caught 29 passes for 201 yards.
Though his season was lost, Thomas said he was still "in the ear" of running backs Chris Ivory and Julius Jones to give feedback and help prepare them for the playoffs. That's what good teammates do.
As the NFL lockout enters its fourth month, but with signs of progress, one sticking point that remains is the team owners' proposed 18-game season.
"Hey, nobody wants to play that many games. But you just got to suck it up if it happens," Thomas said. "You got to be tough."
Saturday's camp was a labor of love for the former Illinois star.
"I love giving back because this is where it all started for me. I want the kids in this community to be successful, too," Thomas said.
Three seniors-to-be were quite moved by Thomas' sincerity, gung-ho nature and the emphasis he put on good grades.
"It means a lot to have him here," said Cameron Brown, the Rebels' offensive tackle/linebacker. "He could just blow us off. He's doing bigger and better things. I'm sure he has a lot of things on his plate to keep him busy.
"But for him to take time out to come back to us shows that he still cares, that he still has a home here at Thornton Fractional South. We're happy he shows his appreciation for us."
Brown was among nearly 100 boys who attended the Pierre Thomas Free Football Skills Day. All received an autographed camp T-shirt from the undrafted free agent who became an NFL star almost overnight.
"He gives us advice on how to make it. He tells us the right things to do, to take the right path and hang around the right crowd of people," Brown said.
"He's where I want to be," added Jaylen Woods, a free safety/wide receiver. "A lot of other people don't show support for where they came from and forget about it. But he came back. And if I make it, I'll come back, too."
Wilson Pierce, a two-way guard, wants everyone to know it's not easy being a kid today.
"It's great to see people who care for others and are willing to help kids who can't help themselves and show them they can make it," Pierce said. "He lets everyone know that all it takes is hard work.
"He's not a big guy. A lot of (players) are worried about not being too big but when he comes back and says all you've got to do is work hard and be dedicated, it helps you."