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LANSING | At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, the New Orleans Saints' Pierre Thomas has become one of the NFL's top running backs.

He wasn't even drafted out of the University of Illinois. Too small, the pro scouts said.

But at Thursday's second annual Pierre Thomas Football Skills Day at T.F. South, his alma mater, the local hero appeared 10 feet tall in the eyes of 111 admiring campers in grades 4 through 8.

Last year, 75 kids attended the free camp.

During the three hours of instruction by Thomas and his staff, he hammered home the importance of good grades, good sportsmanship and good citizenship.

"I feel happy. I feel blessed," Thomas said. "I've been through a lot in my journey; a lot of ups and downs. I've been told I was too small and I'm not going to make it. You're not athletic enough.

"I heard nothing but negativity but my coaches, my friends, my family, kept me on the positive side."

After the 2007 draft wrapped up, Thomas refused to be bitter or feel sorry for himself.

"I didn't fight. I didn't complain. I just said when I get my opportunity, I'm gonna break the door down and that's what I did," he said. "The Saints gave me an opportunity to go out there and show what I have."

The bounty system exposed within the Saints' organization has rocked pro football and left the team decimated with player, coaching and front office suspensions.

Being an offensive player, Thomas refuses to get caught up in that sticky web by commenting on the scandal.

"We're all right. We're good. We're not really worried about that right now," he said Thursday. "I'm not really here to speak on that. I'm just happy to be out here with these kids and giving back as much as I can."

A light rain didn't dampen the spirit of his campers, all of whom got T-shirts, autographs and posed for pictures afterward.

"I love giving back and helping others. When I started out at their age, I didn't have this," Thomas said. "I'm glad the position I'm at now allows me to give back and show these little kids that somebody from their area made it and they can do the same thing -- if they put the work in."

The Saints' website refers to Pierre Thomas as "an exceptional find" after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2007.

From special teams ace as a rookie, he evolved into one of the most productive running backs in franchise history and a threat as both a receiver and blocker.

In 63 games with the Saints, Thomas is ranked third in yards per carry, tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns, 10th in rushing yardage and tied for 10th in career touchdowns (31).

His "I Can Foundation" is geared toward fighting childhood obesity, bringing back recess to Chicago's public schools and providing other after-school activities to keep kids safe and off the street.

"That's his nature," T.F. South coach Tom Padjen said. "You see some of these guys who've made it, they've got the big entourage and their egos are out of this world. But Pierre is down to earth. He's never changed.

"He's the same hard-working young man and he cares about people; cares enough about us to come back and help out."

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Sports copy editor

Jim is a copy editor for The Times who works out of Valparaiso. A South Central High School (1984) and Ball State ('89) grad, he’s covered preps most of his career. He received the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association’s Media Award in 1997.

Sports Director

Hillary has covered prep, pro and college sports -- and even a Dixie Baseball World Series -- for newspapers north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line since 1995.