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Thomas finalist for Butkus Award

November 16, 2001|By ERIC GALVAN, Sports Writer

When former Imperial High football star Robert Thomas made the decision to return to UCLA for his senior season, he had a list of reasons.

One of the main reasons he turned down the millions of dollars of pro football was to have a shot at the Butkus Award, awarded to the nation's top collegiate linebacker.

On Thursday he came one step closer to realizing that goal as he was announced as one of three finalists for the award by the Downtown Athletic Club of Orlando.

"This was one of the goals that I set for myself at the beginning of the year and now I'm almost there," said the 21-year-old Thomas. "I was really excited when I found out about this. This just shows that all the work that I put in during the off-season and during the year, and all the film study, has paid off."

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The 6-foot-2, 229-pounder leads the Pac-10 in tackles with a career-high 99 (66 solo) and is averaging 11 stops per game. He recorded a season-high 18 tackles against Washington State on Nov. 3, the most by a Bruin since Eric Turner's 21 in 1989.

He is tied for the team's single-season record for tackles for loss with 22, including 5 1/2 sacks, with two games remaining for the 6-3 Bruins, the nation's 14th-ranked defense.

"What makes me proud is he decided to stay in school for his senior year," said UCLA head coach Bob Toledo. "He could have come out after his junior year."

That's a decision that has paid dividends for both sides. Through six games the Bruins were the No. 3 team in the Bowl Championship Series and a national title contender. Since then UCLA has lost three games and while the Bruins have faltered, Thomas has maintained a high level of play, leading his team in tackles in all three contests.

Last year Thomas was a semifinalist for the Butkus and finished the year with 88 tackles, nine for loss, and six forced fumbles.

He ranks 15th on the team's all-time career tackles list with 282, two behind Carnell Lake.

While winning the Butkus is in the back of his mind, Thomas said what he's focusing on now is the task at hand, this week's game against hated rival USC.

"This is really the biggest game of the season for us. There's so much emotion involved in this game because it is a big rivalry game," said Thomas, also a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, for the nation's top interior lineman, this year. "We take this game personally. There's a lot of emotions and motivation for this. I think being announced as a Butkus finalist gives me even more motivation for this game."

Still, there's one main motivating factor for winning the Butkus Award.

"I want to make my parents proud. That's really what I play for, for them," said Thomas. "They've always been there for me through good times and bad. And I just want to win that award and be able to hand it to them and make them even more proud."

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