Nick Thomas loves football. “I don’t care what level the game is, if the teams are competitive I love to watch,” he says. As the current chairman of the East-West Shrine Game® – the longest running college all-star game in the country – Thomas recently tipped his hand to his West Coast roots when he said, “This year’s East-West Game was a close one, but we pulled it out right at the end.” The West team won in the final seconds of the game, 24 to 17, making it not only a game for a good cause, but a great game to watch.
Featuring some of the best college players from around the United Sates and Canada, 2012 marked the 87th time the Shriners have hosted the East-West Game as a fundraiser for their Shriners Hospitals for Children® system of 22 facilities.
Thomas’s history with the game dates back to his school days. “Back then, in California, the Shriners also hosted a high school all-star game. It featured players from Northern California against the South,” he recalls. “I signed on to be what amounted to an errand boy. I ran for supplies, made sure the players had water and took care of the equipment. Eventually that role lead me to being camp coordinator (the week of practice before the game was referred to as camp), and after that I became chairman of the California game.” While chairman in 1995, Thomas came up with the idea of expanding the game into a competition between all-stars from California and Texas. The change in format resulted in a sold out crowd of 12,000 the first year.
As a result of his success with the California game, Thomas, who has been a Shriner since 1966, was invited to Tampa to share experiences on improving the game with other game staff from around the country. From there he was invited to attend the college East-West Shrine Game, over which he now presides as chairman. “Back then the game was always played between Christmas and New Years,” recalls Thomas. “When the game was played in Stanford’s stadium, in Palo Alto, we’d have 85,000 fans. Of course, then there were only a handful of post-season college games; now there are over 30.”
After being played in Orlando the past two years with marginal attendance, the 2012 game was played at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg Florida. “We had a good crowd of over 20,000 this year,” said an encouraged Thomas. “The East-West Game Committee is working hard to keep that momentum and build on it. Over the next five years, our vision is to see the stadium packed with fans. Our long-term goal is to get the game back to being the premiere post-season college game in the country. That’s a big goal for sure – but without a doubt, under the committee’s leadership progress will be made.”
Thomas is a humble man, who doesn’t like to honk his own horn, but if you read through his bio you can’t help to be impressed. What follows is a partial list of his accomplishments: He was owner of Thomas Furniture Mart in Fontana, California for 20 years before retiring in 1992. He was a teacher for 10 years at Fontana High School, where he coached football, basketball and baseball. He was raised to Master Mason at the Fontana Lodge #653 in 1964, and served as Master of the Lodge in 1971. In 1966, he joined Al Malaikah Shriners in Los Angeles, and served as the Temple’s Potentate in 1993. From 2001-2006 he chaired the Imperial Membership Committee, he also served as chairman of the Imperial Athletic Committee from 1996-2006. In 2006-2007 Thomas was the fraternity’s Imperial Potentate, followed by a stint as Imperial Recorder in 2009-2010. Currently, as well as serving as chairman of the East-West Shrine Game, Thomas also serves as chairman of the fraternity’s International Development Committee.
In June of 2012, Thomas was inducted into the DeMolay Hall of Fame in Louisville, Kentucky. Emphasizing leadership skills and character building through a program of social, sports and community development activities, Demolay is a community-based international organization for young men ages 12 to 21. Modeled after Freemasonry, there are over 1,000 DeMolay chapters worldwide.
Thomas was initiated into the Fontana Chapter of DeMolay in 1950. “I was 14 years old and my father, who was a Mason, practically had to drag me to my first meeting,” remembers Thomas. “I’m glad he did because it was one of the biggest turning points in my life. Being a member of our Masonic family and the Shrine has been an incredible journey. I don’t know where I would have ended up if it wasn’t for the all the friendships I’ve made and people I’ve met who gave me the direction in life that I’ve enjoyed so much.”
Which brings us full circle back to Thomas’s passion for football, and his efforts to revitalize the East-West Shrine Game. “Anytime you are around the things you love it’s a blessing. I enjoy all aspects of working on the game. People really don’t realize how much work goes into putting on a game like this; it’s a 12 month effort. We have an excellent East-West Committee, along with Harold Richardson, executive director, Deb Vincent, coordinator and Teresa Whitney, administrative assistant, they all make my job a lot easier,” said Thomas.
“This year moving the game to St. Petersburg required a lot of extra work to get all the details squared away,” reflected Thomas. “St. Petersburg and the people at the Tropicana Field have really embraced the game. The player’s visit to the Shriners Hospital for Children – Tampa was truly amazing. We had over 300 NFL scouts attend practice, and over 90 of our 2012 players made it into NFL training camps. All in all, I’d say our first year hosting the game in St. Petersburg was a huge success, and we’re all working hard to make 2013’s game even bigger and better,” said Thomas.
“In the end, the game’s motto of it is MORE THAN JUST A GAME rings true for us,” concludes Thomas. “The payback is that the money we raise goes straight to helping the kids through the hospitals and the wonderful care they provide.”
Go to www.shrinegame.com to learn more about the history of the game, find details on how you can be a sponsor, or attend the record-setting 88th playing of the East-West Shrine Game. The 2013 game will be played on January 19, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg Florida.