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As heroes fall, we can learn

When the rich and famous fall, the plunge usually doesn't make much of an impact in the lives of regular folks. That's because people in the limelight live in universes the rest of us can only dream about.

Every now and then, though, we little people touch a star. Maybe we sit next to an author on an airplane or ride an elevator with an actor. From that moment on, we might feel a certain kinship with that person.

So it was that I followed with sadness and disbelief the recent legal troubles of Lamar Thomas.

Thomas, as you might know, gained his fame by catching footballs. He did it so well at the University of Miami that he won All-America honors and a fat contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1993.

Thomas moved easily from the national television exposure the Hurricanes had in those days to the rarified air of the National Football League.

OK, it was the Bucs. But it was still the big time.

His NFL career hasn't come close to matching his collegiate glory, but he has hung in there for three years. Time and again, his coaches have said they expect Thomas at any moment to make his mark.

Those predictions have finally come true. For all of the wrong reasons.

Thomas has been charged with battering his pregnant fiancee, Ebony Cooksey, during a July 4 party at a friend's home in Plantation.

In the following days, it was revealed Thomas has led a very troubled life in recent years. In April 1995, a despondent Thomas threatened to kill himself. In one suicide note to his grandmother, he confessed to using drugs, committing crimes and abusing women.

"I lost all respect for females. . . . I had sex with them to destroy their lives," he wrote.

As more information about his problems emerged, I couldn't help wondering if this really was the same Lamar Thomas I met just four months ago.

Thomas was the featured speaker in March at the annual dinner for the Boys and Girls Club of Citrus County. The club usually tries to get a speaker who can inspire the kids to reach beyond the limitations life has put on them. In Thomas, they had a gem.

Disdaining a formal speech, Thomas that night grabbed the microphone and easily connected with his audience.

He spoke of overcoming pressure from his do-nothing friends on the street corners of Ocala who tried to keep him from his dream. He spoke eloquently of his relationship with his family and his religion, about how they gave him the strength to beat the odds.

Thomas earned a thunderous standing ovation that night and even more praise for patiently signing autographs for more than an hour. The long line of people waiting to share a moment with him included a number of people who are famous in their own right, county officials and business leaders.

More important, the kids from the club gave him a thumbs up. It's not easy passing muster with teens today, but Thomas did it. And he has been doing that throughout the Tampa Bay region as one of the most visible Bucs players at community events.

Now, because of his recent actions, Thomas has lost everything. The Bucs have dropped him from the team. His relationship with his fiancee is ruined. And he still has a locker full of internal demons to overcome.

Roy Rivera has sympathy for Thomas, but not much.

"A man in that position should set a better example. He should practice what he preaches."

Rivera was one of the teens in the audience March 9 when Thomas spoke. Rivera, who had just won the club's sportsmanship trophy for a stellar lacrosse season, listened closely to Thomas.

"His speech made a lot of sense," he said. Now, he feels let down.

"I thought he had it all together. It's disgraceful, him saying all that noble stuff and then beating his girlfriend."

This episode has taught a valuable lesson to Rivera and the kids who have come in contact with the football star over the years. For all of their glory, the rich and famous are human beings first. They make mistakes, just like the rest of us.

So go ahead and admire those who overcome long odds in life, but don't build that pedestal too high. It's a long way down, for them and you, when they fall.