Carol James, widow of legendary Washington coach Don James, was among those to pay tribute to Abner Thomas during a celebration of life service before a packed room at the Don James Center on Thursday afternoon.
James recalled that Thomas, a longtime UW athletic department special assistant who died July 27 at age 86, was the first to greet her and her children at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1975, shortly after Don James had been hired as the Huskies’ new head coach.
“He said, ‘Follow me.’ And when Abner says, ‘Follow me,’ you follow,” Carol James said. “And that was the first of many, many acts of kindness Abner did for our family for over 40 years.”
Thomas was known as “Big Ab” around the athletic department, where he volunteered and worked for 41 years an operations and recruiting assistant. To generations of players, he was “Uncle Ab,” a father figure, a friend and a mentor.
“Without him, I don’t know where I’d be today,” former UW running back Willis Ray Mackey (1979) said.
Former Huskies assistant coach Skip Hall told the story of how Thomas had helped recruit California running back Doug Martin to UW in the mid-1970s — with a phone call convincing Martins’ parents to keep their son away from the coaches at Cal — and Martin would later become the one to dub Thomas “Uncle Ab.”
“He was my uncle – Uncle Ab,” Martin said. “… Abner, I know you’re up there walking now now with the big dogs: Peter, John, Paul … and DJ (Don James).”