They lined up on the hot street. Emmitt Thomas peered down at his son, Derek. He seemed anything but fazed, despite the prospect of racing a former Kansas City Chiefs corner. He seemed confident. Too confident.
Derek was fast. Everybody told him, he knew it, and he showed it. For a 14-year-old, he was becoming quite the athlete, like his old man. But Emmitt had a lesson for him.
"You think you're pretty fast, don't you, son?" his father said. "OK, then, let's race."
The race, if you'd call it that, wasn't even close. Thomas whupped his son real good.
"I'm a pro athlete," Emmitt said. "You're fast, but I'm really fast."
Emmitt could have let him win; let his son beam with confidence for a day. But no son of his was going to have a big head. Instead, he let Derek remember how it felt to feel 2 feet tall. He let him remember the painful, humbling laughter of his mother and sister.
"He is humble, you know," Derek said. "He didn't let success go to his head and he didn't want it to go to my head -- he was trying to teach me a lesson."
But that was nothing new for Emmitt. As a father, player and coach, he has been teaching lessons all his life -- and he still is.
On Saturday in Canton, Ohio, the 65-year-old Thomas will teach a lesson in humility to a grander audience. After graciously waiting almost 30 years since playing his final down, Thomas finally will be rewarded with enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And in a moment symbolic of the man who never once complained about the wait, his Hall experience will be sweetened as he is joined by two of the players he taught lessons to over two decades ago -- Darrell Green and Art Monk.
"My grandfather always told me if you work hard, be honest, be humble, good things will come to you if it's the Lord's will to happen," Thomas said. "And you know, everything he told me has really come true for me."
Don't bother trying to figure out why he didn't go in sooner. He never did, and he wouldn't want you to. He's heard plenty of "when's it going to happen" from players, coaches, wife and son, who all had grown increasingly frustrated by his lack of inclusion.
But the man who hawked the right side of NFL fields for the Chiefs from 1966-1978 did have the credentials. You can talk about Thomas' playing career -- the 58 interceptions, the five Pro Bowls, his Super Bowl IV ring. But to just talk of his playing career would be doing a disservice to the countless players he has had an impact on in his 27 seasons giving back to the game as an assistant coach.
Nine of those seasons were spent with the Washington Redskins. The first season he served as a wide receivers coach teaching coverage schemes to the similarly quiet and humble Monk, and the rest giving freedom to the lightning fast and unorthodox Green. But the lessons didn't stop at football and instead rolled into marriage, parenting and life. That's why they listened.
"He builds a human relationship with the players, and I think because he creates a father figure base, there is an accountability that a father-son would have," Green said. "So now it translates to the football field that, hey, I'm going to be accountable to dad. I'm going to be accountable to the person that is in authority. I'm going to be accountable to the man that I appreciate -- the man that I have grown to respect."
Green and Thomas are both from Texas, and both played corner. That's just about where most comparisons end. At 6 feet, 2 inches, Thomas relied on his smarts and technique. At 5-10 ¾ Green relied on his vision and athleticism.
Green's raw and unorthodox sole use of the outside coverage technique was a constant source of frustration for Washington coaches. Instead of embracing his uniqueness, they kept trying to force a square Green into a more balanced and round inside coverage technique. The result: blown coverages, and uncertainty for Green.
When Thomas became his position coach before the 1987 season, Green came right up and the first thing he asked was how he was going to change him. Thomas had a simple, relieving answer.
Thomas gave Green the freedom to play with his speed and unparalleled athletic ability, but on the first day of team camps, he had to give a simple lesson for the other defensive backs.
"I would tell them, 'Look at Darrell, but don't try to do what he is doing. You don't have the athletic ability,' " Thomas said.
Green was treated different, and he knew it.
"He used to tell me that when he was going off on other guys, that they would get my whuppin'," Green said with a laugh. "He didn't give me a lot of whuppings. That was his saying, he'd say, 'You getting Darrell Green's whuppin'.'"
But it wasn't that Thomas had a particular liking for Darrell. It's just that he took the time to understand him as a person, thanks to the lessons he learned while being worked, scolded and molded in Kansas City by his position coach Tom Bettis. A good coach, Thomas learned from his mentor: Discover everything about the players -- not just football -- to get the most out of them.
"You have to find a way that your players learn, and learn how you can correct them," Thomas said.
So he found a way, and treated Green different, just like he treats all his players different.
"If I had something to say to Darrell that I thought would upset him, I would wait till after practice and get him in the meeting room alone," Thomas said. "But if something popped up on the film and I needed to make a correction, Darrell was the type you couldn't just call out like that. So I would go through the other corner and kind of badger him with it and Darrell would get the message that he is really talking to me."
It turns out there was a reason Green wasn't getting Thomas' whuppin', and it worked. The 1987 Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl, and the trio of Monk, Green, and Thomas won another with the 1991 squad. Green totaled seven Pro Bowl appearances and played until the age of 42 as a model citizen in Washington. But don't think for a second the special treatment went to Green's head.
"It is just really fitting that he was a Hall of Fame player and was able to relate with a player like myself in a unique way," Green said. "I think that really if there wasn't that kind of freedom for me, I probably wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame myself."
Thomas' grandfather told him to be humble and good things would come.
It's that lesson that helped a kid from Angleton, Texas, who played only one year of high school football and walked on at tiny Bishop College, go on to star in the NFL. It's that lesson that allowed him to stand by, fully content, even as he watched five of his teammates enshrined. It's the same lesson he is still teaching as the assistant head coach for the Atlanta Falcons.
Chris Conetzkey covers the NFL for ESPN.com.