CHICAGO — Running back Connor Thomas knows defenders have many ways of bringing him down. But unlike most blue-collar backs, Thomas presents the defense with another option: his lengthy hair.
"There's always the potential of being tackled by it," said the Notre Dame College Prep graduate and Norwood Park native. "Knock on wood, it hasn't happened yet."
For the most part, Thomas and his locks — which he's grown for more than three years and extend to the top of his uniform numbers — have blown past would-be tacklers as the junior has led Minnesota State-Mankato to Saturday's NCAA Division II National Championship game in Kansas City.
Thomas has accumulated a team-high 1,338 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns while adding 110 yards receiving and another score for the Mavericks (14-0), who face Colorado State-Pueblo (13-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.
"Connor is a tough, hard-nosed running back with great vision with the ability to punish on his finish," Mankato coach Todd Hoffner said.
Thomas isn't the only Notre Dame graduate and Chicago native to produce for Mankato. His roommate and fellow former Don, redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Pieruccini, has thrown for 1,245 yards and 12 touchdowns in a split-shift duty with sophomore QB Ricky Lloyd.
Thomas and Pieruccini, of Norwood Park, also are roommates, sharing a home with three other Mankato players.
"It’s great having another person from your high school that you knew up here," Thomas said.
Thomas, who had a buzzcut throughout his career at Notre Dame, said Mankato was the only school to recruit him as a running back. Division I programs wanted him to play safety.
"Connor exudes hard work, enthusiasm and dedication. These were the keys to his success at Notre Dame College Prep, and they have continued to be," said Hennessey, of Portage Park. "Connor was a great teammate and leader who brought out the best in everybody. His focus was totally on the team and how the team could succeed."
Thomas said his grit comes from his parents: Dave, a Chicago Fire Department captain; and Barbara, a school crossing guard. They, along with some other family members and friends from Notre Dame will be in attendance for Saturday's championship — the first time Mankato will play for the Division II title.
"I’m proud of where I came from," Thomas said. "I’m proud to represent my hometown, my family and this school overall. I'm looking forward to it."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: