SPRINGFIELD — In the midst of a hectic week in his second career, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert R. Thomas will pause to receive an honor recognizing his first professional pursuit.
After oral arguments at the high court wrap up today, Thomas heads north to attend a ceremony inducting him into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
Thomas, 60, served as a place-kicker in the NFL from 1974 to 1986, including 10 seasons with the Chicago Bears.
He also played at the University of Notre Dame, where he kicked the winning field goal in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, clinching the national championship for the Fighting Irish.
Fellow inductees include football and baseball standout Bo Jackson, Notre Dame and Green Bay Packers star Paul Hornung and former Bears linebacker Otis Wilson.
"It certainly is humbling to be mentioned in the same breath with some of those people," Thomas said in an interview Tuesday. "It's a nice honor."
Thomas started classes at Loyola University Chicago School of Law while playing for the Bears, passing the bar exam in 1981. He served as a DuPage County circuit judge and 2nd District appellate justice prior to joining the high court in 2000.
He served as chief justice of the high court from 2005 to 2008 — the first person from DuPage County to hold that position.
While he said it took years for people to recognize him in public as someone other than an ex-Bear, even his fellow justices still call attention to his football career.
"That's going to be something that lingers," Thomas said, "but I think I'm a little bit closer to being known more for the judiciary."
One other member of the high court already entered the hall of fame — Justice Anne M. Burke, who got inducted in 1996 for helping found the Special Olympics.
"It certainly reflects the diversity of interests among the profession, the judiciary and the court," said Supreme Court spokesman Joseph R. Tybor.
Howie Fagan, the hall of fame's executive director, said the combination of Thomas' playing career and legal work led to his selection.
"It's how he's conducted himself, where he's going and where he's been," Fagan said. "He's highly thought of in every respect."
Thomas' kicking career started on the soccer field, learning from his French-born father who played the sport professionally. He donned a helmet and pads only after the quarterback for his Rochester, N.Y., high school invited him to try out.
He turned down a soccer scholarship to walk on at Notre Dame and by his sophomore year won the starting kicker spot.
Thomas said he joined the early wave of soccer-turned-football players. When he watches the NFL now, he said he sees a much different game than the one he played.
"The art of soccer-style kicking has really evolved," he said. "The kickers today are better than they've ever been."
One of Thomas' favorite tales from his playing days involves Ditka, the Bears coach known for his spirit and temper.
In a game against Tampa Bay, Thomas said, he missed a field goal — which Ditka believed happened because Thomas didn't keep his eye on the ball.
As he came off the field, Ditka began yelling, emphasizing his point by pulling on Thomas' facemask. He stopped his diatribe only because the defense forced a turnover, putting the Bears in field goal range again.
So Thomas — with a very sore neck — ran out and hit a 49-yard field goal.
"I come to the sidelines and now he's lifting me in the air like I just won a Super Bowl," Thomas said. "That was the gamut of emotions with him."