Friday, June 19, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
While playing for UNLV back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, defensive backs Kevin Thomas and Sam Brandon would see names like Randall Cunningham and Keenan McCardell on the fences lining the Rebel Park practice fields.
But rarely did they physically see the program's notable alumni.
Now, with each of their NFL careers having come to an end due to knee issues, the two longtime friends are trying to change that.
Thomas, who played in 38 games for the Buffalo Bills from 2002-04, and Brandon, who was with the Denver Broncos from 2002-06, showed up last weekend on their old collegiate stomping grounds to help coach and offer words of wisdom at Mike Sanford's team camp.
The event featured several local high school squads, with Brandon and Thomas helping coach the Renegades -- a group of individual players on-hand not affiliated with any of the attending high schools.
"I felt like me and Sam, we needed to break the loop," Thomas said. "We needed to start having alumni come back, and we kind of fell into that trend where you leave and you don't come back, but we wanted to start something new, start having alumni come and be a part of everything."
Since leaving UNLV, both have stayed in contact with their former defensive backs coach Mike Bradeson, who is entering his 13th season as a Rebels aide.
Now they're hoping to spread the word.
"(Coach John Robinson) had more of his people come talk to us than we had alumni -- John Madden, Keyshawn (Johnson), Ronnie Lott," Thomas added. "Hopefully it'll help out recruiting, hopefully get these local guys to come here. There's a lot of talent in Las Vegas, you've just got to keep them home."
Brandon and Thomas came into the UNLV program at the same time, and now live down the street from each other in Denton, Texas.
The two are in the early stages of starting their own youth football program in the Dallas suburb, and over the weekend at Rebel Park, saw the joy they could potentially get out of it.
"Holding information inside is only useful to yourself -- What good is that?" Brandon said. "It's a real joyous feeling, a feeling like no other, when you can give it to a kid and you see him accept it. When we've been out here, we've had nothing but positive feedback from parents, from the kids, and that's what it's about, watching them take something you've learned and watching them incorporate it to their game."
Both Brandon and Thomas said that when they ultimately begin their youth football venture, they want to put an emphasis on fundamentals -- something Thomas said he didn't grasp until an advanced stage in his playing career.
"I didn't learn my fundamentals until I got to college, so this is a great time," he said. "You get them at a young age and teach the fundamentals, the game is a lot easier. "
Both see the life experiences they have to pass down from their football journeys as being just as important as skill.
Thomas's career came to a close following the 2004 season, when he realized that he'd never be himself again athletically following microfracture surgery.
"It took me a couple of years to get over the fact that I wasn't playing," said Thomas, who now spends his time with his wife and 3 kids. "After the first two years, I did an internship for the NFL Europe in Berlin. I was there for a year and it folded. I went to Midwestern State and was coaching the DBs down there for a year, then I had to re-evaluate. I came down here to try and network as well. My ultimate goal is to be back here and help out."
Brandon said he felt the effect he could have on younger athletes when several faculty and kids from his old high school -- John W. North High in Riverside, Calif. -- made the trip to see him play a game in San Diego during his first NFL season in 2002.
"Kids always have flocked to me and people have always said 'Hey, you should work with kids,'" he said. "I know it's something I was on the path to doing. I think I found it. That's just something I'm gonna take. I came out here to leave the doors open and show some love back to UNLV."
The two also took some time out to meet with several of the current Rebels, with whom they hope to build firm relationships in their effort to build more bridges between the program and its alumni.
Both Brandon and Thomas want to be just as available to the UNLV program as they plan to be with those young players they plan on shaping in the coming years.
"Coach Bradeson I guess talks highly of us, but for good reason," Brandon said with a chuckle. "I gave a couple of guys my number, said if you have any questions, call, because information you keep to yourself is useless."
Sun reporter Ryan Greene can be reached at (702) 948-7844 or at [email protected].