The former Portland State basketball star nearly gave up on his new sport after yet more ankle problems last season, but patience has paid off in a big way—and now he’s become one of Peyton Manning’s most dangerous weapons
You shouldn’t know who Julius Thomas is.
A year ago the Denver tight end thought about dropping his football experiment, cutting his losses and putting to use that business degree from Portland State—the one he earned on a basketball scholarship.
The Broncos were pushing—the way football teams do when legendary quarterbacks sign on for a career nightcap—to have each of their offensive pieces at Peyton Manning’s disposal. Thomas was the promising project who played one year of college football after four years of basketball, impressing the Broncos organization on film and in interviews enough to get drafted in the fourth round in 2011.
For many reasons—reasons we’ll get to—that was a miracle in itself. But on the docket in the fall of 2012 was an early exit from football, because Thomas wanted to live the rest of his life with a functioning ankle rather than rush back from surgery the previous April.
“He was getting frustrated because they were expecting too much from him coming off of surgery,” says his father, Greg, a high school principal and former college receiver. “They told him he wasn’t running full speed in one of the preseason games, and he called me and said ‘Dad, if this is what it takes, then maybe this isn’t for me. I’ve got to use these ankles for the rest of my life.’ ”
Word of Thomas’ frustration got back to John Elway and the Broncos’ front office. A decision came: Shut him down, but not all the way. Rather than put him on injured reserve, Thomas was moved to the practice squad in October, so he could play scout team tight end and outside linebacker and catch up on all those football practices he missed out on because basketball coaches warned him against injury his whole life.
What did the Broncos get in return for a little bit of organizational patience? Just 65 catches and 12 touchdowns in 2013; a Pro Bowl tight end, seemingly out of thin air. Thomas is suddenly on the short list of basketball guys who found success after converting to football. There’s Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, and, at the moment, Thomas, a focal point of the league’s top passing offenses as it takes aim at San Diego in Sunday’s divisional playoff slate.
Did even he know it was coming?
“This was always the goal,” he says. “Everything hasn’t always been easy or clear-cut. All my life, I see an opportunity and it’s not clear-cut. How bad do you want it? I decided to see it through.”
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This football journey started at Pacific University in Stockton, Calif., in 1983. Greg Thomas likes to retell this story to Julius, as a way of reminding him of the fragile nature of his existence. There was a new offensive coordinator at Pacific, a skinny, dark-haired former safety at the university in his early 30s. Greg was one of the top returning wide receivers on the ’83 team, and one of the tallest in the country at 6-6. He got called into the new coordinator’s office one day during the spring before his final season.
“Pete Carroll brings me in and he says, ‘Greg, I’ve got an idea,’ and he’s bouncing all over the place, excited.”
Carroll: “You’re drawing a lot of double teams at split end. You’re huge. I’m gonna move you to H-Back. We’re gonna get you in motion, get some single coverage, move you all over the field, okay?”
Greg Thomas: “Ok, whatever.”
So Greg, who liked playing football but didn’t love it, moved to H-Back. That spring he was run-blocking in practice when two teammates rolled up on his leg, tearing his ACL and MCL. These were the last days of the flayed-open approach to knee surgeries, and Greg’s was botched. They went in before swelling subsided, and they put his knee in a cast. A career-ender.
He would graduate, and marry the girl he met at the Palladium Disco in San Francisco a few years earlier. Then came Julius in ’88.
“I was pretty damn wild, so there’s no telling if things would have gone the same way if I went to the NFL,” Greg says. “I like to tell Julius, if it wasn’t for Pete Carroll you wouldn’t even be born.”
Greg raised his son a Raiders fan, and three generations of Thomas men attended home games together. Thomas grew to love football, and while his father encouraged him to play in high school in Lodi, Calif., a basketball coach always got the swing vote. Greg even promised he would reach out to Carroll, by then at USC, and lobby for a football scholarship if Thomas would just play his senior season of football. Thomas declined.
“I let people talk me out of playing in high school and probably shouldn’t have,” Thomas says. “It was always like, why would you risk injury when you can get a basketball scholarship?”
Portland State and Boise State offered basketball rides, and Thomas chose the Oregon school. It wound up being the perfect spot for reasons he couldn’t foresee: When his four years were up and he was on track to play basketball overseas, his desire for one shot at football coincided with a coaching change at PSU. The previous coach ran a run-and-shoot offense and didn’t previously recruit tight ends. If Thomas could learn the new coach’s offense he could play immediately. Enter first-year tight ends coach Steve Cooper.
“He came out to the workout and he looked like a basketball guy playing football,” Cooper says. “He asked questions, and the next day he was better. We go into the film room and he doesn’t have any clue what anything is, and then the next day the information is retained. That’s how it went for nine months. Julius is just a sponge.”
Thomas spent the summer before his fifth year of college and the entire fall semester in the football office, hanging with Cooper, watching film, learning how to critique himself.
“I had already graduated so I had nothing else to do,” he says. “It was like, I have this ability, I have to take this chance at the NFL. The time with coach Cooper was really invaluable.”
On the field, everything was new, right down to how to catch a football. On the first day of catching passes, his hands were too far apart and at least one ball went caroming off his face. He knew nothing of blocking footwork, or route-running. For the guy who set a Portland State record for basketball games played (121), it was humbling.
“You go from being a senior captain, understanding your job, then going to play football and you have to learn everything,” Thomas says. “Our coach was like, ‘You’ve got to get leverage on that guy,’ and I’m like ‘What do you mean, ‘get leverage’?’”
The Broncos took note of his 453 receiving yards and first team All-Big Sky Conference selection in one season and shipped tight ends coach Clancy Barone to Portland for an extended stay. Thomas and Barone watched film side-by-side until Barone was satisfied in Thomas’s football knowledge. The former Chargers and Falcons coach realized Thomas was a “football rat,” going back to those days spent tossing around a football in the shadow of the Oakland Coliseum.
“When you’re with him you start to develop that big-picture view,” Thomas says of Manning. “You start thinking about everything happening around you.”
He also found out Thomas was a model citizen—the peer mediator of the year in his senior year of high school, and the first guy on the Portland State team to sign up for charity work with visiting children. At the combine he flashed 4.6 speed, a 35.5-inch vertical with monster feet (size 16) and hands (10 ¼ inches). The team drafted him 129th overall, signing him to a four-year deal worth $2.42 million.
There was but one more question mark. Thomas was a jokester, with a permanent smile and a science fiction book in hand (his favorite title: Beyond the Shadows). Not your typical NFL tight end. The Big Sky Conference was one thing, the NFL another. Did he have the constitution to handle the it? How would he react at the next level?
“He’s such a happy go lucky guy, “ Barone says. “That might give you the wrong impression.”
Early in the 2011 training camp, Barone says, the Broncos got an answer. Then-QB Kyle Orton targeted Thomas on a seam, putting his receiver square in the path of veteran safety Brian Dawkins. The notoriously hard-hitter lined up the rookie and blew him up in front of everybody—players, coaches, execs and fans. Barone held his breath.
“Dawkins cracked him as soon as he touched the ball,” Barone says. “It was one of those oooooh hits. Everyone wondered if he was going to get up. He bounced up, had the ball in his hands, scored a touchdown and jogged back to the huddle. That spoke volumes to everyone that this guy was not going to shy away from hits.”
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Then came the ankle injury, suffered on his first NFL reception, in Week 2 of 2011, when Bengals linebacker Manny Lawson took him down. Thomas missed most of the remainder of the season. One day the following spring, the just-signed Manning was on campus meeting with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, now San Diego’s head coach, while Thomas was rehabbing his ankle.
“Somebody said, ‘Hey, come here. There’s a guy in here you need to meet,’ ” Thomas says. “And it was Peyton.”
After Thomas’s continued ankle troubles last season, Denver’s campaign ended in the divisional playoffs, and Manning’s window tightened once more. In the offseason Thomas “trained for real,” his dad says. He weighs 250 pounds now, after playing at 215 at Portland State. He’s running at full speed despite a midseason ankle scare (MRIs came back negative for tears in late October). The partnership with Manning, who has connected with five Broncos for more than 60 catches apiece this season, is a constant learning process. And the notoriously abrasive quarterback is slightly more patient with his pupil.
“Its incredible,” Cooper says. “Three, four years ago, we’re explaining what Cover 3 is. Now Peyton Manning wants to know why the corner has his left foot up vs. his right foot up in this formation and so on.”
Thomas, who says he’s still learning how to decipher coverages, explains the Manning effect: “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing he does that makes me better. Throughout practice it’s just been small tweaks, like explaining the overall route concept. He says, ‘You’ve got to make sure you’re out of this area on time because you’ve got this guy coming across.’ What? That’s stuff that wouldn’t even cross my mind.
“When you’re with him, you start to develop that big-picture view. You start thinking about everything happening around you.”
Despite his blossoming awareness, Thomas is still unpolished, especially as a blocker. The Broncos typically don’t ask him to play the traditional tight end role with a hand in the dirt. Barone says those kinds of players are becoming extinct in today’s offenses, whereas guys like Thomas are cherished. That’s why the Broncos modified their expectations and saved a seat for Julius Thomas.
The big man arrived just in time.