The latest converted hoopster to ascend to stardom as an NFL tight end, Julius Thomas looks back on his two trips to the NCAA tournament, sizes up new quarterback Blake Bortles and responds to criticism from a Hall of Famer
America loves the NFL, and America loves March Madness. But only a small number of people can lay claim to having been part of both. One of those people is Julius Thomas, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ free-agent prize. Before he was a Pro Bowl tight end, he was a power forward on Portland State’s NCAA tournament teams in 2008 and ’09. The Vikings were eliminated in the first round on both occasions—they lost to No. 1 seed and eventual national champion Kansas in ’08, and No. 4 seed Xavier in ’09, Thomas playing seven and 15 minutes off the bench, respectively, in those games. But it’s a vivid part of an athletic career that eventually led to Thomas trying football—he joined the football team for his fifth year at Portland State, after his hoops eligibility ran out—then being drafted by the Broncos and now cashing in with a $46 million contract from the Jaguars. After finishing a workout in L.A. one afternoon this week, Thomas was happy to look back on his trips to the Big Dance—but he was even more excited to look ahead to his future in Jacksonville.
VRENTAS: We all watch March Madness. You participated in it twice. This time of year, do those memories come rushing back?
THOMAS: I feel like I have been busy nonstop since I left college, and I don’t get time to reflect very often. But it’s kind of nostalgic seeing those guys warming up and taking that court. Your biggest memories are what it feels like to run out of that tunnel and do that initial warmup. That’s when you get to really take in the moment. When you're playing, you don’t know whether you're in the stadium with 30,000 people or practicing against the guys, because you're competing. But when you're practicing—what a lot of people don’t know is that for those practices, fans come. It’s really exciting to have 14,000, 15,000 people at your practices. It’s your first experience of having a motorcade ushering you around.
You don’t understand how much security goes into those games—you have to go through metal detectors just to bring your bags in. You’ve got cheerleaders and people cheering for you at your hotel. To have that bonding experience, that opportunity to do something that very few people who play basketball and love basketball get to do, be part of that NCAA tournament, it’s very memorable.
VRENTAS: Your sophomore year you played against Kansas, the eventual champions. What’s it like going into a game as the 16 seed, up against a No. 1 seed?
THOMAS: You just won your conference tournament, so you’re coming off a really big high. You’re really excited about what you have accomplished with your teammates. Then you’re watching Selection Sunday and you realize, I’m going to get to play one of the top four teams in the country, and it’s usually going to be pretty close to where their school is. A top-four team in the nation, pretty much on their home turf. For us, playing a team like Kansas, you’re looking at four, five, six guys who are all going to be NBA players one day. You just want to go out there and try to be that team that gets it done. A 16-seed has never beaten a one-seed in the NCAA tournament, so most of the pressure is on the one-seed.
VRENTAS: That Kansas team fielded a lot of players who are still in the NBA. Cole Aldrich. Mario Chalmers. Who did you match up with when you were in the game?
THOMAS: And Darrell Arthur. They had a bunch of really good players on that team. I was playing the 4, power forward, so I played against Darnell Jackson. It wasn’t new to play against a guy who was a future pro. It was just new to play against a team that has six of them.
VRENTAS: What was your role on those Portland State teams?
THOMAS: I came off the bench my freshman and sophomore years. Started a little bit my junior year and started my senior year. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I wasn’t the most skilled basketball player. I played with a lot of energy. I was the guy who was getting steals, getting rebounds, running out in transition, trying to find my way to the hoop. I pretty much tried to do all I could to have an impact on the game playing power forward at 6-foot-5.
VRENTAS: To get to the NCAA tournament in ’09, you had the game-winning shot in the Big Sky conference title game, right?
THOMAS: I actually had the game-winning dunk to send us back to the tournament. Somehow I always found a way to play my best basketball in those conference tournaments. I made the all-tournament team my junior and senior years. That junior year, I remember our point guard, Dom Waters, driving down the lane, [I’m in] that sweet spot right there on that block, and hoping he wouldn’t shoot the floater—that he would just pass it to me. And then when I got it, I told myself, “You can’t risk this on a lay-up. This is what everybody worked for all year, our opportunity to make it back to make it to another NCAA tournament.” It would be the second time in school history. I just kept telling myself, “Look, man, you’ve just gotta dunk this. There is no leaving this up to chance.” I was able to get that game-winning dunk and help us have another opportunity to experience the tournament.
VRENTAS: This is a question not too many guys can answer, but you can. What’s more exciting as a player: March Madness or the NFL playoffs?
THOMAS: As a player, it was more exciting for me playing in the NFL playoffs, just because I had a little bit bigger of a role in the playoffs, and my playoff run went a little bit longer than my basketball run. But I think for this country, March Madness may be the biggest event. It’s such a big deal in workplaces, and I think it just galvanizes all the people in this country. Seeing young guys go out there and give it their best is amazing to watch. I’ve had a great time watching these guys go out there and leave it all on the line to make their dreams come true.
VRENTAS: You get this question a lot, I’m sure, about how your basketball career helps you as a tight end. So let me ask it a different way: When you were making the transition to football, did you watch how fellow college basketball players like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates—who also both played in the NCAA tournament—were doing it?
THOMAS: I have no problem giving those guys their due for helping me understand that it was possible. Maybe Gates more so than Tony, because Tony played both [sports] in college. But to know a guy can go from not playing a lick of football in college, make it to the NFL, have great success and do amazing things out there on the football field was really what gave me the notion that it’s possible. It’s still probably a finding-a-needle-in-a-haystack chance. But Gates was able to do it; he was able to go four years of playing college basketball and take it out to the football field. I didn’t play in high school. I didn’t know he was a hell of a high school football player. Because of what Gates was able to do definitely made me feel it was possible to do it.
VRENTAS: When you were playing in the NCAA tournament, in what seemed like the thrill of a lifetime, what would your 20-year-old self have thought about signing a $46 million contract with an NFL team?
THOMAS: I think he would say a prayer, and he would thank God. He would say, You answered all those prayers I had, all those times I was sitting there as a basketball player thinking, I really think I could have a lot of success playing football. And then to get that opportunity and to do well and to get the respect of my peers… I think he would keep praying, because he knew one day God would deliver his prayers.
VRENTAS: So you had a feeling, even when you were playing college basketball, that you would be good at football?
THOMAS: Oh yeah. From my freshman year, I was excited about having the opportunity to play football when I was done playing basketball. It was something all my teammates knew, all my coaches knew. I talked to them about it. They were really excited for me to play, too. The majority of my teammates felt that I would be a good football player. I’m sure they didn’t think that one day I’d be voted to the Pro Bowl, making big plays in the NFL, but a lot of them really believed I had the skill set to be a good football player. [The basketball coaches] just wouldn’t let me play football. They told me, “You can play when you’re done with basketball.” So I did everything I could in basketball, have great memories, wouldn’t trade it for anything, and when I got my opportunity [in football] made the most of it.
VRENTAS: You played a school-record 121 games for Portland State basketball. You’ve had some injuries that have kept you off the field at times in the NFL. Do you think you can be that constant presence on the football field, in Jacksonville? Are you looking forward to that?
THOMAS: Absolutely. I’ve had some unfortunate things happen to me, some bumps along the way, but I guess that’s part of life. I am excited. I think that as you play more and you gain more experience, you learn how to protect yourself better. A lot of people think, What do you mean? Well, when you have a better feel for what’s going on, you know how to get yourself out of the way in certain situations. As I get experience, it just makes me more and more excited about that next year, and there’s nothing different for this year upcoming. I’ve played the game, and I’ve come to really understand it. I feel like, my first year of really playing a lot, I was like, Try not to mess up. And last year, it was like, OK, now you’re comfortable, just go out there and play. And this year, I’m confident. I have the experience now. I have a ton of coaching that has really helped me, and I’m excited to take that confidence into this next season and do some really good things in Jacksonville.
VRENTAS: Your new coach, Gus Bradley, has a reputation as a passionate guy. Did that come out when you met?
THOMAS: Absolutely. After getting an opportunity to sit down and talk with him, it really made me feel very comfortable. He has a very unique philosophy and energy about him that just resonated with me. His philosophy is the way I want to go about things in my own life. After seeing his passion and his energy, I knew I would be able to have a good feel for the culture of the team, and I would fit in with that culture, and I would be able to add to that culture, and that was very important for me. He always talks about having humility coming out there [on the field] and understanding you still have more to do to get better, you haven’t figured everything else out. His No. 1 thing is, never say you’ve got it, because when you’ve got it, you’re going to stop learning. And I know a lot about that, because I may be going into my fifth year in the NFL but there is still so much I have to learn. He told me, “Julius, we want to come out here with excitement. This is fun. Let’s come out here and have that energy.” And that’s what I like to bring to the game. I want to go out there and be excited and have fun and understand that I don’t know it all. Learn more and become a better player. I said, Wow, I really understand where he's coming from, and I want to be a part of that.
VRENTAS: That sounds a little bit like how you described yourself as a basketball player, too.
THOMAS: Yeah, that’s been me. And it’s actually pretty fortunate that I learned how to be a hard worker and a hustle guy [in basketball], and then I finally started playing football, where finally I was the right height and the right weight for my position. You mix that with all the intangibles you learned from being the guy that just had to fight through, and you can make some pretty good things happen.
VRENTAS: Have you and Blake Bortles gotten started yet on building your relationship?
THOMAS: I got to meet him this past weekend. We went out and ran a couple routes. It’s exciting, that first time you get to work out with your new quarterback. We’ve got a couple thousand more reps to go, but I’m really looking forward to that chemistry and growing with that entire offense. Bringing in all the experiences I’ve had and sharing them, and taking [offensive coordinator Greg Olson's] coaching out there to the field, and doing what I can to help us be a successful offense.
VRENTAS: Where did you and Bortles meet up?
BORTLES: Down here in southern California. When I signed, I called him and I told him I was very excited about working with him and looking forward to meeting him, and he actually told me he was down in southern California. We went out there with some other guys and threw the pigskin around for the first time.
VRENTAS: First impressions of the way he throws?
THOMAS: He can throw it. He’s got a strong arm, that’s for sure. The rest of it is him learning the way I run, and me trying to do my best to be available for him.
VRENTAS: Are you out to prove you can have the same production without Peyton Manning throwing you the ball?
THOMAS: I think I’ve got to be a little bit cautious on trying to prove so much. I think I’ve just got to go out there and work my hardest, and do everything I can to win every route, and see what happens. I don’t want to set a goal of “I gotta have these numbers.” I’m just going to work my hardest every day, do everything I can to become a better player, and do everything I can to help out my team and this offense.
VRENTAS: The Jaguars also have a 10-year veteran tight end, Marcedes Lewis, who has started for the team since 2006. How do you think the two of you will work together at the same position?
THOMAS: I don’t think we’ll have any problem playing together. I was actually talking to him this weekend. I ran into him; we both live in L.A. He’s a really good guy. I’ve met him a couple times before. We both have the same marketing company, so we know the same people, and people that I respect speak very highly of him. I think we complement each other very well. There are going to be things that he can teach me, and I can learn from him.
VRENTAS: When you were finalizing your contract with the Jaguars, Shannon Sharpe criticized you, saying you quit on the Broncos last season. How did you feel about his comments?
THOMAS: I truly pay zero attention to the things people have to say. Because he wasn’t in any meetings that I can remember, I don’t remember seeing him at practices, so to have an opinion from the outside may be just a little irresponsible. If I’m not an expert on something, I usually refrain from commenting on it. If that’s the way he feels, I’m not going to have an argument with him about it to change his mind. But I gave everything I had to help our team win last year and be successful, and I don’t have to prove that to him. The people that are in my life, that see me every day, they know it. They know the effort that I put into this game, they know the effort I put on the field, and they know how badly I want to win. I am going to take all those things with me to Jacksonville and continue to give it everything I have to be the best player or teammate I can. I think that’s kind of what’s helped me have success in this league, after probably having every difficulty and challenge stacked up against me.
VRENTAS: We’ll end with a basketball question: Did you fill out a bracket? Who’s your pick in this year’s tournament?
THOMAS: I usually don’t fill out brackets, I usually just want to spectate, but this year my physical therapists convinced me to fill out a bracket. They were messing with me about playing college basketball and not filling out a bracket, so they convinced me to do it. I should have refrained, as usual. My bracket is… not great. I can’t remember every matchup I picked, but I think I had Virginia and Iowa State going a long ways, and they’re both out. I think it’s fair to say my bracket is not going to win.
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