Fired up in­side to suc­ceed

Thomas keeps prov­ing him­self

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Jar­rett Bell Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

METAIRIE, La. – Re­mind Michael Thomas that so many teams passed on him, that nearly three years ago five wide re­ceivers went off the NFL draft board ahead of him, and he rolls his eyes with dis­gust.

“I don’t even know their names,” he grum­bles be­fore mak­ing an­other type of catch. He grins.

“OK, of course I know who they were. I can’t for­get that.”

Thomas, 25, has quickly emerged as one of pro foot­ball’s best re­ceivers. But the out­landish stats — he led the NFL this sea­son with his club-record 125 re­cep­tions, and af­ter break­ing a mark in 2017 for most catches by an NFL player in his first two sea­sons (196), dou­bled down to set the three-year record (321) — are merely clues to a deeper re­al­ity as the Saints’ star pre­pares for an NFC di­vi­sional play­off game on Sun­day against the Ea­gles.

The first five re­ceivers drafted in 2016? Corey Cole­man, Will Fuller, Josh Doct­son, Laquon Tread­well and Ster­ling Shep­ard. Granted, none of them have the for­tune of be­ing tar­geted by record­set­ting sharp-shooter Drew Brees. But four were first-round picks, and they have com­bined for zero Pro Bowls.

“It is what it is now,” Thomas, a sec­ond-round pick, taken 47th over­all, told USA TO­DAY as he sat at his locker re­cently. “No dis­re­spect to those guys. You con­trol what you can con­trol.

“I’m the ex­am­ple for the kid taken in this last draft and there were five guys drafted ahead of him. Deep in­side, there should be some­thing burn­ing. That should affect him. That should make him feel un­com­fort­able. That should make him feel dis­re­spected. Keep a chip on his shoul­der for the rest of his ca­reer. Some­thing that makes you want to abuse the per­son in front of you.

“I had to take the sit­u­a­tion I was put in and run with it and keep pray­ing to God. Now I’m here, chas­ing a cham­pi­onship.”

Meet Thomas, “Mikey,” as his fa­mous un­cle calls him, a man with such a fire within that he’s read Kobe Bryant’s best-sell­ing book, “The Mamba Men­tal­ity,” mul­ti­ple times, like some peo­ple read chap­ters in the Bi­ble. That’s how he’s wired, a rea­son he caught 85 per­cent of his tar­gets this sea­son — in­clud­ing big ones, such as the game-win­ning TD against the Steel­ers in Week 16 that helped se­cure a No. 1 seed for these play­offs or a 73-yarder that made a differ­ence in beat­ing the Rams in Week 9 — which topped the 72.2 per­cent clip that Wes Welker had with the Pa­tri­ots in 2007 as the best by a player with at least 100 tar­gets since ProFoot­bal­lRef­er­ence.com be­gan track­ing the rate in 1992.

“It’s not like they just put him on an is­land ev­ery game,” Brees told re­porters, mind­ful of dou­ble cov­er­ages and other schemes. “He’s got to work hard to get open, and he does.”

Don’t think this is a man who was al­ways seemed des­tined to be here — even with the hands-on push from Michael Thomas, Sr., aka “Big Mike,” who raised him as a sin­gle fa­ther, or sup­port from Keyshawn John­son, who ex­posed his brother’s son to the op­por­tu­ni­ties, nu­ances and glam­our of big-time sports from an early age.

As a ju­nior at Taft Char­ter in Wood­land Hills, Cal­i­for­nia — a chap­ter in a jour­ney that in­cluded a year at Oaks Chris­tian High in West­lake Vil­lage, Cal­i­for­nia, a year of home-school­ing from Big Mike, a year at Fork Union (Vir­ginia) Mil­i­tary Academy be­fore land­ing at Ohio State — the then-skinny Thomas rode the bench.

He was also the kid, ac­cord­ing to his for­mer coach, un­mer­ci­fully razzed by team­mates, with one of the (maybe en­vi­ous) themes linked to his fre­quent ref­er­ences to “Un­cle Key.”

“That chip on his shoul­der is ab­so­lutely 100 per­cent earned,” Matt Ker­stet­ter, Thomas’ coach at Taft, told USA TO­DAY. “He’s had to prove ev­ery­thing he’s had.

“It’s why he is where he is now. And that chip has turned into a boul­der.”

Ker­stet­ter, now offen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Hous­ton Westfield, main­tains that like now, Thomas had sure hands, good body con­trol and a high foot­ball IQ in high school.

But back then, could he en­vi­sion Thomas blos­som­ing like this?

“Hell no,” Ker­stet­ter said. “Any­body who told you they did is ly­ing.”

John­son, though, chuck­led when asked about the sig­nificance of Mikey be­ing named first-team all-pro last week.

“I hate to say, ‘I told you so,’ ” John­son told USA TO­DAY, re­call­ing efforts years ago to per­suade coaches at ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties to offer Thomas a schol­ar­ship. He struck out with Lane Kiffin, who then coached at his alma mater, South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Same with Steve Sark­isian, then at Washington, and with one of his for­mer Tampa Bay team­mates, Scott Frost, then an as­sis­tant at Ore­gon.

“They all gave me ev­ery ex­cuse in the book. Ur­ban Meyer was the only one . ... They look fool­ish now.”

Thomas’ rep­u­ta­tion in Saints’ cir­cles as a worka­holic makes him a per­fect match for Brees and ma­ni­a­cal coach Sean Pay­ton. He de­clares that pro­fes­sion­al­ism is “the safest way to the top,” which sounds like some­thing Jerry Rice would say back in the day.

Says John­son, “He’s never go­ing to get full of him­self, to where he’s not work­ing. He’s not a nar­cis­sist. Not what peo­ple call a ‘diva re­ceiver.’ ”

But Thomas’ busi­ness, which in­cludes chas­ing Su­per Bowl glory, is unfinished.

“I don’t want to come this far (just) to come this far,” he said. “There’s al­ways go­ing to be a sense of ur­gency.”

JONATHAN DYER/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Michael Thomas has in­creased his re­cep­tions and yardage each sea­son with the Saints.

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