Fired up inside to succeed
Thomas keeps proving himself
METAIRIE, La. – Remind Michael Thomas that so many teams passed on him, that nearly three years ago five 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 first 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 first five 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 first-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 five guys drafted ahead of him. Deep inside, there should be something burning. That should affect 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 fire 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 playoffs or a 73-yarder that made a difference 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 offensive coordinator at Houston Westfield, 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 significance of Mikey being named first-team all-pro last week.
“I hate to say, ‘I told you so,’ ” Johnson told USA TODAY, recalling efforts years ago to persuade coaches at major universities to offer Thomas a scholarship. He struck out with Lane Kiffin, 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 unfinished.
“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.”
Michael Thomas has increased his receptions and yardage each season with the Saints.