Read the original article in USA Today here.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Tyler Geving, the basketball coach at Portland State, used to chuckle when the backup power forward would talk about playing football once his eligibility on the hardwood was exhausted. Geving viewed it as more of the bravado he'd come to expect from Julius Thomas, who hadn't laced up a pair of cleats since his mother made him give up football in high school.
"He always joked about it, or we thought he was joking about it," Geving told USA TODAY Sports. "We teased him. We said, 'You'd take one hit and that would be the end of you.'"
Geving shared that memory this week after watching Thomas' breakout performance in the Denver Broncos' season-opening 49-27 rout of the Baltimore Ravens. The former power forward is now a starting NFL tight end who hauled in two of Peyton Manning's NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes during a five-catch, 110-yard evening.
It was Thomas' first extensive action since the Broncos drafted him in the fourth round in 2011. And it comes after he played only a single season of college football at Portland State, a Big Sky Conference school that competes in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Nigel Burton remembers that season – he was in his first year as head football coach at Portland State when he met Thomas in the spring of 2010. Burton knew this: He needed players.
Burton, a former defensive back at the University of Washington, appreciated the size – 6-5 and about 220 pounds at the time – and recognized the athleticism, but he wasn't certain of the desire. Burton knew nothing about Thomas beyond he had played on basketball teams that made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
The football coach had questions. Did Thomas want to work? Could he handle the contact? What was his plan?
So he floated an invitation – a Sunday night at 9 p.m. – to test Thomas' level of interest.
"He was there," Burton said. "From then on, he was our guy."
Hoping to follow a trail notably blazed by Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, all former college basketball players who went on to become NFL stars, Thomas was installed at tight end.
Burton noticed that Thomas, who averaged almost six rebounds per game as a senior, never allowed a basketball to reach his chest, retrieving each carom with his hands.
"He was a phenomenal offensive rebounder, where you have to have a knack to go get the ball," Geving said. "Offensively, he never took a shot outside of five feet. He was undersized, kind of creative in how he scored. A lot of it was body control, which translates to football."
It showed immediately: Thomas was a natural receiver. Thomas became the pupil of Steve Cooper, the Vikings' wide receivers coach, who gave all credit to his student's ability to see his own future.
"He was smart enough to realize an opportunity to play overseas basketball when he's done is not the same opportunity he'd have playing a senior year of football with us, and look at how that played out," he said. "I think he realized that. I think he knew if he learned this stuff and got it down – taking coaching – he'd be in good shape."
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The learning curve was steep. Thomas didn't know how to get into a proper stance. Burton said Thomas had to learn the difference between running on turf and on the basketball court – stopping and re-directing on turf takes practice.
But the coaches said Thomas dove into film study and handled instruction as if there was nothing else in the world he wanted to do – which might have been true.
It was his last semester at PSU, and Thomas was only enrolled in the one class he needed to graduate. Every morning, he'd arrive at the coaches' offices, and after every practice, he'd catch more balls or run more routes.
He was a sponge. He's athletic, but his intelligence is the first characteristic Burton and Cooper both mentioned.
"The amount of work that dude put in was ridiculous because he knew he was behind," Burton said.
In one way, his coaches said, Thomas' delayed start was an advantage – football-wise, he was pretty much a blank slate.
"When he talked to the few scouts that wanted to talk to him, they were surprised by his football knowledge," Cooper said. "The bad habits he had? You could correct them. There's this deal we talk about – if you bring in a junior college kid or a 20-year-old young man, teaching him how to catch a football properly is a waste of time. He's going to fall back on old habits. If you bring in a true freshman with bad habits, you might have a chance to adjust that.
"Well, Julius was a 22-year-old grown man who didn't have a bunch of bad habits. He was mature enough to realize that sometimes coaches are on your ass for a reason, and it's positive."
Thomas thrived. Bulked up to 240, he was one of the Vikings' few offensive weapons. While Portland State struggled to a 2-9 record, Thomas earned first team all-conference honors after catching 29 passes for 435 yards and two touchdowns.
Next came an appearance in the East-West Game, followed by a trip to the NFL scouting combine.
The Broncos noticed Thomas, trading up to the end of the fourth round to draft him. He then saw his first two seasons essentially lost to a high ankle sprain that required surgery and rehabiliation.
And now he's a starting tight end in a Manning-led offense, which brings great opportuunity. Of the future Hall of Fame quarterback's 444 touchdown passes, 108 have been tossed to tight ends.
"It's a lot of hard work coming together at once," Thomas said this week.
Added Burton: "It doesn't surprise me he's being successful."
Mom knows best
There's an explanation for Thomas' unorthodox path to the NFL – his mom.
Toria Wyrick-Thomas let her son play one year of youth football and another his freshman year in high school, but he began to experience back pain – which was exacerbated through the contact in football – as he went through a growth spurt that saw him shoot from 5-9 to 6-2.
Mom called an audible. She'd seen how damaging the sport could be – Thomas' father and her ex-husband, Greg, played three seasons of college football, the last at the University of the Pacific as a wide receiver, before retiring with a torn meniscus.
She didn't want Julius, the oldest of her three sons, to play football any longer, at least until he was finished growing, anyway.
"He had some pain, but it never prevented him from playing," Wyrick-Thomas said. "I just told him to wait a little longer. He was so passionate about football, but I just wanted him to get to his height before he started getting hit.
"My instinct was to wait. He understood. He's a good kid."
She's proud of Thomas, though she jokes she wishes he were a quarterback. She insists she always knew he'd end up here, a sentiment echoed by others who saw Thomas in high school in California.
"Your eyes immediately went to this kid," said Louis Franklin, athletic director at Tokay High who served as an football assistant coach while Thomas was there. "I used to watch a lot of USC, and when I saw Julius, I was like, 'That's Mike Williams.' That was his body type."
It hasn't been a flawless transition for Thomas – he was arrested recently in Denver for failure to appear in court on a traffic violation – but he hasn't forgotten where he comes from.
Each summer, Burton's freshman recruits arrive on campus early to get acclimated. He receives a check from Portland State to secure housing, but it doesn't cover the entire cost. Burton said Thomas, who will make $555,000 this season, has cut a check since 2011 to cover the expenses. The total ranges from $6,000-$10,000, and Burton said Thomas' generosity has not been publicized.
"Let's be honest, the first two years, he didn't play much – he was hurt," Burton said. "For him to write checks and give back to the program… If you're not making big cheese yet you're still giving back to your alma mater, well, that's him. And he didn't ask for anything – it's not like I have to put his name on anything."
Thomas is simply appreciative. Where would he be without Portland State?
"A couple of people that have been in my corner for a while, always thought I'd be able to have success in the National Football League," Thomas said. "To be able to have a game where I was able to do well, make them look like they're right, it feels good."