Michael Thomas could write a motivational book or begin a speaking tour on the concept of carpe diem. Except that he may be busy, having just jump-started his football career.
On Sunday, Thomas seized the day, the opportunity and the victory by seizing the football in Miami’s palpitating 24-20 upset of New England in a game that captured all that is absurdly right about the Dolphins.
Before catching fire in December and running to the forefront of the AFC wild-card playoff picture, the Dolphins were newsworthy only because of the two biggest names on the roster: Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Neither of them was actually playing, and soon Incognito might join Martin as a former member of the team that was known best for the bullying controversy and ensuing NFL inquiry that we’re hearing could drag on past the Super Bowl.
Thank you, Michael Thomas, for introducing yourself in such dramatic, refreshing fashion, even if your coach and some of your teammates did not know your name. They do now.
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Still a dream
“It has been crazy, and to be honest, it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said Thomas, who used up the last of seven free hotel nights on his Sheraton account Sunday and had his fiancée fly in from Houston to help him move into a furnished apartment Monday.
He drove around with the football he intercepted in the trunk of his rental car. “I have a bed and the ball. That’s all I need.”
A week ago, 3,000 miles away, Thomas was sleeping in and anticipating yet another week as an anonymous practice squad grunt for the San Francisco 49ers. Typically, he’s an early riser, but the 49ers stayed out late celebrating their win over Seattle. Thomas missed a dozen calls and texts from his fiancée Gloria Johnson and agent Christina Phillips, who messaged him: “Wake up! Miami wants to claim you.”
Thomas’ window with Miami was closing as the Dolphins phoned other defensive backs to bolster their wounded unit. Once Phillips reached Thomas, he tossed clothes into a suitcase and talked with Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland on the way to the airport.
The Dolphins wanted him on the next flight out. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, who was Thomas’ coach at Stanford and had recently given him a raise, tried to persuade Thomas to stay.
“It was a difficult conversation, but I had to take my chance,” Thomas said. “Two years on the practice squad, I know what it’s like to watch everybody else compete. It’s like you’re being teased.”
Then, his golden moment: Thomas was thrust into Sunday’s game at cornerback after Nolan Carroll left with a knee injury and Brent Grimes went off with cramps.
Thomas’ job in the waning seconds, with the Dolphins holding a four-point lead as if it was an ice cube in their palms on an 82-degree day? Thomas’ assignment, with the Patriots on the threshold of the 30-by-160-foot territory they consider their birthright? Thomas’ responsibility, with Tom Brady engineering another of the furious comeback stories he should have a copyright for?
Thomas had to cover two of Brady’s reliable targets as time wound down. He had never played in an NFL game. He had taken zero snaps with the Dolphins defense in practices before the game.
“I went out there knowing Tom Brady was coming after me as the new kid on the block,” he said.
And what did he do? On first down from the 19-yard line with 27 seconds left, Thomas anticipated Brady’s throw and poked the ball out of Danny Amendola’s hands just as the receiver was about to cradle it into the end zone.
“That’s the way my college position coach Derek Mason taught me — if you can’t get the pick, put your hand in the pocket between his hands,” Thomas said.
On fourth down, with seven seconds left, Thomas read Brady’s eyes, timed his leap perfectly and intercepted the end-zone pass meant for Austin Collie.
“We talked before the play on what we had to do,” he said. “I knew the defense but not the signals. Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons were my lifeline.”
Thomas had saved the win, enabled Miami to beat Brady for the first time in four years and enhanced his new team’s playoff odds. He lay on his back, looking skyward, clutching ball to chest as teammates piled on top of him.
“I’m going to remember this one for the rest of my life,” Thomas said. “My teammates trusted me, the newcomer.”
They trusted him even though they weren’t quite sure who No. 31 was.
“Michael Jordan?” Mike Wallace joked.
Jared Odrick had to crane his neck to see Thomas’ nameplate above his locker.
“We had a player in there that I think got into the building on Tuesday,” coach Joe Philbin said.
No flash in the pan
Thomas, 24, son of immigration attorneys, was a high school quarterback in Houston, as was Andrew Luck. When Harbaugh recruited Luck, he noticed Thomas, who was converted to defensive back, then went undrafted because of concern he wasn’t tall enough at 5-11. Thomas is good friends with Seattle Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman and Martin, who has texted him encouragement since he arrived in Miami.
Once he got here, Thomas had post-practice playbook cram sessions with assistant defensive backs coach Blue Adams.
“I was making cheat sheets, coming up with memorization tricks,” he said.
Expect an encore. Thomas believes one opportunity will lead to another.
“This is only significant if I can build on it,” Thomas said. “The last thing I want to be is a flash in the pan.”