Football journey: Donald Thomas

January, 7, 2012
1/07/12
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Growing up in New Haven, Conn., Donald Thomas never played Pop Warner football. His high school didn’t have a football team.

This naturally makes his “football journey,” and his four-year NFL career, unique.

The 26-year-old Thomas, who is in his first year with the Patriots, has been utilized this season as a short-yardage power fullback. He was also an emergency starter at left guard in the team’s Dec. 24 win over the Dolphins.

Coach Bill Belichick recently said he was happy that the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Thomas was part of the team.

“Donald has worked hard, he's a smart guy and he's been very dependable for us on a daily basis,” he said.

With Logan Mankins’ injured knee potentially making him unavailable for the team’s playoff opener, Thomas’ presence becomes that much more important.

The former University of Connecticut standout, who is married (Quita) with a son (Deegan) and dog (Dozier), shared his football journey with ESPNBoston.com:

[+] EnlargeDonald Thomas
Marc Piscotty/Getty ImagesNew England native Donald Thomas was a bit of late bloomer on the football field.
Why he started playing football: “I was at UConn as a regular student my freshman year and I was bored. One Saturday morning I was playing basketball with members of the football team, it was after the season was over, and some of them asked me, ‘Why not play football?’ I had never really thought about it. I said, ‘Let me give football a try.’"

Making the team as a walk-on: “I remember walking into the football office and saying, ‘I’m a student here and I’d like to play football.’ This was around the time of spring football and I remember seeing Coach Edsall coming out of the football building and me running over to him asking him about a tryout. He said they’d call over the next couple days, and I ran 40s and agility drills. I got on the team and that summer, I stayed up to work with the team.”

Describing his football progression at UConn: “My sophomore year [as a student] was my redshirt freshman year. I was on the scout team. The next year I was on special teams, the fullback setting the wedge. Then halfway through my senior year – when I started a few games at guard -- I was asked to come back for a fifth year and was given a scholarship. I said ‘Why not?’ I came back and started [13] games.”

Hardest thing about playing football: “Just learning the game. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know terminology and didn’t understand techniques. I had no football sense. I was just reacting to what I saw, but I couldn’t read if it was a blitz or get into a rhythm with snap counts.”

Top memory at UConn: “Just the first time playing in a game.”

Favorite teams growing up: “I didn’t really have one. I liked the Cowboys back in the 90s, with Emmitt Smith and all those guys, the all-stars so to speak.”

Entering the NFL as a sixth-round draft choice of the Dolphins in 2008: “It was crazy. Surreal. I didn’t think something like that would happen. But then as the draft got closer, and you get more and more phone calls, it becomes more of a reality. Some teams were saying third round, others said they’d pick me in the fourth if I was there. I was just happy to get picked up in the sixth. When it happened, with the excitement, I didn’t even realize what city or state I was going to. I didn’t care who is was or where it was.”

Elevating to the starting lineup as a rookie along with No. 1 overall pick Jake Long: “Some viewed me as the surprise of the draft class and there were times when I’d be getting interviewed more than Jake. There were highs and lows. You go from starting [13 games in 2008 and 2009] to being released a couple of years later. You see how it can be taken away.”

Injuries affecting his time with the Dolphins, who cut him at the start of the 2010 season: “Growing up playing basketball and baseball, those are sports with relatively no impact. Maybe you’d have a sore knee, or get hit in the hand by a pitch, or get a raspberry from sliding into a base. In football, it was something I hadn’t dealt with. After making my first start, I needed [foot] surgery and was out for the season. Bouncing back from that was tough, and then I tore my pec. It was rough and stunted my development at times.”

Signing with the Lions in late November of 2010: “I went on a tour of over 10 teams, working out for them. One week I worked out for three teams, almost doing two workouts in one day. I ended up in Detroit with about seven games left in the year. That was the week before they played New England on Thanksgiving. It was a trying time. I’m glad I had the chance to get on a team and didn’t miss the whole year of football.”

What it’s like to be trying out for so many teams: “I never really unpacked a bag from the day I got released. You’d get the call Sunday, fly out Monday, then work out Tuesday. You wouldn’t know if they’d sign you, and when it didn’t happen, you’d go home and keep working out, waiting for another phone call.”

Landing with the Patriots on Sept. 14 after the Patriots lost center Dan Koppen in the season opener: “I thought I had a pretty decent camp in Detroit, but it just didn’t work out. I ended up getting released after the last game. I was signed by the Patriots right after their Monday Night Football game and it’s been a relatively quick transition. From Detroit to New England, the way it’s run is different. This is a very good experience for me. Overall, it’s been great. The guys in the locker room are warming to new guys; there are no egos or anything like that. [Coaches] demand a lot out of you and you have to give it to them on a weekly basis.” ”

What he’s learned from playing football: “To control what you can control, because you never know what can happen. It’s not easy to reach something like this. Perseverance. Going through this experience has made me a better person.”

Summing up his football journey: “I’m definitely blessed and grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. You never know when you’re going to get thrown a curveball and you have to adjust to it. So far, it’s been a great four years. I hope to get four more.”

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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