- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEWARK, N.J. -- It was the spring of discontent in the NFL. The lockout was on, two sides dug in for a nasty corporate spat over money, benefits with each trying to find the public relations high ground.
And Julius Thomas, with all of one season’s worth of college football experience on his résumé, had just been selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft by the Denver Broncos. But Thomas was a Broncos player in name only. He had no contract, no contact with his new coaches beyond a short post-draft how-do-you-do? session, no access to the team’s weight room and no way to use anything the Broncos had inside of their complex that could help him.
"At that point, the lockout was kind of frustrating for a guy like me," Thomas said. "I needed the OTAs [organized team activities], I needed practice, I needed meetings, I needed to be around it. I didn’t know what my role was going to be in the NFL or what kind of player I could be. I just knew I thought I had a lot of work to do and wanted to get started."
Now, Thomas is a Pro Bowl tight end, a key piece in an offense that set an NFL scoring record this season with 606 points. But in April, May and June of 2011, he was a Broncos draft pick adrift, with more questions than answers with just one season of football at Portland State after his four-year basketball career has concluded.
Thomas was raw, bristling with potential and in search of help.
Enter Brady Quinn, a Broncos backup quarterback at the time who hoped to compete for the starting job if and when the labor posturing ended. Quinn was one of many Broncos players who took part in on-their-own workouts during the lockout, a group that included several current Broncos such as Zane Beadles, Chris Kuper, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, as well as former Broncos safety Brian Dawkins.
And Quinn, the guy with the best grasp of the team's playbook in those workouts -- having never met Thomas before, having been introduced to the then-rookie by a friend -- offered Thomas a place to stay as well as a seat in a Football 101 classroom of sorts. Thomas gladly accepted, paid his own way -- before he even had an NFL paycheck -- and got to work.
"But just to go live with someone he didn’t even know, to sacrifice whatever he was doing in his life right to start a career you’re just beginning, all during a lockout, I think it took a lot for a young guy," said Quinn, currently a St. Louis Rams quarterback recovering from back surgery in California. "But you just saw that desire, that work ethic."
Quinn also saw what the Broncos saw in pre-draft workouts, what the team saw in Thomas’ first two seasons in the NFL despite struggles with ankle issues, including surgery following the 2011 season. But even through those first two seasons -- when Thomas had just one catch -- the Broncos believed in the potential Quinn saw from almost the first pass he threw to the kid.
The veteran quarterback set things up like Thomas would see once he was allowed to join the team. The two had installation sessions with the team’s playbook, then they would discuss what Thomas had just been shown and head to the field to see if Thomas could turn the information into action.
"And the thing that struck you right away was his ability, that wow factor, just watching him move. You’re like, 'holy crap,'" Quinn said. "And I know it’s going to sound crazy, but to me, it was like if LeBron [James] played football. I really thought to myself, even in those first workouts, this is what it might look like if LeBron James played football. You saw that size, running like a wide receiver. That wingspan, the way he ran routes with power and agility and to look so smooth and effortless to go with the way he just snatched the ball when he caught it."
"I think about it from time to time, for sure, but I’ve always appreciated what Brady did for me," Thomas said this week. "Here I am, a young guy, coming out of college, lockout is going on, and Brady opened up his home to me. And he didn’t just open his home to me, he sat down every day and worked with me on the playbook. He was my first real introduction into the NFL, my first real glimpse of being a pro."
Quinn said after he would throw to Thomas and some of the others in the on-field work, he would quiz Thomas about things in the playbook they had discussed or worked on that day "just to see what he retained."
Coaches often say good habits, developed early in a career, will serve a player well, maybe even help beat the league's short-term odds. Two years after his work with Quinn, Thomas was also one of the first of the Broncos' youthful group of players on offense to find his way into workouts with Peyton Manning after the quarterback signed in March 2012.
Thomas quickly developed the on-field chemistry with Manning, and it could be seen in his 65-catch, 12-touchdown season.
"It showed [Thomas] didn’t have much of a football background at that point. He knew some of the things he was going to have to do to be in this business to be a pro," Broncos tight end coach Clancy Barone said. "He was living on Brady’s couch basically. That was his first step. I’ll be honest, he’s still got a great upside to go, still plenty of work to do, and that’s a great thing, to have that kind of skill set now and still have some room to grow. I think it shows what he could be if he continues to do those things."
"He’s just smart. He picks things up easily. He understood football right away even though he didn't have much of a history with the game," Quinn said. "It was almost innate. You just didn't have to teach him too much about the routes. He seemed to just understand how to do it. It was almost like he had a feel of how to set up a guy who was covering him."
So here’s Thomas now, a star in waiting and a matchup nightmare who is being described as an X factor in a Super Bowl. An unlikely road traveled, in at least some way, right from Brady Quinn’s house.
"I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what he did for me," Thomas said. "I’ll always appreciate it, I’ll always be grateful for it and I’ll always remember it."