Just as Adalius Thomas' black BMW 750 glides to a stop in front of a Baltimore outreach center, the onboard computer's female voice says, "You have arrived. Your destination is on the right." Without thinking, the gregarious Thomas says, "Thank you very much." It's the day before Thanksgiving, and Thomas is 10 minutes early for his task of handing out holiday meals and goodwill. Inside the shelter, he positions himself front and center by the stain less steel kitchen counter and begins dispensing birds. It's always awkward when a millionaire shows up to hand out food for an hour. But Thomas wins over those in line with his general warmth, his Yes, ma'ams, and his thunderous laugh when an older woman calls him Ray Lewis.
In anticipation of the crowd, the shelter hired a group of neighborhood teenage boys to assist people with their grocery bags. Even though they're standing just a few feet away, the kids constantly miss their cues for help. They're too busy debating the 6'2", 270-pound Thomas' role with the Ravens.
"He's a linebacker, or an end, I think," says the first.
"Naw, man, he's a lineman," replies a kid in a buzz cut and a gray Tupac sweatshirt.
"I think I saw him play safety or something," says another, causing the group to crack up. "Seriously."
Actually, they're all correct. Thomas, a sixthround pick out of Southern Mississippi in 2000, plays eight different defensive positions for the Ravens—everything from nose tackle to press corner—often on consecutive downs. That's partly why, since Thomas became a full-time starter in 2004, he leads all NFL linebackers with 26 sacks and four defensive touchdowns, including a 57-yard fumble return in a Nov. 26, 27-0 whitewash of the Steelers. His display of Swiss Army knife versatility has rejuvenated the Ravens defense, put Baltimore back among the AFC elite and single-handedly transformed the term tweener from scout cussword to compliment. "I've been around football a long time," Ray Lewis told the Baltimore Sun earlier this season, "but he's one of those guys you look back at and say, Wow."
At the Ravens' minicamp in June, then-offensive coordinator Jim Fassel chuckled in disbelief as Thomas jumped in with the defensive backs for one-on-one coverage drills. It looked like an oak tree lining up to cover a daffodil. Then Thomas blanketed wideout Devard Darling on a 35-yard deep fade, knocking the ball down just as it arrived. "Probably the most impressive thing I've seen since I've been involved in football," says Fassel.
"Being a tweener isn't bad, it just means you're good at a lot of things," Thomas says while driving back from the shelter, where he snuck a donation check to the director without being noticed. "Instead of fighting the term, I embraced it. I like being a different kind of cat. It's like, Oh, you can do that one thing really well? Well, I can do this, this, this, this and this …and a little of this …and some of this. So now what do you say?"
Thomas, an Alabama native, has a raspy voice that is Southern fried. But his words are crackback blunt. On his weekly radio show, topics range from cooking to grass cutting (he mows his own) to Conference USA hoops to politics. "The term comes from poly, meaning many," he'll quip on the air, "and tics, meaning bloodsucking parasites."
As he steers, Thomas puts his right elbow on the cream-color leather armrest. Out of habit, he reaches up with his forefinger and rubs the large, dark scar in the middle of his forehead. In 1991, 14-year-old Adalius and older brother Evoris jumped into their family's 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 to pick up their two younger siblings at day care. They were traveling on tiny Nixburg's two-lane highway when an oncoming car tried to pass a truck and struck the Galaxie head-on. Evoris, the driver, suffered minor head injuries. Adalius wasn't so lucky.
He broke his left foot and singed his right thumb when the car's engine came through the floor, launching him halfway through the windshield. He came to in a heap on the front seat, blind in both eyes, with a chunk of glass about the size of a CD case protruding from his forehead. In a daze, he reached up and slowly extracted the glass, which had cut him down to his sinus cavity. The wound gushed blood for the next four hours, requiring 400 stitches. The accident happened early in the school year, and Thomas suffered severe headaches the rest of that fall. It was just a few years ago that tiny bits of glass stopped working their way out of his scalp. "You live through something like that and it's impossible not to look at everything from a different standpoint," says Thomas, who describes himself up until then as a brat "who could have gone either way. I was a happy person from then on. And once that happened, everything changed."
As a senior center for Central Coosa High's hoops team, Thomas averaged 20 points per game, was named Alabama 4A Player of the Year and led his team to a state title. He was also an all-state linebacker, a standout tight end with 19 TDs and a high jumper on the track team with a personal best of 6'6". There are many athletes with his combination of size and speed, but it's the explosiveness and fluidity he developed under the rim and in the high-jump pit that make it seem as though Thomas was created in a Madden lab. "He's so smooth, it looks like he's gliding, not running," says South Carolina defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, the coach who recruited Thomas to Southern Mississippi. "It's deceiving because it can look like he's loafing out there, until you realize that no one ever catches him."
Thomas was a two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, then ran a 4.56 40 at the combine. But he also had a reputation for taking it easy on some plays—or looking like he was—and for getting by on "just" ability. That scared off 30 other teams. But it made him a perfect fit for Baltimore. The Ravens are one of the few NFL franchises that do not belong to a major scouting service. GM Ozzie Newsome abhors the kind of complacency and copycatting that comes from joining them. Instead, Newsome's staff does all its own homework, a laborious and expensive process that can require as many as eight pairs of eyes on a single prospect in order to form a consensus (see sidebar). "The whole scouting system is based on the one premise that players peak in college," says Bart Scott, the Ravens' leading tackler and an undrafted free agent in 2002. "But here they recognize that some people might need another year or two of coaching to mature and reach their potential."
Newsome is known for his unparalleled success in the first round of the draft. Since becoming VP of player personnel in 1996—and then GM in 2002—his No. 1 picks have been named to a combined 28 Pro Bowls. But his magic touch at the end of the draft and beyond is more impressive—and perhaps the main reason the Ravens consistently stay in contention. Narrowing his focus to prospects who are explosive and coachable, Newsome has picked up undrafted stars like Scott as well as late-round gems such as safety Dawan Landry (fifth, 2006), starting right tackle Tony Pashos (fifth, 2003) and Thomas (sixth, 2000). "I was humbled by where I went in the draft," says Thomas. "But that's what started me asking myself: How am I different, and how can I get better? That was the way to survive."
So instead of complaining when the Ravens shuffled him around, Thomas worked on mastering each spot. When they put him at tackle, he worked on syncing up his hands and feet to better shed blockers. When they switched him outside, he perfected more than a dozen pass-rush looks to confuse blockers. When they dropped him into coverage, he studied how to keep his weight balanced and his hips square while mirroring the first five yards of a route. And when they stuck him on special teams, Thomas learned to let, as he says, the "dirty dawg" in him come out every time down the field.
Rather than confuse him, playing several different positions has clarified things. Thomas has a blimp's-eye view of the scheme and a better understanding of the link among all assignments. Teammates call him The Coordinator in homage to his mastery of the defense. "To me, the guy's like Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks," says Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "LT was a great pass-rusher, very fast, athletic and explosive. On the other side was Banks, who did all the dirty work, taking on blocks, stuffing the run, reading plays. Adalius is a combination of the two. For a long time, we just didn't have the guts as coaches to put a plan in motion that let him do it all."
That changed in the middle of last season. The Ravens were 2—4 and headed to Pittsburgh without several starters, including Lewis and Ed Reed. At around 2 a.m. on the Thursday before the game, a glassy-eyed and goofy Ryan was trying to come up with a patchwork scheme to cover the holes in his lineup. Channeling his father, Buddy, the mastermind of the 1985 Bears' 46 D, Rex scratched out the basic X's and O's of a scheme where—for the entire game—Thomas shifted from outside linebacker, his main responsibility, to defensive end to tackle to safety. He was a force. The overmatched Ravens lost just 20-19, while Thomas had a pick and another pass defensed.
After that, what Ryan calls the Steelers' scheme became a regular part of the Ravens' game plan. And Thomas began floating all over the field with spectacular results. Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti even asked for his own copy of Thomas' highlight reel.
Ryan keeps a copy of the DVD in his office at the Ravens' practice facility, and from time to time, he'll pop it in. For football fanatics, it's better than porn. The tape begins with Thomas' playing nose tackle and ends with his walking out past the hash mark to line up as a corner on Chad Johnson. Press coverage. Pro Bowl receiver. By a 270-pound man. "Man, get your big, fat ass back inside before I embarrass you," Johnson yelled with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Watch this," Ryan giggles. At the snap, Thomas jams Johnson at the line of scrimmage and drives him backward all the way to the Gatorade table. Ryan freezes the frame, and the room falls dark and silent for a few seconds. Then Ryan adds: "In 10 years, when this kind of physically versatile player is a full-blown phenomenon, people will be wondering who started the whole trend. And you'll be able to point back to this moment and say, 'Hey, I know who it was.' "
And now, so do you.