The first time the coaches at Portland State realized they might have stumbled upon the next Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas was playing in just his fifth football game since middle school.
Montana State was in the ideal defense to cover the post route Thomas ran during the first half of a 2010 Big Sky Conference game, but Portland State quarterback Connor Kavanaugh decided to give the 6-foot-5 former power forward the chance to make a play anyway. Thomas rewarded his quarterback's faith in him, out-leaping multiple defenders, squeezing the ball against his head and falling into the end zone for an acrobatic 55-yard touchdown.
"It was a holy cow moment," Portland State receivers coach Steve Cooper said Friday. "I was in the box for that play and I looked at another coach and just said, 'Wow.' I remember talking to Connor a couple years later, and we both agreed that when we saw that one play, we knew Julius was going to be special."
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Stories like that illustrate why those at Portland State weren't nearly as surprised as everyone else was to see Thomas emerge from anonymity Thursday night with five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns against the defending Super Bowl champs. The little-known Denver Broncos tight end has made a habit of leaving teammates and coaches awestruck since he first decided to attempt the transition from basketball to football about 3 1/2 years ago.
He caught 29 passes and earned all-conference honors in his lone year of football at Portland State despite only having played at the Pop-Warner level previously. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Broncos the following April after catching the attention of scouts with a touchdown and a two-point conversion in the East-West Shrine game. And once finally healthy Thursday night after battling ankle problems during his first two NFL seasons, Thomas emerged as one of Peyton Manning's favorite targets and became the first Denver tight end since 2009 to amass more than 100 yards receiving in a game.
"We are all very proud of how far Julius has come," Portland State head football coach Nigel Burton said. "Considering how frustrating his first two years were, it was great to see him start the 2013 season off so well. It's a tribute to his hard work, perseverance and dedication to his craft."
When Thomas first walked into the Portland State football office in spring 2010 and requested a tryout, Burton and his staff were understandably skeptical. They knew the undersized power forward had averaged 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds as a senior and had helped lead Portland State to NCAA tournament bids in 2008 and 2009, but they weren't sure a basketball player would have the toughness to play football.
The only reason Burton gave Thomas a chance was Portland State had a shortage of tight ends or receivers with size that season. The previous coaching staff favored short, speedy receivers who fit well in a spread offense, but Burton needed tight ends and receivers big and strong enough to block for his run-oriented attack.
"You get basketball players who make the NFL and a lot of guys think, 'Maybe I can try it,'" Cooper said. "There are a lot more who don't make it than make it. You don't want to discount anyone but you kind of roll your eyes at it."
Had the Portland State football staff scouted Thomas on the basketball floor, they might have been more eager to work with the tight end hopeful. Both Thomas' high school coach Dustin Lanz and his college coach Ken Bone said they saw signs he had more upside as a receiver than an undersized power forward as a result of his strength, leaping ability and knack for snatching rebounds out of the air in traffic.
The son of a former wide receiver at the University of Pacific, Thomas enrolled at Tokay High School in Lodi, Calif. intent on playing football and basketball his freshman year. He tried out for the freshman football team but failed to even make it through the first scrimmage of preseason practice as a result of severe back pain caused by a growth spurt that saw him rocket from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-2 by the start of his sophomore year.
By the time Thomas' sophomore year began, he was already entrenched in basketball. He made varsity for the first time that season and emerged as a dominant interior player, eventually leading Tokay to its first-ever section title and to the semifinals of the state tournament as a senior.
What impressed Lanz most about Thomas as a high school player was his work ethic both in the gym and in the weight room. Thomas wasn't a silky shooter or a deft passer, but he relied on a combination of strength, toughness and sheer will to score or rebound in the paint, fouling out two opposing big men in the section title game as a senior and nearly ousting a third.
"He shot 19 free throws in that game," Lanz said. "They couldn't stop him. They had to foul him. He was just dominant. He had the mentality he was coming after you and he wasn't going to stop."
Few Division I basketball programs showed much interest in a 6-foot-5 power forward despite Thomas' high school success, but Bone wasn't deterred by Thomas' lack of size. The Portland State coach took a chance on Thomas because of his relentless hustle, his chiseled frame and his willingness to do the dirty work.
Even though Thomas became exactly the kind of scrappy, high-energy rebounder Bone envisioned at Portland State, the veteran coach admits he sometimes wondered whether his power forward was playing the wrong sport.
"We always thought if he would have played football, he might have a brighter future," said Bone, now the basketball coach at Washington State.
"He was really a good player for us but he wasn't the most skilled. We just thought on the football field, with the attributes he has, he had a chance to be really good. He was strong, he aggressively pursued rebounds and loose balls and he was never going to be outworked. He's a guy who's going to get the most out of his God-given talent."
It wasn't clear whether Thomas could overcome the combination of injuries and inexperience that slowed his growth during his first two seasons in Denver, but recent signs suggest he'll be an impact player for the Broncos in year three. He led the team in receiving during the preseason and validated that with his brilliance on Thursday night against Baltimore.
As Thomas was scorching the Ravens' secondary in front of a national TV audience, his former high school and college coaches were reveling in his success.
Cooper watched the game on TV with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. Lanz received a flurry of text messages after each of Thomas' catches. And Bone stared at SportsCenter in his Idaho hotel room in amazement as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history raved about his former power forward.
"Peyton was on there complimenting Julius, and I thought, 'Wow, he must have had a good game,'" Bone said. "Then they showed the highlights, and I was like, 'That's awesome.' It couldn't happen to a better kid."