PHILADELPHIA – Not long after undrafted free agent Phillip Thomas signed his contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday afternoon, he was led to the office of the team's security officer. There he pulled out his smartphone and tried to show who he really was.
"Here," he said, fingers flying across the screen. "Look, this is my Facebook page right here."
Somebody has been pretending to be the safety from Syracuse, spinning a story so convincing that the fake Phillip Thomas has appeared on blog posts, conducted radio interviews and tweeted a bogus signing with the Washington Redskins. The fake Phillip Thomas created a Facebook page loaded with pictures of the real Phillip Thomas along with photos from inside Redskins Park. The fake Phillip Thomas even posted a picture of a Redskins playbook that appears to have been taken in a hotel room.
While pretending to be the real Phillip Thomas, the fake Phillip Thomas sent me Facebook messages saying he doesn't want to be an Eagle and will be with his team of choice, the Redskins, by training camp.
"That's nuts," Redskins official Tony Wyllie wrote in an email.
"I have no idea who is doing this," the real Phillip Thomas said Friday. "I'm here. I want to be an Eagle."
As the Eagles security man scrolled through the fake Phillip Thomas Facebook page on a laptop computer, he shook his head. He jotted notes on a small pad.
"This kind of stuff happens all the time," he told the real Phillip Thomas.
But rarely with such detail.
Adam Bradley, a host of Ball Hogs Radio, first heard of Phillip Thomas in the weeks before the draft. A sports marketing consultant in Washington, D.C., put them together after the fake Phillip Thomas contacted the consultant saying he was on the Redskins "radar."
Bradley called the fake Phillip Thomas on the Miami cell number he provided and conducted a lengthy phone interview in which he spoke passionately about his desire to be a Redskin. He talked about a pre-draft workout on the backfields of Redskins Park. He talked about listening in awe as Redskins coach Mike Shanahan told him how much he wanted to win the Super Bowl.
The fake PhillipThomas also told Bradley his favorite player was former Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who was murdered in 2007. He said he had an autographed photo of Taylor that included the words "Stay Focused," and he said another good friend was Jasper Howard, a safety also from Miami, who was killed in a fight at the University of Connecticut.
So convincing and beautiful was his story that Thomas became a favorite on message boards of some Redskins fans who loved the idea of someone with an autographed picture of Sean Taylor vowing to complete Taylor's unfinished legacy.
After the draft, the fake Thomas called Bradley again and said he had signed with the Redskins. He asked Bradley to help get the message out, which Bradley did, posting the news on the Hogs Haven site. When sports writers started calling saying they too had noticed tweets and received Facebook messages from a Phillip Thomas they didn't think were real, Bradley began to worry that his Phillip Thomas interview was not with the real Phillip Thomas.
He found a radio interview the real Phillip Thomas did in Syracuse and the voices didn't match. By then the Eagles had called the real Phillip Thomas' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who said someone was pretending to be his client. Word trickled back to Bradley who took his interview off the site.
"What baffles me is how this guy got the information about the practices and the [team] workouts Phillip Thomas was doing," Bradley said. "Phillip Thomas has to know something about this person."
The real Phillip Thomas is from Miami, but his cell phone is different from the one provided by the fake Phillip Thomas. The area codes aren't the same. He did know Sean Taylor and was good friends with Howard. He said he was devastated when he learned of Howard's death by reading of it on a news scroll on an airport television.
He said he does not have an autographed picture of Sean Taylor. He also has no affinity for the Redskins. He said he is thrilled to have a chance at the NFL, especially after what happened last fall at Syracuse when the school suspended him for a year because of a team rules violation. He said he smoked marijuana. He said he took a drug test at the draft combine in February and welcomed further drug tests.
The real Phillip Thomas said someone has been impersonating him for some time, going back to his days at Syracuse. That's when strange posts began appearing on his Facebook page, like a picture of a pile of liquor bottles suggesting he had been drinking heavily. Still, he didn't consider it a problem until this spring when he started to hear of the interviews and Facebook and Twitter posts.
A nightclub owner in Washington sent him a message saying, "You're a D.C. dude now," and that he would always be welcome in the man's club. The real Phillip Thomas was perplexed. A D.C. dude? What was this person talking about?
On Friday, the real Phillip Thomas laughed nervously as he scrolled through the fake Phillip Thomas' Facebook page on a laptop. He was shocked by the fake Phillip Thomas' misspellings, pointing out that the fake Phillip Thomas had used the word "week" when he should have used "weak." All of it unsettled him, he said. For instance, what was the page's main photo, which appears to show someone talking to a group of children in a classroom? The implication was he was speaking to a class, but he had never seen the children or the room or even the photo. The person talking to the class is conveniently looking down, his face hidden from view.
"I have no idea who this is," the real Phillip Thomas said. "He's got to be watching my every move."
The real Phillip Thomas wondered if perhaps the fake Phillip Thomas is taking everything he tweets or posts and fitting it into a fictitious narrative. Like in the case of running back Antwon Bailey, a Syracuse teammate who signed with the Redskins as an undrafted free agent. The fake Phillip Thomas claims Bailey – or "Twon" – is his best friend. The real Phillip Thomas said he is friends with Bailey but not best friends. However, he once flew on the same airplane as Bailey and tweeted that they were on a plane together.
"He don't know nothing about me," the real Phillip Thomas said about the fake Phillip Thomas. "He's said nothing that relates to me."
The real Phillip Thomas doesn't believe the fake Phillip Thomas did anything illegal. The real Phillip Thomas' bank accounts seem secure. Mostly, the real Phillip Thomas would like this all to go away.
"I'm still dealing with it," he said.
The fake Phillip Thomas has been messaging me for close to a month now. It started after I wrote a story in early April about a West Virginia defensive end named Bruce Irvin, a high school dropout who had turned his life around. The fake Phillip Thomas Facebook friended me and said he had his own story to tell.
We exchanged messages a few times before the draft. I told him I had covered Taylor's death and would like to talk to him about it. He seemed excited to do so. But I suspected something wasn't right when the posts about the Redskins kept coming up even though he was listed on the Eagles' roster. When I messaged him about the discrepancy, he said he needed to have surgery and would actually sign with the Redskins right before training camp.
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His words didn't make sense. Neither did the awkward photo he posted on Facebook last week of an NFL contract with the name "Phillip Thomas" and "Washington Redskins" superimposed in typeface way too large for the document. His Facebook page location now said "Landover, Maryland," which is the site of FedEx Field but is also some 50 miles from the Redskins' headquarters in Ashburn, Va.
Then Thursday the fake Phillip Thomas messaged on Facebook again. He said he was coming up to Maryland from Miami to hit the area's nightlife. Knowing the Eagles were scheduled to have a rookie minicamp starting the next morning and certain I was dealing with a fake, I asked if he was a Redskin or an Eagle.
He said the Eagles had signed him right after the draft then told him they had cut him at which point the Redskins snatched him up, only to have the Eagles say they hadn't released him at all.
"They are literally fighting over it," he typed, referring to the Redskins and Eagles. "I told them I want to be a Redskin."
But he also said the kinds of things a player would say. He complained that NFL contracts are not guaranteed. He said he got a $3,000 signing bonus while Bailey only received $1,200.
"He was so mad," the fake Thomas typed. "LMAO."
Still, too much seemed suspicious. As we chatted via Facebook, I called the Eagles, who said the real Phillip Thomas was coming to Friday's camp. A team official even told me what time the flight was scheduled to arrive. When I returned to the computer, I asked the fake Phillip Thomas if he was coming Friday. He said the Eagles were making him but that he was sure he would be a Redskin by training camp. When I asked what time he was getting to Philadelphia, he didn't reply. When I asked if he had a number for Rosenhaus, he said he didn't have his phone with him.
Then he sent a photo of a Florida drivers license for Phillip Thomas even though I hadn't asked for any identification.
"That should clear it up Im [sic] me," he typed. "LOL."
When I said I was going to Philadelphia on Friday, he replied: "I'll be there.
After meeting the real Phillip Thomas on Friday, I called the fake Thomas on the cell number he messaged me, which was the same one he gave Bradley for the Ball Hogs Radio interview.
"Yes, we talked yesterday," the fake Phillip Thomas said when I introduced myself. His voice was flat with no inflections, unlike the real Phillip Thomas, who has a hint of a Caribbean accent.
I asked if he was in Philadelphia.
"Yes, sir," he replied.
Then I told him I had just met the real Phillip Thomas.
He hung up.
Down the hall, Phillip Thomas of the Philadelphia Eagles left the team security office and headed toward his new NFL life. He said the driver's license on the Facebook page was his old license and he wondered how someone had a photo of it.
"I just want to get this taken care of," he said. "It's crazy."
He shook his head and walked away.
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