16 Jan 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Michael Thomas caught more passes than anyone in the NFL this season. The Saints threw 163 footballs in his direction. He caught 137.
He played at Taft High. UCLA is 15 miles away. USC is 25. The recruiters drove the 101, right past his exit, seeking someone bigger and faster.
Keyshawn Johnson, perhaps the most flamboyant receiver in Trojans history, is Thomas’ uncle.
“If Keyshawn can’t convince USC to take him, I don’t know who can,” said Matt Kerstetter, then the coach at Taft.
Thomas fell through their cracks and into heaven. Next time someone asks you what’s happened to Pac-12 football, think about him.
Thomas turned 12 catches into 211 yards when the Saints beat the Rams 45-35 on Nov. 4. They meet Sunday for the NFC Championship. The Rams will try something different, but it’s the same secondary and the same Thomas. He has been scheme-proof so far.
“He’s grown up a lot,” said Mike Thomas Sr., known as Big Mike, a real-estate agent who has walked his son, and driven him, on this uphill journey. “But even when he was small, all the way back to Pop Warner, he never dropped the ball. You throw it to him, he’ll catch it.”
During Thomas’ junior year, Mike Bercovici was the thrower. They were on the scout team together. Thomas had gone to Oaks Christian High as a freshman and was home-schooled as a sophomore. Physically and emotionally, he wasn’t quite ready. Bercovici had transferred from Westlake High and was sitting out. Neither was thrilled.
In the off-season, Kerstetter had his team gather at lunchtime on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to watch video and talk the game. Thomas and Bercovici began showing up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Soon all the backs and receivers did, too. When summer began, the QB and the WR took no days off.
“The day after that season ended, Mike and I looked at each other and said, ‘OK, it’s now or never,’” said Bercovici, who went on to Arizona State. “Let’s go make a name for ourselves.”
If there was a 7-on-7 tournament or a showcase or a camp, Thomas and Bercovici were there. They even led Taft to a 7-on-7 tournament win at USC. Both were measured and timed by the Trojans staff. They heard nothing thereafter. Even ASU failed to act on Bercovici’s campaign for Thomas.
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The fall of 2010 came, and an eagle burst from the cocoon. Thomas led California receivers in passing yards. He surpassed 100 in every game. He caught 13 for 195, with two touchdowns, in a landmark 38-35 win over Notre Dame High.
In the City Section quarterfinals, Taft met Dorsey. “That’s the biggest rivalry I’ve ever been a part of,” said Bercovici, who knows Arizona vs. Arizona State.
Thomas caught four balls for 142 and Taft won 35-18, but he broke his collarbone in the fourth[cq comment=”second”] quarter. Without Thomas or defensive lineman Antwaun Woods, now with the Dallas Cowboys, Taft lost to Carson in the semis.
By then Oregon State, Washington and other Pac-12 schools were on Thomas’ trail. But he was still pining for USC or UCLA. The family decided to send him to Fork Union, a military prep school in Virginia. That way his college eligibility “clock” wouldn’t start.
“Plus, he needed to get away from home and look out for himself,” Big Mike said.
Fork Union features 6 a.m. wakeup calls and daily room inspection. It also has ties to Ohio State. Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George went there.
Thomas’ roommate was quarterback Cardale Jones, now with the Chargers. Thomas and Jones had big years and Jim Tressel signed them both. Urban Meyer took over the program and Thomas won 50 games in his four years, including a national championship.
“But after his freshman year, they redshirted him,” Kerstetter said. “Mike still had a ways to go.”
Thomas was a second-round pick by the Saints, the sixth wide receiver picked in 2016, behind such washouts as Corey Coleman and LaQuan Treadwell. Now he has 321 career catches, a record for an NFL player in his first three seasons.
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And Kerstetter and Bercovici still remember the hand grips Thomas carried around, every minute of every day.
“Mike would let you know about it,” Bercovici said. “He’d say, ‘Just as I’m here talking to you, I’m getting stronger.’
“I see him now and it’s hard to believe, the strides he’s taken from high school to college and now to pro. I don’t know what’s left, unless it’s the Hall of Fame.”
Objects seem bigger when they’re no longer under your nose.