If you’ve read or seen any coverage on New England Patriots undrafted free agent wide receiver Jeff Thomas, you’ve probably caught wind of the proverbial “talented but troubled” tag he’s been labeled with after a tumultuous time with Miami. However, a recent report and deeper dive into Thomas’ background reveal a much more complex and successful person than the initial evaluations have suggested.
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Though he was unable to reach Thomas directly, USA Today’s Henry McKenna talked to a variety of people in the rookie’s life and came away with a different side of the receiver that is worth exploring.
“I feel like a lot of people, just from hearing his background, look at him wrong,” said Lamontre Harvey, one of Thomas’ close friends and a high school football teammate. “A lot of people doubted [him], but since kindergarten, we always said that he’d make it to the pros. But they get the wrong impression. They’re like, ‘Oh, he comes from East St. Louis. Well, he’s not going to make it too far.’”
As an Illinois native, I’m very familiar with East St. Louis. Ever since I was a young man, much before Thomas was born and lighting up defenders his exceptional speed and ball skills, ESL has been a high-crime area, but a region blessed with some amazing athletes. Former NBA player Darius Miles went to East St. Louis as have many others who have proven to be elite in their specialty areas.
For Thomas and many of the young men and women who hail from this small city in the midwest, they begin their journies through life with the odds stacked against them. their neighborhood is impoverished, their school systems and resources are below standard, and they live in a country that has turned a blind eye to their struggles, if not contributed to it. That doesn’t mean ESL natives and others from similar areas are doomed, it just means they have to work a lot harder to get to a Division I school and the NFL as Thomas has, but hard work isn’t something that has been associated with him as people discuss his draft status.
From McKenna’s story, he quotes Thomas’ high school coach Darren Sunkett who wisely said this about the next man Thomas will refer to as coach.
“You best believe Belichick’s done his homework, and he knows what he’s dealing with,” Sunkett said. “And he knows what he’s got to do to get through to Jeff. And once he’s done that, Jeff’s going to flourish in that type of offense that New England runs.”
Thomas had a history of clashing with coaches on every level of football, and there is a concern this pattern will follow him to the NFL. Thomas’ high school teammate Reyondous Estes doesn’t believe that will be the case.
“He’s not going to get to the Patriots and say: ‘Man, give me the ball,’” Estes said. “No, he’s going to sit back and understand the situation he’s in behind Julian Edelman and soak all that in. Jeff is a sponge.”
Thomas’ coach at Miami Mark Richt also talked up Thomas’ passion for the sport.
“One thing about Jeff that he loved the most is football, including practice. The guy was a tireless worker,” Richt told Patriots Wire. “He’s got potential to be a great player. He’s got elite speed, agility and ball skills. He’s a very good player. We probably should’ve gotten the ball to him more than we did.”
When you consider all of the accounts and experiences with Thomas, there is no doubt, there are legitimate concerns as to whether he will be professional enough to succeed in the NFL. Thomas is coming in as an undrafted free agent to a team that has a ton of receivers in a similar situation, and most of them are young.
The odds are stacked against him, but that’s nothing he isn’t used to. Based on his talent, and my ability to relate to his story, I’m rooting for him to succeed, and Patriots fans should be as well.