NEW ORLEANS — His voice quivers and his words crawl. He rubs his chin. He pauses six…seven…eight seconds at a time, thinking of the perfect words to use. Once those words float into the air, they’re vague and overly sanitized.
The last thing Michael Thomas wants to talk about is Michael Thomas.
There will be no digging deep into his upbringing, no reliving childhood trauma that molded him into who he is. “I’ll write that story,” Thomas says, sternly, only briefly touching on the back-to-back deaths of a grandmother and great aunt. When asked what traits those two sisters passed on to him, Thomas fidgets in his chair and refuses to go there.
Yet this is also a blooming star in the midst of what he’s dubbed the #NoRecordIsSafeTourVol3. The 6’3″, 212-pound wide receiver pulls off one show-stopping stunt at a time, flexes both biceps and snarls into the distance catch after catch after catch. And still, there’s little we know about him. Such blistering dominance must be rooted in something, right?
Eventually, Thomas’ eyes double-take, then triple-take a recorder that’s resting on the desk in front of him.
He can’t see the shining red dot. He thinks it’s turned off.
“You’re getting this, right?”
Then, he cuts loose.
“When I show up to play and the numbers [come] back,” he says, “I’m the guy that [will be] at the top. And we’re talking about NFL history. Not your franchise. We’re talking NFL history. We’re talking about every guy that’s played the position—for any organization—who had a chance to be in my position and write his name in history but didn’t.
“And I feel like I did.
“That’s how the story has to be told.”
In style and substance, he’s unlike any of his peers. Thomas, in his third season with the Saints, relishes one-on-one combat. Seeks it. His sports idol as a kid? Allen Iverson, and he’s dead set on bringing AI-like tenacity to a position forever occupied by attention-starved egotists. Take this to the bank, too, he says: He will not drop the ball. Thomas can count on both hands how many passes he’s dropped in his life. All the way back to Pop Warner.
So the records will fall. One by one.
Nobody in NFL history had caught more passes through the first two weeks of the season than his 28. He added another 10 Sunday against the Falcons. Half-joke with Thomas that he’s on pace for more than 200 receptions this season, and he does not joke back. It’s a realistic mark in his mind, maybe even a starting point. For him to catch “245,” he says, Drew Brees simply has to throw him the ball that many times. Because he’ll catch ’em.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
He’s 25. This should not be his time to take over the league, but he’s making it his time.
He’s taking a sledgehammer to the wide receiver hierarchy as we know it.
“I didn’t have to be a prima donna to get where I’m at,” Thomas says. “Everybody else is chasing somebody else. I’m not chasing anyone. I’m chasing what I’m focused on and my job. Everybody else can chase me. Right now, I’m focused on my job, my mission and being who I’m supposed to be.”
And that’s the kid who told his grandmother he’d play in the NFL one day, who’d show up with dirt all over his body from a ruthless pickup game, who insists he still wants to be “that star in their eyes.”
“All these dudes out here trying to be somebody they’re not supposed to be; they’re confused. They’re confused. And it’s easy for me to pass somebody who’s confused because they’re never going to get it. They’re never going to figure it out.”
He doesn’t call out other receivers.
He doesn’t have to.
Thomas is here to take over the league, and that’s all that matters.
“I’m trying to go for that No. 1 spot, too. For me to get to the No. 1 spot, I can’t worry about what he’s doing. Why are my eyes on somebody else’s paper when I’m writing my own paper?”
There’s a beauty to the simplicity of his profession. When he lines up against a cornerback, nobody can run and nobody can hide. Everything is exposed in four seconds.
How much film you watched. How much weight you lifted. If you’re afraid. Thomas lives for this moment of truth.
He wants to drag you into his dark alley and let the best man win.
“Bully-type football,” he says. “Me vs. you.”
This brash mentality was sharpened through a lost sophomore year at Ohio State. After playing his first season, Thomas was redshirted after the coaches in Columbus felt he struggled in fall camp. Embarrassed. He easily could’ve transferred, but, to him, that would’ve been quitting. Running, hiding. So he spent a full year as a spectator, climbed the depth chart and won a national championship. If he found any comfort in that, it faded quickly when the Saints drafted him 47th overall. That’s not too shabby, but he could only watch as Corey Coleman, Will Fuller V, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell and Sterling Shepard were deemed superior to him.
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
He’ll never forget that free fall, just as he’ll never forget Dec. 11, 2016, the day Sean Payton made him a spectator. Thomas grits his teeth when thinking back to that one. The rookie wanted to play through a foot injury, but Payton yanked him right before kickoff and left Thomas shedding a few tears.
That game, he’s convinced, prevented him from breaking Anquan Boldin’s rookie record of 101 receptions. He realized right then he needed to be a warrior, to ignore the intrinsic violence of the game. So throughout year two, Thomas dealt with serious pain and refused to turn himself in. He simply did not report injuries to the training staff.
That’s why he loved Jarvis Landry’s impassioned, expletive-filled speech on Hard Knocks (Warning: NSFW language). As the Browns vet sniped to teammates that sitting out represents “weakness” and is “contagious as f–k,” Thomas nodded his head.
“When guys like me see Jarvis say that, it helps you realize: Oh, I’m not crazy. There’s other people who think like me,” Thomas says. “That’s what it’s going to take to win championships. That’s what it’s going to take to be the best at your position. That’s what it takes to be the best in the game. That’s what it takes to get to the Hall of Fame. Not everyone is trying to do that. Everyone has a role, and you have to play your role.
“I look at all the famous bands and music groups. Jackson 5. The Beatles. Everybody has a role. Those guys were all rock stars, but they all had a role.”
So this is the role he’ll play.
He will not miss a game. He will not drop a pass. This is his reality.
Thomas wants to lift everyone around him. History, to him, means getting Brees to the Hall of Fame with every passing record, helping Payton go down as the greatest coach of all time and seeing every receivers coach he’s ever had getting promotion after promotion right into comfortable retirement. Seeing new faces on the roster every year motivates him, too.
Thomas still lives in fear of getting demoted, of being “redshirted” again.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
“I’m kind of afraid of that s–t,” he says. “I want to keep my job. I like my job. I like the people at my job. … You have to honest with yourself. You have to be that same person. You can’t change. That’s how you get confused. That’s how you get lost. That’s how your legacy gets ruined, and that’s how your story gets messed up. They go, ‘This guy was great and…where’d he go?’ I can’t be that guy. I’m in too deep. I’m going out the same way I came in.”
Nothing has steered Thomas to the nearest kicker’s net on the sideline or to his phone to stream the scene in a locker room on Facebook Live for some side cash.
And no cornerback has managed to get inside his head. None, he’s certain, ever will because he’s the one who’ll dictate the fight out wide.
“If I had a hit list, I’d want a hit list of all of them so we could make it all clear,” Thomas says. “Clear the whole list. If I had the opportunity, that’s how I’d say it. I want all of them. Just line ’em up. However we get to ’em, we get to ’em.
“I want ’em all.”
Cradled inside his bear paw-sized hands is a cellphone that looks more like a Tic Tac box.
Inside that phone is one of Thomas’ secret weapons—a lifeline, of sorts: Iverson’s cell number.
He grew up in Los Angeles, far from Philly, but Thomas could not get enough of AI as a kid. He scoured libraries for every book he could find about Iverson, writing more book reports about the 76ers guard than he can count. He watched all AI-themed documentaries. His aunt once bought fabric at a store to sew Thomas his own Iverson-like “sleeve.” He wore No. 3. He rocked the AI wristbands and the AI finger sleeves. He even stepped over defensive backs. You know, like the man who perfected that taunt.
For 14 NBA seasons, Iverson treated his body with the tender love and care of a wrecking ball.
He was a featherweight who went 12 rounds with heavyweights, and Thomas could not get enough of it.
“He just brought that swagger. He brought that dog mentality that I’m going to go at you no matter what size,” Thomas says. “He wasn’t the biggest guy on the court. He wasn’t a pretty boy.
Michael Thomas @Cantguardmike
Happy Birthday to the biggest Influence “The Answer” @alleniverson Love dawg, thank you for everything! https://t.co/Em0I0K4MeD
“That fight. That going until you can’t go anymore. Defeating the odds.”
Thomas eventually connected with Iverson, and the two have been in constant communication since. They text. They FaceTime. Iverson always has a new war story to share, a lesson to pass on, a legendary matchup to relive, and it recharges Thomas’ competitive juices every time. Iverson was LeBron before LeBron, Thomas explains, carrying an entire team on his back. He faced titans of the sport—Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan—with ruthless abandon.
Each conversation reminds Thomas he’s built the same way. That he’s much, much different than all other mainstream NFL wide receivers.
Long ago, his grandmother got him into the habit of reading the Bible and praying daily. One verse immediately stood out to Thomas: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
“I know this,” he says, pointing to his chest, “is not me. I’m here for a reason. I consider myself chosen.”
So even as his uncle, Keyshawn Johnson, became the only wide receiver picked No. 1 overall in the last 33 years, even though Thomas has read and reread and re-reread Johnson’s book, Just Give Me the Damn Ball, he’s never felt the need to chase him. He’s not that brand of wide receiver.
“I feel like it takes a lot of energy to do all that stuff,” he says. “I’m trying to take all the energy they use on that stuff into this game.”
He takes a friendly jab at Uncle Keyshawn, too, pointing out that he went 46 spots lower and still has produced better single-season numbers.
Odell can be Odell. AB can be AB. Wide receivers can spend all day Instagramming their lives.
Thomas expects the records to speak for themselves.
“I don’t need to be that loudmouth receiver,” he says. “I may not need to do things for attention, I may not have to be in the media a thousand times to become this big mouth or I may not have to post this much stuff to become this person. At the end of the day, I’m going to be history.”
He stares into your eyes.
“And at the end of the day, you can’t erase history.”
It’s a Tuesday, an off day for players, but Thomas didn’t want to meet for lunch or dinner anywhere in one of America’s true party capitals. No, he wanted to meet at his workplace.
So there he was in a black long-sleeved shirt, opening a side door at the Saints facility to let a visitor in.
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
No Bourbon Street today. No Bourbon Street, ever, really.
“You become numb to all that stuff if you’re trying to get somewhere,” Thomas says. “Look at Drew Brees. Drew Brees is never on Bourbon, but Drew Brees is going to go to the Hall of Fame. Drew Brees has a championship and is working on another championship. Drew Brees is going to break every quarterback record that’s out there with me on the field with him. That’s what I’m trying to build.”
Sit with Thomas long enough and he’ll let you inside…a bit.
He lost his aunt and grandmother shortly before heading to college. Both were shocks. While his family mourned—deeply—Thomas took it upon himself to be the backbone for everyone. He took “ownership” of the tragedies to become the man those two women helped raise. They’re the reason he didn’t fold at Ohio State and will not fold in the pros. If it weren’t for them, Thomas admits, he’d never know how to overcome adversity. That ordeal taught him how to harness pain, how to move forward. Only forward.
“I’m still not who I’m supposed to be,” says Thomas. “You have to go every day. These dudes that are going, they slow down and go away, and they might pop back up. That ain’t consistent. You can’t keep up with me. You can’t keep up with me. It’s proven. It’s in the history. You can’t keep up with me.”
Play through injuries. Never drop a pass. Go full AI. Attack every day like this, and that mentality is bound to become contagious. Everybody in his orbit is bound to sweat, to work, to care as much as he does. He’s sure of it. When the cameras are off, he cannot relent.
Thomas’ obsessive nature is impossible to ignore.
Just ask those who try to defend him in practice. His tenacity Monday through Saturday is palpable. Cornerback Patrick Robinson and safety Chris Banjo both call Thomas “a dog!” independently. Banjo remembers his first practice with the Saints when Thomas dove all over the place in trying to snare every ball possible. “I’m like, ‘I hope he doesn’t hurt himself!'” Banjo says. That approach is why Banjo thinks 200-plus catches are realistic. As Robinson adds, Thomas attacks a typically breezy Friday walkthrough “dead serious … full tilt.”
“He’s not the quickest or the best route-runner,” says Robinson, a nine-year vet. “But he’s going to catch the ball. However he can, he’s going to catch it. The DBs can have great coverage, but just that dog in him … if he has to climb over your back, he’s going to do it. He is that receiver who gets physical with you. He invites it. He wants to win every rep. If he doesn’t win, you can see it in his face. With a frown in his face. He’s mad.”
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press/Associated Press
Adds Banjo, “If there’s any meat left on the bone, he’s going to make sure he scrapes all of it. He’s going a thousand miles an hour.”
On those rare occasions Thomas does drop a pass in practice, he gets so mad at himself that part of Banjo wants to tell him, Hey, everything’s going to be OK.
And yet, both DBs are hesitant to label Thomas the best wide receiver in the game. The same names that fill your heads fill theirs, and they can’t quite anoint Thomas the greatest.
Not that he’d care either way.
Thomas will continue to snare balls out of the Jugs machine after practice. He’ll continue doing “finger yoga” to stretch those hands even wider—after they measured 10.5 inches at the combine, he told ESPN’s Sports Science crew his hands increased to 10.625 inches when he used the technique. He’ll try to, literally, grab every ball in his vicinity. His Twitter handle, Cantguardmike, is not rooted in some acrobatic catch in New Orleans or even Columbus, Ohio. Thomas coined it before he even took a class at Ohio State. Long before he had any fans outside friends and family.
Because he knew what was coming.
Because he knew he was chosen.
“Nobody made me change it,” Thomas says. “I’ve been against everybody. Nothing against them; that’s just what is.
“Being who I am, when you say it, that’s how it is.”
Regular seasons are for records, but Super Bowls cement legacies, so you better believe the Minneapolis Miracle is still buzzing in the back of his mind. The loss still sears him. By the end of this conversation, now fully engaged, Thomas leans in and says he’s been asked about the Saints’ 2017 playoff loss to the Vikings nonstop. That game, that play, that feeling.
He wants to get more off his chest, right now.
“Any competitor,” Thomas says, “anybody with heart, anybody that’s a man that likes to win and hates losing, he’s going to tell you that he always thinks back to that play. Anybody on that team. Dudes that aren’t even on the team anymore are going to say they still feel that play. We can’t get back to that play without taking care of what’s in front of me now. I don’t let that distract me. It’s a new year and a new situation. We’re trying to maximize this.
“But, yeah. What happened back then? I felt that. I still feel it.”
So Thomas and the Saints plan to claw back to that moment.
Thomas has caught 38 of his 40 targets through three games, good for an extraterrestrial 95 percent catch rate. For comparison’s sake, since “targets” became a tracked stat in 1992, the best Jerry Rice pulled off in a full season was 74 percent (1994) while Randy Moss‘ best was 65 percent (2003), according to Pro Football Reference.
As confident as he is, Thomas makes it clear Rice is the GOAT in his eyes, but he also wants everyone to take a look at his pace and realize he won’t slow down.
It’s about being “consistent,” a word he repeats 11 times in one sitting. Because to Thomas, that’s not a regurgitated cliche. It’s a choice—to chalk up catches and yards and touchdowns every game, every practice, every season. And all of it will lead to numbers and feats this league has never seen.
It also doesn’t hurt to catch passes from a quarterback Thomas thinks could play until he’s 50, too. With Brees on fire, Thomas sees a rush right back to the postseason and beyond. In fact, he invites this visitor to head to Super Bowl week to put “the finishing touches” on his story. Until then, he’ll flex and, on the road, raise an index finger to his mouth to say “shh,” but he will not fluff his public image. He will not act out to draw attention. He will not chase notoriety. As a result, to millions of fans, Michael Thomas may be nothing more than a generic name plugged into a fantasy football lineup.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
And that word ticks him off. Fantasy. Again, Thomas turns serious with a message for those people.
“Just pay attention. I’ll leave it at that: Pay attention. Pay attention to what’s going on. When they say ‘history,’ just know that ‘history’ has never been done before. One game, your fantasy team, your fantasy points ain’t history. Know the difference between those two. It’s very important.
Thomas leans back to stretch his arms for several moments then heads out the door and down a hallway.
It’s time to head back to work.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.