This season Thomas, a 6'1", 209-pound rookie out of Southwestern Louisiana, has become a sort of human burial vault for wayward passes. His two interceptions in the Vikings' 27-11 win over the Browns last Saturday gave him eight for the season, tops in the league and only two away from the Viking club record set by Paul Krause in 1975. Says Viking defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, "He's a big, big guy with a lot of confidence and toughness."
In the beginning, however, Thomas was a little, little guy who had no confidence and, seemingly, no future in football. "I never thought he had a chance the first time I saw him," says Lewis Cook, Thomas's high school coach in Crowley, La. "He was as skinny as a pencil, didn't weigh a hundred pounds." But Thomas, who uses his mother's maiden name because his parents weren't married when he was born, grew and developed.
He wanted to play football so badly that when his mother, Marie, needed him at home after school to babysit his younger brothers, Thomas talked his typing teacher into letting him take the class early so he could work out before going home.
His father died before his junior year at Southwestern Louisiana, a season in which he had nine interceptions. As a senior, Thomas, wearing his father's initials on the sleeve of his jersey, added six more pick-offs. His 15 total interceptions made him tops in that category in NCAA Division I-A over the two-year period.
The Vikings were impressed enough to make him the 42nd pick of the April draft and signed him to a four-year, $2 million contract that included a $600,000 signing bonus. The numbers boggled Thomas, who used some of his new wealth to build his mom a home. "This is like hitting the lottery," Thomas said when he came to terms. "I never did have money. Sure, I want to make an impact here. They're paying me big money to do just that."
He is also motivated by the fact that he was only the seventh defensive back selected in the draft. "I kind of have a chip on my shoulder because I think I should have been a first-round pick," Thomas said on Saturday. "I wanted to come in and show everybody that it doesn't matter what school you go to. A play is a play." So one of his goals was to get one interception for each of the defensive backs drafted ahead of him. He got his sixth in the Vikings' 31-17 win over the Bucs on Dec. 3, and he surpassed his goal in the third quarter of the game against the Browns. Now he's bidding to become the first rookie to lead the league in interceptions since the Bears' Mark Carrier in 1990.
He regrets only that his dad isn't around to share in the glory. "We were very close," Thomas says. "He was always there to support me."
Contrary to what you may have read, the Packers' success isn't completely due to red-hot quarterback Brett Favre and the rest of the Green Bay offense. The defense has been coming along quite nicely, thank you very much.
"We were in an awful fiat spot for a while," says defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur. "We would stop the run one week but have trouble with our pass coverage. The next week we would play a good first half but a bad second half. I still don't think we've played as well as we can play."