All De’Anthony Thomas wanted was one chance to throw the football.
Thomas, the nation’s top-ranked athlete as a running back and track star, was playing his final high school football game and begged to show off his arm.
So with the City Section Division I championship game at the Los Angeles Coliseum well in hand, Crenshaw High School coach Robert Garrett granted Thomas’ wish.
“I gave him a pitch pass,” Garrett recalled, “and told him to make it look good.”
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Thomas took the toss and ran all the way to the sideline, unable to find a receiver. He reversed his field and dashed all the way to the other boundary, but still couldn’t find a receiver. So he bolted down the sideline for a touchdown.
“He ran about 100 yards to score from the 20,” Garrett said, laughing. “He was … phenomenally electrifying.”
As a 12-year-old sandlot phenom, Thomas was anointed as the “Black Mamba” by rapper Snoop Dogg. Today he is finally getting to show that play-making ability with the Chiefs as a 5-foot-8, 176-pound NFL rookie.
After missing the first four regular-season games because of a hamstring strain, Thomas touched the ball three times Sunday in the Chiefs’ 22-17 loss at San Francisco.
Thomas’ 28-yard punt return set up his first touch from scrimmage. He lined up in the backfield with Jamaal Charles, took a lateral from Alex Smith, shook off one tackle and followed the blocking of center Rodney Hudson 17 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. He also returned another punt 10 yards.
“It was a matter of being patient and getting my confidence back,” Thomas said of his first regular-season game. “I hadn’t returned punts in a while. It was fun. The guys on the punt return make good blocks and are ready for some big plays to happen.”
Those are the kinds of plays the Chiefs envision Thomas, a fourth-round pick from Oregon, making this season — including Sunday’s game at San Diego, just 120 miles down the road from Crenshaw High School.
“The most important thing is we got him back in, and he came out healthy,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Now we can work from there and just give him a little bit more and a little bit more. We don’t want to overload him at all, but at the same time we want him to be a part of the game plan. That’s how we’re going to approach it this week.”
Thomas, who will continue to be the Chiefs’ primary punt returner, displayed his playmaking ability when he brought back a punt 80 yards for a touchdown against Cincinnati in the preseason opener.
Big plays were Thomas’ signature at Oregon. He scored 46 touchdowns in three college seasons, or a touchdown every 8.9 touches of the ball. In 2012, Thomas became the first Duck in nearly 50 years to score touchdowns receiving, rushing and returning punts and kickoffs in the same season.
“It’s no secret to making big plays,” said Thomas, who at 21 is the youngest and smallest Chiefs player. “It’s guys out there making great blocks, and me having the ability to make plays.”
The legend of the Black Mamba began in 2005 when Snoop Dogg invested $1 million to start the Snoop Youth Football League to benefit youngsters in inner-city Los Angeles. Snoop Dogg also coached a team, and after a 52-0 loss the entertainer introduced himself to the star of the opposing team.
That’s when he christened Thomas as the Black Mamba.
Thomas and Snoop Dogg remain close, though Thomas stays more in contact with the youngsters in the neighborhood.
“I’m motivated to keep them on the right path,” Thomas said. “They can be successful if they keep doing the right things and surround themselves with the right people.
“Snoop Dogg was very important to me. Starting the Snoop Dogg Youth Football League got a lot of kids off the street, and I took advantage of it.”
Thomas lived up to his nickname on the football field at Crenshaw High School, and also ran track. Thomas turned in the fastest 200 meters (20.61 seconds) by a prep athlete in the nation as well as winning the 100 meters at the CIF Los Angeles meet in 10.57 seconds.
Thomas committed to playing college football at nearby Southern California, which was thinking about playing him at cornerback. The week before signing day, Thomas took a recruiting trip to Oregon and decided to sign with the Ducks, who viewed him as an ideal fit in the “taser” position, which was a hybrid slot receiver, tight end and running back position in Chip Kelly’s offense.
The decision sent shock waves up and down the Pacific Coast.
“I just had a change of heart,” said Thomas, who also anchored the 400-meter relay team for Oregon’s renowned track program. “I lived in Los Angeles all my life, and I wanted to go to Eugene and experience something different. I went out there to see if I could handle things on my own, and I was successful at it.”
Thomas’ first college game was a rude awakening. Though he scored a touchdown on a 4-yard run, Thomas lost two fumbles in a nationally televised loss to LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“I was pretty much scoring on those two fumbles,” Thomas recalled. “Getting in that open field, I could see the end zone on both of those. It was me being a high school player … not tucking the ball in.”
Oregon didn’t lose faith in Thomas, who as a freshman ranked 11th in the nation in all-purpose yards at 147.8 per game and was the only player in the nation with 400 or more yards rushing (595), receiving (605) and kick returning (983). He had 18 total touchdowns, including a 96-yard kickoff return against USC.
He also delivered a memorable performance in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. Thomas had just two carries — a 91-yard burst down the right sideline for a touchdown in the first quarter and a 64-yard dash down the left sideline for a TD in the third quarter of a 45-38 victory.
“Once he gets outside, it’s very tough to run him down,” said Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell. “He has such a quick break … he’s not a juke-you guy. He’s a plant-and-cut guy. If he gets an opening on you, he’s going to accelerate, and you’re not going to catch him. He has that blazing quickness and speed that most guys aren’t used to facing. It never surprises me when he breaks a long one.”
Thomas may be small, but Campbell says Thomas uses his lack of size to his advantage.
“The bigger you are, the more mass there is to hit,” Campbell said. “If you’re small, and quick as well, it makes the target even tougher to hit. He’s not a heavy-build guy, but he’s a tough kid.
“He’s not a true running back, but he’s one of those guys you could line him up in the backfield and run special plays, and you could expect him to have a chance of breaking a big play and break the game open for you.”
Thomas played in just nine of Oregon’s 12 games in 2013 because of an ankle injury, and didn’t turn in his best 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine.
That, combined with his diminutive size, contributed to his falling to the fourth round of the draft, making it two sleepless nights for Thomas before the Chiefs took him with the 124th overall pick.
“It was frustrating,” Thomas said of the draft, “but I use that as my motivation.”
The Chiefs were looking to replace Dexter McCluster as a slot receiver/kick returner and third-down back, and in Thomas, they found someone even more explosive.
“In the kind of offense that Andy runs,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said after the draft. “He’s going to create situational matchups for this type of player. That’s how you take advantage of his unique athletic traits, and you let the coach scheme him into certain packages that take advantage of defenses. That’s what’s going to happen.”
Those plans went on hold after Thomas tweaked his hamstring at the end of a midweek practice during the week of the season opener. He sat out four long weeks before getting his chance at San Francisco.
“It was tough,” Thomas said. “It was a learning experience for me. I learned I had to do more stretching, taking care of all the little things.”
The Chiefs not only used Thomas for a few offensive plays and as a punt returner at San Francisco, but after the 49ers took a five-point lead with 2:12 to play, Thomas was sent out to return the ensuing kickoff. But the kickoff sailed too deep to return, and it went for a touchback, much to the disappointment of Thomas and special-teams coordinator Dave Toub.
“We had a special return designed for him, and had he gotten the ball it would have been nice to see how it would have went,” Toub said.
“He wanted it, he’s a gamer, he wants to be the guy that sets up the offense. That’s what’s so exciting about him.”