Fate works in mysterious ways.
Greg Thomas rubs his weary old knee and takes you back a generation for proof.
Now the principal at West Campus High School, Thomas embraced his football dreams and desires growing up in the Bay Area and during his collegiate days in Stockton. He dreamed of playing wide receiver in the NFL, racing into the end zone, the ball in his hands.
Those hopes were crushed in a pile-up of bodies during a Pacific practice. It was spring 1983, one day after new Tigers offensive coordinator Pete Carroll enthusiastically suggested that moving Thomas from receiver to H-back would create favorable matchup problems. Shredding two knee ligaments ended that experiment. Thomas never played again. He graduated, got married, had a son and pursued a career in education. His son, Julius, grew tall and muscular, but he didn’t play football until his senior year at Portland State. Julius is now a third-year tight end for the Denver Broncos, and he’ll start in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks – coached by Carroll.
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“That’s just crazy, isn’t it?” Thomas said the other day from his office at West Campus. “How’s that for fate? I don’t have to wonder – ‘Why me?’ – because now I know why. This was the plan, and I’m so happy about it. If not for Pete Carroll, my path changes. Julius isn’t born. It’s Pete’s fault!”
Thomas wanted his son to follow in his athletic footsteps, but Julius’ passion was basketball. He didn’t play varsity football at Tokay High School in Lodi, but as a rugged and skilled center, Julius powered the Tigers in 2006 to their only Sac-Joaquin Section Division I basketball championship. Thomas suggested Julius give college football a try as a senior, reminding that he could touch base with his old friend Carroll, then the USC coach. But Thomas didn’t push his son. He let his son pursue his own path.
As a 6-foot-5 power forward, Julius set career records at Portland State for games played (121) and field-goal percentage (66.4) while leading the Vikings to two NCAA Tournaments.
With a year of athletic eligibility remaining after graduating, Julius finally considered football. The old man beamed at the prospect. So did Portland State coach Nigel Burton, a Jesuit High graduate. Julius earned All-Big Sky Conference football honors in 2010, catching the ball in traffic and downfield. He also caught the eye of Frank Bauer.
More fate. Bauer, a Pacific assistant coach in the early 1980s, recruited Thomas to Stockton. By 2010, Bauer was a player agent. He saw NFL potential with Julius, in part because there is no demand for 6-5 power forwards in the NBA.
“Bauer calls me up and says he’ll get Julius on the radar, and he did,” Thomas recalled. “Next thing you know, Julius is in the East-West Shrine Game and scouts notice what Julius can do.”
The Broncos picked Julius in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. Injuries slowed him early in his career, but he had a breakthrough season this fall. He caught Peyton Manning’s 51st touchdown pass, which broke the single-season record held by Tom Brady. Julius’ 12 touchdown catches eclipsed the single-season club mark held by Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe.
“I owe a lot to my dad and coaches who believed in me,” Julius said during Super Bowl media day. “I never expected to be here.”
Julius’ position coach is Clancy Barone, a Sacramento State graduate. He and Thomas said Julius’ football IQ helped him navigate the learning curve of the NFL.
“A very smart kid who knows the game,” Thomas said. “So proud of him and how hard he’s worked.”
Said Barone this week: “We knew (Julius) was very grown up, football-wise. He’s a guy that you could tell knew football. He had studied football and he was acting like a pro already. That’s a rare find.”
Thomas, in his fifth year as principal at West Campus, casts a towering presence himself at 6-6. He smiles brightly as he greets students and staff. He’s proud that West Campus was recently named one of the nation’s elite high schools in a US News & World Report, and was named the top academic school in the region by Sacramento Magazine.
Thomas’ office is not adorned with Broncos garb – he is, after all, a longtime Raiders fan – but there are pictures of Julius with the Broncos. Thomas and his father, also Julius, have regularly attended Raiders games for 40 years. And yes, Thomas parades around O.co Coliseum in “my blaring orange No. 80, to match my son,” he said.
“I’ll walk around and go, ‘Hoo-rah!’ because I’m so excited,” Thomas said. “I’m doing that at school here, even.”
And in a profession of accountability, Thomas has a legitimate excuse for missing the last three days of school this week. He has a Super Bowl to attend in New Jersey, and a son to cheer for.
“I’ll have the jersey on,” Thomas promised. “I’ll be the one yelling.”