Antonio Gates was a trendsetter. Other non-football stars had made the leap to the National Football League before the Kent State star decided to shuck the sneakers for cleats, but few have had the same impact Gates has. The former basketball star became the first, but certainly not the last, in recent memory to give up the hardwood for the gridiron.
Some have been successful. Some have not. Yet, it has not stopped those who dream to be stars in something other than their sport of choice.
Two examples are making the leap this season in Portland State’s Julius Thomas and USC’s Jordan Cameron.
Thomas took the time to sit down with DraftInsider.net’s head scout Brent Sobleski during the combine and detailed his plight.
“Football has been my favorite sport my entire life,” he started. “After my freshman year, I went to the staff and told them I wanted to play both sports. It wasn’t an option at the time.
“In high school I found a lot of success playing basketball. Then it became ‘Don’t play football. Don’t get hurt. You have a scholarship. Be safe about it.’ So, I never really had an opportunity to play football in high school.
“In college for two-sport athletes who want to play football and basketball, it doesn’t work well. Football goes halfway into November. They didn’t allow me to play football. It was always about that redshirt year. If I still had it after basketball, they wanted me to come out for football.”
The issue wasn’t entirely scheduling for the future star, but there was a physical aspect.
“I had growing pains,” Thomas discussed. “When I started high school, I was 5-8 and 175 pounds. I was having really bad growing pains in my lower back. The doctor told me to sit out. By the time basketball season came around in November, he cleared me. I played through that season, and then the varsity coach told me that if I worked with them in the fall I would be on varsity. So I said I wanted to be on varsity as a sophomore. I told myself I would play football next year. During my sophomore year, I had a great year. I started playing AAU. I never got that chance to go out and play football until last year.”
The itch to play football never went away despite a fantastic career as a cager and having never played the sport at the high school level.
“I approached Coach (Nigel) Burton about a week after he got hired,” Thomas detailed. “The basketball team was always there. During winter break I went up to his office. We had a conversation about it. He told me to come out in spring, and he would love to have me out there.
“I grew up with a lot of guys that played football, not at the Division I level but in college. I had a physical upbringing. I played basketball with a physical nature. I took a lot of big hits. I knew I could take a hit. That wasn’t something I was concerned about going into the process.
“I was always excited about it. I always thought about playing football throughout the time I played basketball. My basketball teammates always told me I needed to be playing football. They would say that they loved having me as a teammate, but I would find success out on the football field. After my basketball year ended, everyone was excited. My coaches and teammates were rooting for me.”
After leaving the Vikings basketball team possessing more wins than any other senior class, owning the school’s highest career shooting percentage, and participating in two NCAA tournaments; life began anew for Thomas.
“It was an overload,” he admitted. “I was swimming for the first couple days. The verbage, plays, alignments; everything was brand new to me. It was difficult at first. It was discouraging. Everything you do for the first time is terrible. You need to get better at this and that. For so long it wasn’t even adequate. I stuck with it. I found some successes with things early on which kept me motivated. Towards the end of the season, I think I started to become a more complete player. I was definitely adequate by then.”
In the 2010 draft class, two previous examples graced the position after making the transition, Jimmy Graham of Miami and Fendi Ononbun of Houston. Thomas used the two as driving forces within his own game.
“I haven’t spoken to them, but I have spoken with Jordan (Cameron),” said Thomas. “We were on the same team at the Shrine Game. We didn’t talk much about the transition.
“When I started playing football, I researched a lot of the tight ends that came out of last year’s draft just to see what they did and what would be expected of me throughout the year. Jimmy Graham was one of the guys that caught my attention, because it was the same situation. Fendi Ononbum of the Rams was another. Throughout the year seeing him (Graham) make plays, that was encouraging to me. I also think it was a good things for coaches to see that some guys can play one year and come in the next having success. I was rooting for them all the way.”
Graham finished his first season as a New Orleans Saint with 31 receptions for 356 yards and five touchdowns. As a senior at Miami, the convert only posted 17 receptions for 213 yards and five touchdowns.
Although the level of play was different for Thomas, he easily eclipsed Graham’s numbers last season. Thomas finished with 29 catches for 443 yards.
Physically, the two are very similar. Graham is 6-6 and 260 pounds while running a 4.60 forty-yard dash at the 2010 combine. Thomas is 6-5 246 pounds and ran 4.62.
As Thomas began his transition and watched these players, he already had his sights on the NFL.
“It was a goal coming into the process,” he stated. “I knew it was a long shot, but all the people that encouraged me to play football expressed that I had the ability to play. They said I had the build and the athleticism that would translate well to the tight end position. When I spoke to our head coach Nigel Burton, he said I had the ability to do it. It was just going to take some commitment and a lot of hard work. That was the plan from the beginning. They stayed on top of me all year. They tried to prepare me for all the things I would need to play at the next level.”
Now this long shot is a few weeks away from the dream becoming reality. Despite being so close, Thomas knows he has plenty of work to do before it pays off in the end.
“I haven’t really talked to scouts. I talked to them before the game and some of the position coaches during the combine. They were telling me that they think I have the ability. Obviously, I have a long ways to go to reach my potential. I think that is something teams and coaches are excited about. I haven’t capped my potential. I have a long ways to go still.
“I still have a ways to go in the run game. I do plan on being a complete tight end. That is something I’m going to work towards very diligently this off season.
“The interview process is what is key for me, because I don’t have a lot of tape. I’d really like them to get a chance to know me before they make their selection. Obviously, the combine testing will confirm what teams are for and looking to see. I need to show that I’m not as far behind as they might think of someone who has only played one year.”
Teams are interested and Thomas has already had a visit planned with the Miami Dolphins.
Clearly the Portland State product is confident in his ability to make the big leap, and being a basketball player helped tremendously after participating in 121 career games.
“You tend to have your cool and be more confident during clutch times of a game when you’ve played that much,” Thomas insisted.
He also displayed his talents at the combine with a solid 40-timing, one of the position’s top vertical leaps, and gargantuan hands that envelop upon handshake.
All could have been for naught if the NBA came calling, but Thomas squashed the sentiment. He quickly realized professional basketball wasn’t his calling. Why?
“When I was 6-5, and I was playing power forward,” he laughed.
And the NFL will have another gifted talent at tight end as a result.