It’s Just So Easy

Julius Thomas, Tight End / Jacksonville Jaguars - The Players' Tribune

It’s so (bleeping) easy! It’s so easy!”

This is what I decided to shout as loudly as possible after catching a touchdown against the Jets during Week 6. At the time, I didn’t realize the on-field microphones (and many, manyblogs) would pick up my words loud and clear. I’ll admit it makes for a good sound bite, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Not even close.

The truth is: Things don’t come very easy to me. I think it has to do with the way my brain processes new things. I usually can’t pick stuff up right away. I have to spend a long time practicing before I’m even okay at something, much less good.

Take dancing, for example. I was a terrible dancer growing up. Just awful.

There was no specific reason behind why I was so bad. I was just one of the millions of Americans affected by a tragic lack of rhythm — something my family would happily point out at every group gathering. It gave everyone a pretty good laugh.

When middle school rolled around, I saw that we had a dance coming up. And I freaked all the way out. A guy’s first boy-girl dance is nerve wracking enough, but much more so when you know you’re a terrible dancer.

So, I set out to teach myself how to dance. I began tape recording songs off the radio and listening to them on my Walkman at school during the day in order to mentally prepare myself. When I got home, I’d go into my room, put the tape on my stereo and just … dance. Alone.

(To provide some important context, this was during the era when Shaggy and Sisqo were ruling the airwaves.)

So there I was every afternoon, alone in my room dancing to a bootlegged version of “It Wasn’t Me.” I kept dancing — pretty horribly — in search of the beat. I was determined to get it down. Let me reiterate, this wasn’t something I did every once in a while. I was dancing alone in my room every single day.

Finally, I got it.

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when, but it just clicked. I found rhythm and since then, I’ve never looked back. I danced my way through middle school, high school and college with confidence. I even busted out the Shmoney Dance after scoring a touchdown this season.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the way I taught myself how to dance would serve as a model for how I approach a lot of things in life. In order to be great at something, you have to be willing to suck at it for a while. And I sucked at football for a little while.

Of course, I can understand why some people might look at me and assume I’ve managed to get by on natural ability. It might seem like I just woke up one day and knew how to run a perfect stick route.

I’m the guy who “came out of nowhere.” I’m the guy who everybody “slept on.” But I’ll be the first to tell you that there was a good reason people were sleeping on me. Not that long ago, I was a joke.

When I first started playing college football in 2010, the last word I would use to describe the sport for me was “easy.”

I remember being completely lost at my first spring practice. I hadn’t put on pads since my freshman year of high school. I played basketball at Portland State, and didn’t even give football a shot there until my senior year. I think the coaches gambled on me because I was a good athlete. That first day, I was searching for where the receivers were warming up on the field when Steve Cooper, the tight ends coach, stopped me and said I’d be working with him. I told Coach Coop that he must be mistaken because the tight end position seemed like it had a steep learning curve; I thought I’d be a better fit at receiver. But Nigel Burton, Portland State’s head football coach, thought he might be able to create some mismatches for me at tight end.

In retrospect, that was probably a good call.

So I began my career as a tight end as a senior in college. A little late to start blooming. I often get asked about how hard it is to block or run routes. Well, let’s start with how hard it is to just get into a stance. After eight years of focusing strictly on basketball (with a little free time spent perfecting my dance moves), my initial attempts to get into a proper three-point stance were probably among the more ridiculous things my coaches had ever seen. To hell with the playbook, to hell with the pads — it took memonths just to develop the hip flexibility I needed to get into a proper stance.

To put this in perspective, my current teammate, Emmanuel Sanders, was starting a Super Bowl season for the Steelers while I was just trying not to fall over in a three-point stance. We’re almost the same age.

As you might imagine, that first week of practice didn’t go so well. I mean, the third string defensive end was kicking my ass, and I didn’t even have a single pass thrown at me. But a bigger challenge was attempting to learn the lingo associated with football from scratch. Coaches at that level are used to teaching technique. With me, they had to go a step further and school me in the very basics of the game every single play. When one of them would try to tell me how to react to a Cover 2 defense, I’d have stop and ask them to explain what a Cover 2 was.

After that first week, I remember calling my dad; I was pretty close to taking my talents back to the basketball court. By all measures, I sucked. But I decided to give it one more week.

During that second week of practice, I got my first glimmer of hope. The coaches called this play, 61 Y Dragon. It’s a Y drag — go up four yards, and then run across the field parallel to the offensive line. I run the route and look up at the quarterback, and to my surprise, I saw the ball coming towards me. I catch my first pass — and as soon as I caught that thing, I might have been the happiest that anyone has ever been — and I take it straight to the crib. Just outran everybody. Touchdown.

JT_Inline_Quote_Image (1)

Everyone was kind of shocked when that happened, myself included. They called the same play the next day at practice, and sure enough, same result — I outran everyone for a touchdown. At that point, I think the coaches realized they might have something.

I would spend all day in the coaches’ offices picking the brain of anybody who had time to teach me a little more about football. It became a borderline obsession. I attacked the playbook with the same mindset that I had used to approach everything in my life: To find a way to make it easy.

The improvement definitely didn’t come immediately. Sometimes, I would run routes with the alumni during the summer, and they’d express how bad I was.

Julius, take the cleats off and go back to the gym, I think they’re playing pick-up right now.”

I mean, they weren’t wrong. But they also didn’t realize that I struggled just as badly at basketball when I first started playing. Being told I belonged in a gym would have been considered a compliment when I was stuck at the end of the bench of my high school team as a freshman. As I said before, things really don’t come that easily for me. I knew that the formula to get better was to power through the time I spent struggling, so I kept working.

I’d go to the practice field every day with whichever quarterback was willing to meet me there, even the fourth-string guy who finished his career at safety. I would run routes over and over until they went from looking terrible to …  just sort of terrible? But little by little, I improved, and by the time the season rolled around, it began to click. While I didn’t exactly set the world on fire, I did play well enough to be named to the All-Conference team. And suddenly people weren’t laughing anymore.

After a great week at The East-West Shrine Game, I was surprised by the opportunity to receive an invite to the NFL Combine. I wasn’t a good football player. I thought I had the potential to become one, but at that point I knew that every other player invited to the event was much better at football than I was. So I had to figure out how to make this work.

I knew I’d have to talk to a bunch of teams while I was there. I was an HR major in college, so at least I was familiar with the interview process. I tried to play up my strengths: my athleticism and my willingness to learn on the job. As you can imagine, it’s pretty humbling to admit that you don’t know very much about football while interviewing for a position on a professional football team. I knew I couldn’t sell teams on my resume, so I had to sell them on my desire to improve. Fortunately, I approached the actual workouts very loose. A few months before that I couldn’t even run a solid curl route, so just getting invited to the Combine was beyond my wildest expectations.

I put aside my own doubts; was determined to prove I belonged there. That brief suspension of self-doubt is what got me in the door, and I think it’s the reason I was picked in the fourth round of that year’s NFL Draft.

So this is my long way of saying no, I don’t think football or life is “so easy.” With countless hours of practice and an unflinching desire to achieve, every once in a while it just is.

Give me a little time, I’ll get better. But I assure you, it’s only easy when you’re determined to make it so.


A Brush With Opportunity

Art is as big a part of who I am as football. Maybe bigger. And to think, I almost didn’t pursue art at all — not because I didn’t love it, but because of the all-too-common social dynamic in which many kids are raised.

Read More