Super Bowl: Thomas’ unlikely rise has lifted Saints as well
By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
MIAMI — Pierre Thomas wonders whether sitting through two days and seven rounds of an NFL draft without any team calling his name was the best thing that ever happened to him.
He’s certainly not complaining about how things have turned out since then.
The Saints’ third-year running back readily credits his numerous doubters for fueling his rise from training camp long shot to the leading rusher for the NFC’s representative in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“In my past, I’ve heard a lot of people tell me, ’You’re too small, you’re not strong enough, you’re not fast enough, you’re not going to make it,”’ said Thomas, a baby-faced, 5-foot-11, 210-pound self-professed mama’s boy.
“I always kept that with me. I always used that as my drive, as my fire, and I just wanted to prove everybody wrong,” he added. “And just being in this position now. I can look back and say, ’Yeah, I proved you wrong.”’
Even at Illinois, where Thomas rushed for 2,545 yards and 20 touchdowns, he never rose above the status of a platoon back, sharing carries in a three-man rotation with E.B. Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall.
“They’re some great backs and I never got that opportunity just to show everybody that I can be a premier back. I can be the No. 1 guy,” Thomas said. “I never really got credit for my work. Being in this position now, it’s truly a blessing. You never give up.”
The Saints were unwilling to use a draft choice on Thomas in 2007; they picked former Ohio State running back Antonio Pittman in the fourth round instead. Thomas wasn’t even sure he’d last beyond that preseason on a roster that at the time included Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush and versatile veteran Aaron Stecker.
“Coming in, I looked at it as a learning experience because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Thomas recalled. “This is the National Football League. Growing up, as you watch it, you see some of the great backs, some of the great players, and you ask yourself, ’Can I compete with these guys?’ That’s what I asked myself when I came in. And I said, ’There’s only one way to find out. Go out there and do it.’ My whole mindset was, ’You can, you can, you can. Go out there and show everybody you can,’ and that’s what I did.”
Thomas wound up beating out Pittman for the fourth and final running back spot on the 2007 roster.
“Everybody has their different paths to get to where they are. Of course, his story is great,” Colts’ safety Antoine Bethea said. “He’s a good runner — a hard, solid runner.”
Saints head coach Sean Payton began feeding Thomas a regular diet of power runs and screen passes in 2008. Thomas didn’t waste the chance, gaining a total of 909 yards from scrimmage to go with 11 touchdowns. His 625 yards rushing led the club ahead of Bush.
This season, Thomas again led the Saints with 793 yards rushing and six scores to go with 302 yards receiving and a pair of TD catches.
He was one of the stars of the Saints’ victory over Minnesota in the NFC title game, taking a screen pass 38 yards for one score and rushing 9 yards for another. The performance lifted the Saints to the 43-year-old franchise’s first Super Bowl this Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
“I love Pierre,” says former NFL running back Marshall Faulk, a New Orleans native who never played for the Saints but considers himself a fan. “It’s just indicative as to what’s wrong with the (NFL’s scouting) combine. Mendenhall couldn’t beat out Pierre (at Illinois). Pierre doesn’t get drafted. (The Saints) draft Antonio Pittman, who Pierre beat out. Mendenhall is a first round-pick for the Steelers. And now look who’s the starting running back for the NFC champions in the Super Bowl.”
Thomas tried to put on weight last summer, hoping to play at 220 to 225 pounds. He got sick early in the season, however, losing much of that weight and wound up playing closer to last year’s playing weight of 210 pounds.
Thomas hopes to put the weight back on before next season, seeing himself as more of a power runner.
“I’m not that fast of a guy like Reggie,” Thomas said. “I am a little shifty but it’s not quick. It’s a little movement. I give you one move and that’s it.”
Even without the weight, Thomas has impressed Faulk with his straight-ahead, pounding style.
“His style is north and south,” Faulk said. “His style is: ’I’m going to get as many yards out of this carry as possible.’ He’s good in the passing game, he can catch the ball, runs the screen game well and he blocks well, too.”
Bethea has been impressed by Thomas’ vision, balance and the way he churns his legs to gain as many extra yards as possible after he gets hit.
“After first contact he keeps his legs moving, keeps his feet pumping,” Bethea said. “All great running backs have that — and he does.”