By David Fleming
Page 2

While lunching with Baltimore Ravens überlinebacker Adalius Thomas inside the team's opulent Aspen-chalet/training facility, I was enjoying a rather tasty tuna fish sandwich (on a ceramic plate customized with the Ravens' logo, no less) when the team chef appeared at our table. He stood there for a moment, then set down a gargantuan bowl filled with a mountain of … tater tots?

Many reporters privately burn with envy at the millions of dollars pro athletes make, the adulation they receive or, more likely, their unlimited access to fresh sweat pants. Me? I want a job where, without asking, someone delivers me 1,000 hot 'n' crispy tater tots.

On this day I had already tagged along as AD gave out holiday turkeys at a shelter a few blocks from M&T Bank Stadium. On the ride back we chatted inside his BMW 750 about everything under the sun – from mowing grass, to AD's radio talk show, his mind-bending seven-position role in the Ravens' defense, Baltimore's rise back to the AFC elite and even the proper term for his small, black Louis Vuitton shoulder bag which I insisted was a "man purse."

So when the tots came out and my eyes lit up, AD read my face as easily as a Mike Vick audible. Of course, there are a few boundaries a man should never cross: You don't bogart your buddy's last Pop-Tart, you don't erase DVR'ed Stanley Cup games to make room for the %&*@# Wiggles and you never, ever, come between a 270-pound man and his tots.

"No thanks, I'm cool," I said.

"Yo dawg, get some tots …" AD said.

I shook my head.

AD wasn't buying it. He didn't mind sharing. In fact, he insisted. (I should have known, since this is a guy so friendly and respectful he says "thank you" to the onboard computer in his car.)

"Get some tots, man … Yo man, COME ON, HIT THESE TOTS RIGHT HERE DAWG!"

How could I resist? (By my count only GM Ozzie Newsome had been man enough to decline AD's tots.) So I took a handful and shoved them in my mouth. Golden and crispy on the outside (but not burnt) and melt-in-your-mouth hot on the inside; just the right combo of starch and salt … the perfect stick-to-your-ribs morsel. Like a bite-sized Snickers, made out of potato.

THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
From ESPN The Magazine:

Thanks to do-it-all defender Adalius Thomas, the only things the Ravens are shopping for this season are rings, writes David Fleming.

Suddenly I was Jodie Foster in "Contact": "So beautiful … words … no words … should have given the tots to a poet."

All I could get out was, "Mat mould make a mate metch faze, MayDee."

(Translation: "That would make a great catch phrase, AD.")

Try it. Go ahead. I'll wait. No pressure. I mean, let's face it, so far this is a column about tater tots. Try it out. Stretch over into the cubicle next to you and yell, "Yo dawg, hit these tots right here!" and see what the guy does.

It can also be said as a challenge: You want some of these tots?

Adalius Thomas
David Maxwell/Getty Images
Thomas does it all on the football field -- perhaps powered by his tater tots.

Encouragement: Yo dawg, get some of those tots, man.

Trash talk after a dunk or a sack: Get some of those tots, bitches!

As an exclamation or celebration: Aw man, that's some tots right there dawg!

But, mainly, I see it as something you say before handing a beer to a buddy: Yo dawg, hit these tots right here.

OK, so it's no "Let's hug it out" but a player like Adalius Thomas needs a catchphrase as unique as he is. This is a former sixth-round pick who goes 270, runs a 4.5 40, can high jump four inches over his head and is a human Swiss Army knife who plays everything from nose tackle to press corner.

We've seen versatility become fashionable on offense but it's mostly at the speed and skill positions that are already interchangeable: tight ends who run like receivers, receivers who block like fullbacks, running backs who catch like receivers and quarterbacks who do a little bit of it all. Now AD – and those physical freaks like him – have begun taking this concept to defense. With grand results. Since he became a full-time starter in 2004, Thomas has led all NFL linebackers with 25 sacks and four defensive touchdowns.

He has single-handedly changed the term "tweener" from a scout's cuss word to a compliment. He scares the bejesus out of Vick, who runs away from AD every chance he gets. He befuddles centers so badly they have occasionally ID'ed him before snaps as a defensive tackle when, in fact, he was playing safety.

"If I'm playing against one guy 15 plays in a row I want to give him 14 different looks: speed rush, inside rush, bull rush, bull over the top, rip, exit, stunt, spies, everything," says Thomas, a native of tiny Nixburg, Ala. who recovered from a horrific car crash as a teenager to attend Southern Mississippi, where he was a two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. "I want that guy, by play No. 15 to be looking at me like, 'What in the hell is this clown doing? This fool is crazy.' "

Yeah, crazy like a tot.

AD has such a complete grasp of the Ravens' No. 1-ranked defense his teammates call him The Coordinator. So now he's moved on to offense. He recently started bugging Brian Billick to let him try tight end.

Like the guy doesn't already have enough to do: He's a father and husband, a tireless contributor to the Ravens' charitable organizations (including his own fund, appropriately called SLASH (Sportsmen Lifting Academics and Sponsoring Hope) and he somehow also finds time to host his own weekly sports radio show in Baltimore.

As a teenager AD tagged along on jobs with his father, Adonis Thomas, who was then an electrician. (Adonis is now a pastor and still plays a pretty mean game of pickup hoops.) He taught his son that as an electrician one wrong move can mean disaster. So you have to know what you're doing in advance, have it down cold, and understand, perfectly, how all the wires, plugs, switches, outlets and fuses of a house are connected in a perfect circuit for the wiring to work.

With his intricate knowledge of all the defensive positions and their symbiotic relationship to one another, on some level AD approaches football the same way as an electrician would. "No question, I like being a different cat," he says. "Physically there are other players who can do what I do. But mentally? No way."

Despite all of this AD's only been to one Pro Bowl – in 2003 as a special teams gunner. "What AD sacrifices for his team always seems to get overlooked," says Ravens linebacker Bart Scott. In part, he's plagued by the same problem the Steelers' outside linebackers face by getting caught in the voting gap between defensive ends and linebackers. It's also kind of easy to get lost on a defense featuring Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, two former Defensive Players of the Year.

This season, however, there's no missing AD, who has 64 tackles, nine sacks, a pick and four passes defensed, although he still might not get his Pro Bowl tots, dawg. The guy scares NFL quarterbacks almost as much as Jessica Simpson. "Shawne Merriman is a great player but he's not the overall player that AD is," says Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "I've been around a lot of great football players in my time and I've never seen one even close to this guy's versatility. I just want to see him get the recognition that's due him. Because I think it's an embarrassment to the league that a guy could be this good and not get recognized for it."

I say, all the guy needs is a decent catchphrase.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.




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