Crenshaw's Thomas is a growing legend
It was, most likely, the worst time to bring it up.
Rahim Moore's team had just lost its third straight game, pretty much ending any hope of a winning season or a bowl bid. He'd already showered, dressed and finished doing his postgame interviews. The UCLA locker room was covered in rolled-up pieces of athletic tape, dirty clothes and wet towels. Moore was the last one to leave.
For a few seconds, I considered just letting him walk out and asking him another time.
But I'd heard too much to turn back now, and Moore -- UCLA's All-American safety -- was the guy whose answer would determine how much farther I should go.
"Rahim," I said, trying to catch up to him. "I need to talk to you about the Black Mamba."
Moore stopped in his tracks and turned around.
"The Black Mamba. He plays for Crenshaw. De'Anthony Thomas. I just figured you might have heard of him since you went to Dorsey. People call him "
"He's our future," Moore said.
"What do you mean, 'our future?' Whose future? L.A.?"
"No," Moore said. "Of sports."
"Everything you've heard is true," he said. "He's probably the best player to come out of the city, ever. He's probably the best athlete, in any sport, to come out of Crenshaw, ever.
"I first knew about him when he was in the seventh grade. I went to a Pop Warner game and saw him make this run. His footwork and his cuts were so precise, he got down the field so fast, I was like, 'Oh my God. I've never seen a guy run the ball like that, ever.'"
Every year there is a guy.
Some 17-year-old kid every college coach in America is after. The recruiting services put five stars next to his name and breathlessly update every move he makes toward a decision about where he'll play in college. Fans know his statistics and measurables. They post on his Facebook wall and talk about him on message boards.
Then one day the guy decides where he'll go to school, signs a letter of intent in February, and everyone moves on to figuring out who the next guy is.
De'Anthony Thomas isn't this year's guy.
He's been the guy in Los Angeles for five years.
"He's blessed with heavenly talent," said Johnathan Franklin, the UCLA running back who also went to Dorsey High, Crenshaw's main rival.
"I never played against him. But I hear about him, even here at UCLA. Everybody in L.A. hears about him. He's like a legend."
It began five years ago at Diamond Bar High. De'Anthony Thomas was 12. He was living in a rural area of Moreno Valley with his maternal grandfather, Rayfield Dupree, but drove into the city on weekends to play in the Pop Warner football league founded by the rapper Snoop Dogg.
Thomas played for the Crenshaw Bears. Snoop coached the Rowland Heights Raiders.
The first time they played at Diamond Bar High, Thomas' Bears won 52-0.
"After the game, Snoop came down out of the press box and called me over," Thomas recalls. "He asked me what my name was and I told him it was De'Anthony."
"He was like, 'Not any more. I'm going to name you the 'Black Mamba.'"
Thomas had no idea what a black mamba was -- a fast, venomous snake. But if Snoop was calling him that, he figured it was pretty cool.
He didn't tell anyone what happened though. It was almost too cool to share.
Word spread anyway.
I remember hearing from a recruiting expert I used to call when I wanted to find out which high school kids to pay attention to heading into signing day. This time he called me.
"Have you heard about the Black Mamba?" he said.
"The Black Mamba. He's this kid in Snoop's league. He's the best player in L.A."
"Well what school is he going to? Has he committed?"
"Word is he's going to go to Crenshaw."
Hype and legend have a way of spreading on their own. Talent like Thomas' must be nurtured and protected.
There is no best way to go about it. In baseball they put their best pitching prospects on pitch counts and shut them down in the middle of pennant races to avoid unnecessary risks. In other countries the best young players are sent off to academies and reared by top coaches and trainers.
Fear and arrogance are big motivators. Fear that something done unto the nascent talent will spoil its promise, like too much water on a budding orchid. Arrogance that such talent has more of a right to succeed than those of lesser abilities.
In reality it comes down to things much smaller than that. Things like character, timing and luck. The people we meet along the way and entrust with our guidance. The choices we make. The luck that shines on us or laughs at those who lay plans.
The stakes feel high throughout the journey. The need to control it grows. Failure to succeed seems like a tragedy.
Yet the games still have to be played.
Robert Garrett wants to know what I'm doing here. It's 10 a.m. on a Saturday and his team has been on the field since 8.
"Who told you we'd be here?" he asked.
"De'Anthony. He sent me a text message yesterday saying this would be a good time to swing by."
"Yesterday? What time?"
I check my phone nervously. I can't tell if he's mad at me or Thomas or even if he's mad at all.
All I know is that this coach is making me feel like I'm back in high school running from the hall monitors trying to nab the stragglers in tardy sweeps after lunch.
Garrett is a large man with a larger presence. He's been the coach at Crenshaw since 1988.
His sunglasses are thick and tinted orange-red. He pulls his baseball cap on from the back, not the front. And he moves slowly at everything.
We met briefly after a game a few weeks ago and I had the same feeling. I wasn't scared of him. But I felt like I had to prove myself. Like he would notice if I wasn't on my game.
"Um, I think he sent the text around 5:30 on Friday," I said. "Yeah, here it is. 5:38 p.m.
"I just assumed you'd watch film, like most teams do on Saturday mornings. Then I text-messaged him, and he told me what time. Is it OK that I'm here?"
Garrett seemed satisfied, but not exactly pleased, with my answer.
"We might be a while," he said, unlocking the gate to let me in. "But come on in."
Now I'm the one who wants to know why I'm here.
It's been about an hour and Crenshaw is running the same play over and over. Why did De'Anthony Thomas want to be here for this and to play for Garrett?
The Black Mamba is lined up as a slot receiver. When the ball is snapped he comes back toward the quarterback like he's going for a reverse. The quarterback has to read the defense as he holds the ball out for Thomas. If his receiver is open downfield, he pulls the ball back and throws it. If he's covered, Thomas grabs the ball and has the option to run or pass. If the defense overloads to one side, the quarterback can hand off to the running back standing next to him in the backfield.
It's a simple play with Thomas as both a decoy and the focal point. The defense must pay attention to him. Which means the defense isn't paying full attention to everyone else. Thomas has scored 25 touchdowns in Crenshaw's 13 games this year, though he has carried the ball only 103 times and caught 15 passes. In other words, he scores a touchdown about every five times he touches the ball.
Scoring is an inevitability for him.
The trick is to design plays like the one Crenshaw practices over and over. It's brilliant. And it'll work. No, it'll kill 'em.
But Garrett's not satisfied with the timing yet.
It's got to be perfect to work correctly. So they go again and again. Each time trying to refine some nuance I can't quite pick up from the stands.
After an hour, he's seen enough. It's not right yet, but it's only Saturday. Crenshaw huddles up and breaks practice.
Garrett walks over toward me in the stands, volunteering his time. He's different than before. I must have passed his test.
"Let's go over here," he says, motioning to the only shady spot in the stands. It's November, but it's still hot.
"I guess you know all the good spots around here."
"I guess so," he says. "I should."
"So what'd you say to him the first time you met him?" I ask Garrett.
Garrett laughs loudly, enunciating each "Ha!" and letting it linger.
"Well. When I first met him, I said, 'I've heard a lot about you. But you're looking for a lot of favors, you've got the wrong person. I can't give you anything. I can't promise you nothing.
"'If you want to have a great time and want to have an opportunity to be a great student, I can be of assistance with that. The football I really don't care about. It's the other attributes you have, as far as your growth and maturity, I care about."
"And how did he take that?" I ask.
"He didn't," Garrett says. "If I can recall, he looked subdued and was probably thinking, 'Why are you telling me all this?'
"He had this look, that now, knowing him as a person, was like, 'So what? I'm not about that anyway.'"
Thomas isn't the first star Garrett has coached. Several of them have stepped onto his field. Only some of them end up fulfilling their promise. Others get hurt or fail to bloom.
It is a big responsibility. And in this part of town -- which loves its high school football and its stars more than anyone gives it credit for -- it's way too much responsibility for what they pay Garrett.
"It's like this," Garrett says. "I try to do my best to service, and if it don't come out right, 'Oh well.' I have to say my prayers and ask for forgiveness in the end.
"I don't care about what people say. I only care about what the kids are saying.
"I want to know about their feelings, how they're doing. I want them to feel comfortable, I want them to feel safe, like they have a sense of belonging. I want them to feel free. I want them to stay innocent, if they can.
"Sometimes it doesn't come out right. You don't have just one kind of kid. One method doesn't work for everyone. But when that method doesn't work, you want kids to understand where your heart is."
Garrett sized up De'Anthony Thomas right away. He was as good as everyone had said he was, but he wasn't going to become what he could be if he wasn't challenged.
So like all freshmen at Crenshaw, Thomas started out with the junior varsity.
"I remember that day," Thomas said. "He was saying, 'Once you come here, no one's going to do any special favors for you. We're going to treat you like a man.'"
Though he had only heard a little about Garrett before he enrolled at Crenshaw, he'd heard enough from his teammates during summer workouts to know this would happen.
Linebacker Hayes Pullard, who'd become one of his best friends, went through the same thing as a freshman the year before.
"I had to play JV too," said Pullard, who is now a freshman at USC. "That's what Garrett does. He makes you work for things. He's not going to give you anything.
"It was hard. I mean, I'm still kind of scared of him. Even today, I'll be practicing [at USC] and I can hear him telling me things in my head. I'm always thinking, 'Did I do that right? Did I do something wrong?'"
The first two years, Garrett was all over Thomas. Every play. Every practice. He missed nothing and gave no ground. Which wasn't as easy as it might've seemed.
Thomas wasn't just good, he was one of the hardest working players Garrett had coached. It was hard to find fault with him.
"This kid comes to practice every day with a good attitude and working hard, having fun," Garrett said. "Shoot, that's an example in itself. He really loves football. He really loves the game. He really has a lot of fun. He makes me look like a good coach.
"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!"
His laugh is unbelievable. It makes me laugh, too. It's deep and earnest and slow. He's not just laughing at his line about being a good coach. He's taking a minute to let genuine joy of coaching a kid like this wash over him.
But Garrett still had a job to do. For Thomas and for the team, which went 14-1, won a city title in 2009 and became the first City Section school to play in a CIF State Bowl game.
So he started the kid on JV to protect him for a year, then pushed him as hard as he could push him.
"I think where I'm coming from is you want the kids to grow and develop," Garrett said. "You don't want to throw him in the fire right away. You want him to feel comfortable, run around, hang out with his peers. You don't want to give him his stripes before he earns it."
Thomas never questioned him. Neither did Pullard.
"Even if [Thomas] would score, if he made a cut back on the run, G-man [Garrett] would get on him like, 'That's not a good run!'" Pullard said. "He wants us to run north and south, so if you cut back, that's not a good run.
"It's good though. I think if [Thomas] were anywhere else, he'd just be like a scatback and he wouldn't be as tough."
Keyshawn Johnson heard about the Black Mamba the same way just about everyone else did. From a friend, in a whisper, in a conversation that ended with, "You gotta go see him. Trust me."
"I think he was a freshman the first time I saw him," Johnson says from the Los Angeles office of his 1925 Productions company, where he is working on a TV show featuring Thomas and other top recruits from the area.
"He's just a terrific athlete. But he's not a finished product yet. He's just scratching the surface of what he can do."
He's just a terrific athlete. But he's not a finished product yet. He's just scratching the surface of what he can do.” -- Keyshawn Johnson on De'Anthony Thomas
Johnson saw enough that first night to make him want to come around more often. At first to watch, but eventually to mentor him if he was open to it.
Johnson grew up in South L.A. and went to Dorsey High, Crenshaw's chief rival.
"It doesn't matter," Johnson said, when asked whether the rivalry dissuaded him at all from reaching out to Thomas. "We're all from the same school -- which is a hard upbringing and trying to make it out of the inner city."
Johnson said growing up, he didn't have the level of support and mentoring that Thomas and his friends have.
"I didn't even play Pop Warner," he said. "My coaches were mentors to me. But we didn't have things like the camps, all-star teams and 7-on-7 tournaments like they have today. That kind of stuff wasn't around at all."
After his NFL career was over, Johnson resolved to try to help fill that gap. He and his former USC teammate Brian Kelly put on football camps and tournaments during the summer. They also coach an all-star team called the 1925 All-Stars.
"De'Anthony played on my all-star team this summer. We had Under Armour as a sponsor and were able to travel all over the country," Johnson said. "It gave them a chance to see what it's really like at the next level.
"I mean, if you can, I think you always try to help guys out who you see have an opportunity to do some wonderful things."
De'Anthony Thomas was running late, but I couldn't be mad at him.
Every 10 minutes that went by, he'd send another text message letting me know he was on his way, but still stuck in traffic.
For once, his speed wasn't a factor.
I had grabbed a small table near the big-screen TV so we could watch college football after what I thought would be a short interview.
Then the text message came in: "I brought some friends."
I laughed. This ought to be fun.
"How many?" I wrote back.
Better push a couple of tables together.
But I had told him to think about which friends of his I might want to talk to for this story. They showed up a few minutes later and Thomas introduced them. As soon he started talking, I realized he hadn't invited his friends along to make himself look good in the interview. He'd invited them along so they could be part of the story, too.
I thought back to what Rahim Moore had said in that empty UCLA locker room.
"I look out for my boys no matter what it is," Thomas said. "I'm not a selfish kid. I want them to have the same hype I have.
"When colleges come up to the school, the only person they look for is me, and I don't think that's right, you know?
"I mean, I understand that I've been doing this stuff since my sophomore year. But we got other players on this team that's just as good as me. They probably don't have the same high expectations. But they can play great football, and that's one thing I don't get.
"It makes me look bad, because all the attention is on me and it makes me mad. You gotta deal with it. But all our players. They love football just like me."
I don't remember what question I asked them. Something like "So tell me what De'Anthony is like " Just a warm-up question to start the conversation.
"He's been like a mentor to me," Dominique Hatfield said. "I'm young. I'm only in 10th grade. So I mess up a lot because I'm a youngster.
"When I first got here, I heard how good he was. People said he was too good, so I wanted to see for myself.
"I'd play DB and he'd play slot or wide receiver and he'd burn me all the time. I thought I was like the best DB, so I didn't want to play off him. I mean, I knew he was too fast, but I didn't want to let people know he was too fast for me, so I was only like 7 yards off when I should've been 10 or 15 yards off."
Thomas laughed as Hatfield told the story, but his head wasn't growing.
"Now I give him more room."
I didn't have to ask another question. Davonte Smith jumped in with his take.
"He's always been like a big brother, giving good advice," Smith said. "He never lets nobody down. He's a good kid. He never loses his temper.
"He's always been there for me, giving me my motivation. Like when we're on the field, and I miss a tackle or something, he'll come pat me on the head and tell me, 'You'll get him on the next play. Don't worry about it. You're all right.'"
I look at Thomas as his friends talk to see if he's embarrassed by all the praise. Instead, he's prodding his friends to tell me some of his more embarrassing stories. He seems utterly comfortable in his own skin.
Smith tells me about a Pop Warner game in Sacramento when Thomas asked out because he got too cold in a driving rain storm.
"Now, I could adapt to the weather," Thomas said. "But back then, uh-uh. I'm more mentally tough now."
"And how'd you get that way?"
"Being around Coach Garrett."
In May, Thomas wore a USC cap to the City Section track and field preliminaries at Birmingham High, where he would later win the 100-meter title in 10.57 seconds and the 200-meter title in a national-best 20.61 seconds.
Every once in a while someone will whisper that he's kind of small. Which is true, by football standards. He really is just 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, which means he'll likely play more defensive back in college than running back. But to those who have watched him play the most, his size is irrelevant.”
The Trojans had landed the guy.
Though he has said nothing that would indicate he's wavering in that commitment, very few college coaches have backed off.
They aren't stubborn. They just couldn't live with themselves if they'd given up on Thomas if there was even a 1 percent chance he'd change his mind -- which is why it wasn't shocking to see UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel on the sidelines of the Crenshaw-Dorsey game this year.
Still, there are those who doubt him.
Every once in a while someone will whisper that he's kind of small.
Which is true, by football standards. He really is just 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, which means he'll likely play more defensive back in college than running back.
But to those who have watched him play the most, his size is irrelevant.
"That doesn't matter at all. He plays big," Keyshawn Johnson said. "He hits hard, he runs hard. He plays big.
"I think people say he's small because they have to say something, right?"
Do they? Have to say something?
Is it easier to find faults than to celebrate something that is so clearly good and quite possibly pure or heart and spirit?
Hype and legend have a way of multiplying and spreading on their own. Unfortunately, so do criticism and negativity.
It is, in a way, easier to find fault with Thomas now than to believe he could actually be a natural. To choose cynicism over hope. To protect yourself instead of Thomas and his talents.
Garrett has tried to prepare him for it. Keyshawn has tried to show him what it will be like. His friends will always be there.
But this next part, what Rahim Moore was talking about, is entirely up to Thomas.
It is probably too much to lay on the shoulders of a 17-year-old kid.
But perhaps it is also handled best by a 17-year-old kid, who seems not only to know instinctively what is most important, but how to focus on it.
"There's a lot of pressure on my back," he admitted. "It's hard. I know that once I do something bad, everyone will start pointing fingers. But if I just keep doing positive things, it's going to keep smiles on people's faces."Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.