Darron Thomas drives the Ducks
EUGENE, Ore. -- Once again, he's what's-his-name.
As the rest of the public swoons over Heisman winner Cam Newton -- and his linebacker body -- there's a relatively anonymous quarterback in Oregon who is just as likely to run through you.
His name is Darron Thomas, and even though he's probably just a year away from his own Heisman candidacy, he's the clear afterthought of the upcoming Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Monday in Glendale, Ariz. Coach Chip Kelly might be the brains of the Oregon operation, but it's Thomas who gets the team to the line of scrimmage in 7 seconds. It's Thomas who whispers in each offensive lineman's ear. It's Thomas who's responsible for juking unblocked defensive tackles. It's Thomas who has the keys to the Oregon Lamborghini.
Which is peculiar, because he's been in the passenger seat all his life.
The early shift
Newton's father, Cecil, might be known for having his hand out, but Thomas' mother, Latina, always had her hand up -- flagging down a Houston city bus.
This is a woman who has worked the early shift at Target for 15 years. This is a woman whose alarm clock still rings every morning at 3. This is a woman whose daily bus ride home is two hours, plus a winding, 20-minute walk. This is a woman who taught her son to never loaf.
The last thing Darron Thomas ever has been, from his earliest days, is a prima donna. Growing up, he lived part time in his great-grandmother's two-bedroom apartment, along with a sister and 10 cousins. The ratio of kids to beds was 12-to-2, which meant Darron had to doze off each night on hard linoleum. "Nothing wrong with lying on a pallet and sleeping on the floor,'' Darron says. "Good moments.''
Latina and Darron's father, Darren Waters, never married, so Darron was the man of the house at a young age. He asked Latina where his father worked, and she told him: at a grocery supply warehouse. "Trust me, you never want to work there,'' she added. The kid conveniently lost himself in school and football. He was a certified tough guy, a defensive end, free safety or receiver. There was nothing quarterback about him. When he played football in the street or vacant lots, not once did he ask to get under center. Not once did he even ask to throw the football. That was for pretty boys, like the kid who was setting records at a nearby high school, a kid named Andrew Luck.
The shift to QB
At Aldine High School in Houston, Darron was a nameless wonder. At first, his coach, Bob Jones, knew him only as "Thomas," and just because the kid was mowing down people in the secondary didn't mean Jones was going to memorize his first name.
But at spring practice before Darron's sophomore season of 2005, Jones had the wild idea of sticking this "Thomas" at quarterback. The team was running a spread offense, and the kid showed signs of being a game-changer. He had high hips and small ankles and, according to Jones, "kind of ran like a young filly, right out of the fold.'' The only problem was his slow, wind-up delivery, so Jones decided he'd have him throw only quick passes into the flat. "You're our new backup quarterback,'' he announced to the kid. Thomas' understated response was, "Yes, sir.''
The truth was, Darron was hell-bent against it. Quarterback? When he went home and told his mom about it, she just about fell over. "You're playing with me, aren't you?'' Latina said. "You're too shy, too quiet. Quarterbacks gotta tell people what to do. They gotta be leaders. They gotta be loud.''
Darron was not only the opposite of loud, he was the unquestioned family introvert, overshadowed every day by the two motor-mouths of his household: his mom and his sister, Alexis. But this was a job for the vociferous Jones, who knew just how to rile up his players. Jones' first order of business was to make Darron carry a football all day at school, to every class. Soon, Darron could be seen strolling the halls with a ball either under his arm or in his backpack. He had to live, eat and breathe ball control, and when teachers objected to Darron bringing the ball into the classroom, he'd simply leave it outside the classroom door and pick it back up when the bell rang.
The kid was a project. During practices, the coaches would put blinders on the sides of his helmet so he'd learn to turn his head and not have tunnel vision. They'd tell him to "see the field,'' to look for secondary receivers, although they knew it might take light years for him to grasp that.
The ensuing fall, Darron got into his first varsity game, in a mop-up role. On a third down, Jones called for a safe pass play to the fullback, just to get the kid's feet wet. Instead, Darron saw another receiver flash open on a backside post and hit him for a long touchdown. "We never throw the backside post route,'' Jones marvels. "I mean, I talk about it, but we never throw it. And he's hitting it for a touchdown. I'm going, 'How'd he see that? This cat's got something.'"
Right then, Jones stopped calling him what's-his-name and began calling him Darron.
Looking at LSU
The quarterback position was growing on the kid. Vince Young had come out of the same city to reach celebrity status at Texas, and it showed Thomas the endless possibilities. By his junior year of 2006, he was Aldine's starting quarterback, lining up across the field in the district playoffs from Andrew Luck.
Luck, at nearby Stratford High School, was the talk of the town, the son of former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, groomed since childhood to line up in a shotgun formation.
And here was Thomas with eight high school starts under his belt, groomed since childhood to play defense.
Andrew Luck and Stratford won the game 49-32, but Thomas had a couple of picturesque touchdowns to add to his highlight reel. Jones began sending Darron's film around to Division I programs, and one of the first schools to respond was LSU.
The kid was overjoyed. His mother had family in Louisiana, and Baton Rouge wasn't terribly far from Houston. The Tigers were gearing up to make a run at the 2007 national championship, and when he took an unofficial visit to the campus, Thomas imagined himself running through the H-style goalposts.
But during Christmas of '06, it was back to reality. Needing extra cash, he asked his mother to pull some strings and help him land a job at Target. Every morning, he'd catch a bus to work at a local superstore. He'd round up shopping carts and clean bathrooms; he was at the beck and call of just about everyone. One day, in fact, he was paged to the bathroom after a child had defecated all over a restroom wall. "I'm not cleaning this,'' he said. "Y'all better call my momma. I'm not cleaning this.''
Darron ended up quitting right then and there. If nothing else, it made him yearn even more for a college education, and he took extra classes that summer so he could graduate early and attend his college's spring football practices.
What college? It was a no-brainer. On Houston TV, he made a beaming announcement that he was committing to LSU.
Looking the part
It didn't necessarily mean he was a quarterback yet.
Quarterbacks tend to have a certain swagger, and Darron was clearly missing the pompous gene. He kept his letterman's jacket in his closet and used to beg Latina not to yell his name at games. "He'd say, 'Don't shout, Go Darron,'" she says. "He thought it was embarrassing.
"There was no just emotion with him. He doesn't talk at all. You have to pull it out of him. I'd say, 'How was the game?' and he'd go, 'It was all right.' This boy is shy.''
Only on the field did he look the part. The difference between his junior and senior seasons was that he'd become a reliable passer in Jones' no-huddle, spread offense. Rivals.com rated him as the nation's sixth-best dual-threat quarterback (whereas Luck was the fourth-rated drop-back-style QB), and that had a lot of college coaches doing double-takes.
Florida coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen were at Aldine one day to scout the high school's mammoth tackle Daniel Campbell when Jones popped in Darron's game film. A minute later, according to Jones, Meyer asked Mullen, "Why aren't we recruiting this guy?''
"Well, we've got that kid named Tebow,'' Mullen said. "And that other kid, Cam Newton.''
USC's Pete Carroll also blew into town with assistant coach Ken Norton, and Jones says when Carroll asked Norton why they weren't recruiting Thomas, either, Norton mentioned Matt Barkley and shrugged his shoulders.
It showed how under the radar he still was. The premier senior quarterbacks in the nation were Terrelle Pryor, Blaine Gabbert, Dayne Crist and Luck, so Thomas' all-or-nothing moment was another late-season game against Luck and Stratford. But Aldine lost 34-24, and Thomas began turning his full attention to LSU. He didn't even know that Chip Kelly, the new offensive coordinator at Oregon, had also been in Jones' office, drooling over his highlight reel. "He's perfect for our offense,'' Kelly told Jones. "I love this kid. I love him.''
"Yeah, Coach,'' Jones told him. "But he's a hard commitment to LSU.''
LSU was all Thomas thought about. But that was half the problem -- he was so obsessed with the Bengal Tigers that he was on all their Internet fan sites, looking for the inside scoop. He found out the staff was chasing another standout quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, and the online speculation was that Thomas might be moved to receiver or defensive back. Two years earlier, he would have embraced that, but the only place he wanted to be now was under center. Thomas was studying Michael Vick on film, studying Vince Young. He'd cringe when recruiting services labeled him an "athlete.'' He was a spread offense quarterback or bust, and that was why he couldn't wait to go to the 2007 Arkansas-LSU game over Thanksgiving weekend. He wanted clarification from coach Les Miles.
Jones' entire family accompanied Thomas on the trip, and the morning of the game, Thomas got an audience with Miles. "Coach Miles talked to him about playing at LSU and what a great athlete he was,'' Jones says. "He still said he'd compete to play quarterback. Les was great to Darron. But all Darron heard was, 'What a great athlete you are.' And as soon as Darron heard that, it was over.''
That Sunday, Darron told Latina, "Mom, I'm not going to LSU.'' Latina was appalled. She said, "Yes, you are,'' and he said, "No, I'm not. I'm not going to be a quarterback if I go there.''
Latina had just spent the entire high school season wearing a purple LSU jersey with her son's name on the back. She'd already made plans to commute to all the Tigers' 2008 home games. She told him to sleep on it. But the next day, Darron was in Jones' office looking for a new school.
Jones wrote Thomas' options on a chalkboard, and the first school he scribbled down was Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had just hired LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, so Pelini knew all about Darron. But out of loyalty to Miles, Jones says Pelini backed away from the kid.
That was when Jones asked, "Darron, what about Oregon? Chip Kelly loves you. They run a lot of the same stuff we do. I think it might be a good fit.''
"I do like their uniforms,'' Darron said.
They called Kelly, who announced, "I'll be there tomorrow.'' Kelly was being groomed as the Oregon head coach and was looking for someone to replace Dennis Dixon. "We wanted a quarterback that's an athlete, not an athlete that plays quarterback,'' Kelly says. "[LSU] was recruiting him as an athlete. At least that's what Darron told me. We were recruiting him solely as a quarterback. Our quarterback has to be an athlete, and we have to be able to make plays with his feet as well as his arm. But he has to be able to throw. Some people think we're not looking for that. Some people think we want a running back that can throw the ball every once in a while, and we don't. When we're playing [well], we're throwing the ball for 300 yards a game and running the ball for 300 yards a game. So you need a quarterback with athletic ability, and that's what Darron had.''
Thomas listened as Kelly gave him this same mile-a-minute spiel and agreed to visit Oregon for the Civil War game against Oregon State. The crowd was so loud, Darron's ears were ringing for days. He was sold. His only worry was breaking the news to Latina.
He waited until he and a buddy were riding in her new car, a beat-up Ford Explorer.
"Mama, I'm going to Oregon,'' he said.
"Oregon? That's too far. You can't go to Oregon. We can't get there fast. That's too far.''
Latina started sobbing, which had Darron's buddy taking her side: "She's right. Listen, Darron, your momma knows. She's grown. She knows.''
Darron said nothing. Not that night over dinner when his mother was still weeping, and not the next day when the letter of intent showed up at his home.
He signed it poker-faced; she signed it in tears.
The charisma of Masoli
Chip Kelly taught Darron the Oregon offense. But a Samoan from the Bay Area taught him how to be a quarterback.
No one had charisma like Jeremiah Masoli, who in the summer of 2008 transferred into Oregon from City College of San Francisco. Masoli had just carried CCSF to a mythical national title, amassing 30 touchdowns and 3,500 yards, and he strolled into Eugene with an air of bravado. He was the anti-Darron.
Thomas was seen but not heard; Masoli was seen, heard and worshiped. Masoli's dorm room was about to become a team meeting place, and the huddle was about to belong to him, too. Darron had come to Eugene expecting to compete right away for the starting job. But he wasn't the leader Masoli was nor the sage Masoli was. Masoli, three years earlier, had spent almost three months in a juvenile detention center for his small part in a group robbery -- a wallet grab he didn't initiate but didn't stop, either. The incident shaped him; he'd seen the harsh side of the world. So lining up against USC's defense wasn't going to faze Masoli at all.
He and Darron were naturally paired up in the quarterback meetings, and Masoli began to preach to him about toughness. He told him to never run out of bounds or slide, told him to throw blocks on running plays. He told him to mash defensive players before the defensive players mashed him. He told him to be loud and definitive at the line of scrimmage, to be barrel-chested as you stand over center. But you're either an extrovert or you're not, and no one knew whether Darron could command a huddle, much less a locker room. Coach Mike Bellotti decided to wait a year to find out -- he planned to redshirt him.
But by the fourth game of Thomas' freshman season, against Boise State, Oregon was almost plum out of quarterbacks. Before the season, the team's presumed starter, Nate Costa, blew out his knee. In Week 3, Costa's backup, Justin Roper, also wrecked his knee, leaving the popular Masoli as the starter against Boise State. But Masoli suffered a concussion in the first half and was replaced by true freshman Chris Harper.
Harper was lost out there. He was 0-for-3 with two interceptions as Oregon fell behind 37-13 heading into the fourth quarter. Bellotti told Darron to loosen up; he figured the guy couldn't be any worse, and they were going to need him during the season now, anyway.
Just a few weeks earlier, Darron had been fifth-string, and just a day earlier, he'd been running the scout team. The last time he'd actually executed an Oregon play was in fall camp, and those were mostly vanilla passes into the flat. He had no business doing anything but handing off, but Kelly calmly described the plays he was going to call, and Darron calmly listened.
Maybe Darron didn't have Masoli's aura, but he had one thing going for him: a slow pulse. Darron wasn't panicking. He had receivers telling him, "Just give me the ball, just give the ball,'' and he had senior offensive linemen who barely knew his name. It was his freshman year at Aldine all over again. But a half-hour later, Thomas had thrown three touchdown passes.
No one saw it coming. Fortunately, his two veteran offensive linemen -- Max Unger and Fenuki Tupou -- helped him with his line calls, and Boise State barely held on for a 37-32 victory. Darron had completed 13 of 25 passes for 210 yards. Now, he was officially Masoli's backup.
He might have even started the next game, against Washington State, but a few days later, the question came up again: Was Darron a leader or a follower?
The Wednesday night after the Boise State game, Thomas hopped into teammate Eddie Pleasant's Ford Mustang, along with another teammate, Jamere Holland. It was after midnight and it was wet -- a bad combination. According to the Oregonian, Pleasant was racing and collided with a Dodge Caravan carrying a young couple and their toddler son. The woman was treated for a scalp injury, while Pleasant needed 75 stitches in his head and Holland suffered a concussion.
But Darron, who'd been in the passenger seat, who'd been on the side of the car that collided with the Caravan, had only a bruised elbow on his throwing arm.
He was lucky, and people joked that he was so quick, he jumped out of harm's way. But Latina wasn't laughing when she heard the reports. She called Darron wanting answers. He told her they had stopped at a light and that when the light turned and Pleasant revved up the motor, he lost control of the Mustang. "It wasn't a big wreck,'' Darron says now. "It was bang-bang. The car was worse off than any of the people in the car. At the time, they thought we were going fast, but we weren't really moving fast.''
Latina heard the explanation and went off on her son anyway. "I had a couple choice words that I usually don't say,'' she says. "But I was so scared. I said, 'Do you have to go up there and be the stupidest, most ignorant fool there is? Coming all the way from Houston to be that stupid?' I can't repeat everything I said.''
Latina called Bellotti, called Kelly and called the police. She wanted explanations. This is why she originally wanted him at LSU, so she could go see him at a moment's notice, keep tabs on him.
Her only solution was to save up to buy him his own car. Before long, she'd rounded up enough cash to purchase a used, metallic brown Chevy Malibu, and when she presented it to him, she said, "Now you don't need to ride with noooooobody.''
"Dang, Momma,'' he said. "I'm the only one driving a girl car.''
"Yeah,'' she answered. "A safe girl car.''
Back to being the backup
Darron didn't miss any significant time with the elbow injury, but it wouldn't have mattered -- Masoli wasn't giving up the starting job.
Masoli might have been only 5-foot-11, compared to Darron being 6-3, but he was thicker, feistier and unintimidated by the Pac-10. He was the conference player of the week after games against Arizona and Arizona State. He led a game-winning drive against Stanford and gained 170 rushing yards against UCLA. He was MVP of the Holiday Bowl against Oklahoma State, throwing for 258 yards and running for 106. He also broke the Ducks' season rushing record for a quarterback with 718 yards.
He and Darron would lobby Kelly to use them in the same backfield, and the coach acquiesced, dialing up a flea flicker against Oregon State that had Masoli pitching to Thomas and Thomas throwing to Jeff Maehl for a big gain. But Masoli was so much in command that Kelly, in his first year as head coach the following fall, decided to redshirt Darron in 2009.
Midway through that 2009 season, Masoli was in the Heisman conversation. He ended up being named first-team all-Pac-10 by Rivals.com, and about the only thing he didn't do was beat Andrew Luck, who was quarterbacking at Stanford. By January 2010, Masoli had Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and because Masoli had one year of eligibility remaining, there was a sense that Darron would be sitting until 2011.
Thomas didn't seem to mind; he was happy for his friend. But then there was news: Masoli had been implicated in a Jan. 24 burglary at a campus fraternity house. A laptop and digital projector were among the stolen items, and Masoli was seen with the main suspect, backup receiver Garrett Embry, at the frat house. The facts were sketchy, and the evidence against Masoli did not necessarily stand up. But the worst mistake Masoli made was lying to Kelly and saying he wasn't at the frat house that night. The coach subsequently suspended him for one full season and said that if there were any further transgressions, Masoli was history.
At the time, public opinion varied as to whether Kelly would lighten Masoli's sentence. After LeGarrette Blount punched a Boise State player in 2009 and was suspended for the season, Kelly reinstated Blount early for good behavior. There was a sense he might do the same with Masoli.
Through it all, Darron and Masoli remained close and continued to hang out at each other's apartments. Then, on the night of June 7, 2010, they decided to go for a drive together in a souped-up 1999 Cadillac.
Darron was in the passenger seat. Not again.
Another car incident
Masoli pulled into a gas station that night, and after filling up the car, he drove back onto a main thoroughfare without coming to a complete stop.
A nearby police officer pulled Masoli over for the traffic violation. Police then decided to search the car and found marijuana cigarettes in the glove compartment.
"Nobody got arrested,'' Darron says. "They just took the car from us, and we had to walk back and tell the guy whose car it was what happened. But the first thing Jeremiah said to the police was, 'It's not Darron Thomas' [marijuana].' He took all the blame because he was the driver. Jeremiah, he's a cool guy.
"It wasn't his car; the car wasn't even under his name. He took all the heat. Didn't blame it on his friend back at the house who was waiting on us to come back. Like I say, he was a big guy for taking everything. A lot of people didn't know the real story.''
Says Masoli: "I protect my guys, whoever I care about. And I know they have my back, as well.''
But Kelly didn't want to hear any excuses or innuendo. He had given Masoli a zero-tolerance edict and quickly decided to kick him off the team. "Darron was mad just like I was mad,'' Masoli says.
But Latina was angrier than all of them and made another terse phone call to her son:
"Why you riding in someone else's car?'' she asked.
"I don't know.''
"That's why I got you a car -- what's wrong with your car?''
"I don't know.''
"You could've lost everything, everything. Jeremiah was up for the Heisman. And if they took it all away from Jeremiah, they'll take it away from you. Because you haven't done nothing but gain a few yards. So you better make a choice. Because if you come back here, there's nothing waiting for you. Nothing but a grocery supply job with your daddy. Or a job at Target pushing baskets.''
Assuming Target would take him back.
Something to prove
On his way out of town, Masoli acted as if he were passing a baton to his star pupil. He told Darron he was ready to be the man, told him, "It's your time now. Do your thing.''
Actually, there was the small matter of Thomas beating out Costa for the starting job, and the two seemed to be neck and neck throughout summer practices. But whereas Costa had more experience, Darron had the legs and arm of a prototypical spread-offense quarterback. The competition really wasn't close.
Darron had come completely out of his shell. At summer practices, he was barking out signals over the loud music Kelly played to simulate game conditions. He was also at ease telling the linemen what to do; the days of Unger and Tupou covering for him were over. If he was still an introvert, you'd have never known it.
The marijuana incident seemed to have changed him. He rented his own apartment, and when he didn't want to drive to campus, he took the bus. He rarely went out at night and was seriously dating Oregon's top female track athlete, Amber Purvis. He was either in the film room at the football facility or on his team-issued laptop studying the offense. Of course he was going to win the starting job.
"I'd had two bad incidents in the passenger seat, and now people were saying, 'Can he drive our team?'" Thomas says. "That's what I had to prove.''
In the season opener against New Mexico, he led the Ducks straight down the field, until Kelly called for a jailbreak screen to the right. His pass into the flat was intercepted. The defender was about to turn it into a pick-six when, of all people, Thomas chased him down to make the tackle.
"And then Darron gets up like it was no big deal,'' says Jones, his coach from Aldine. "He just says, 'Here we go, next series.'"
It was all uphill from there, obviously, because Oregon won 72-0. Darron had 30-yard and 60-yard touchdown passes that day, and the Ducks began their run to the national championship game. There was the second-week win at Tennessee, where they scored 45 straight points; there was a 53-32 romp over USC and Matt Barkley; there was a late 9½-minute drive against Cal, preserving Oregon's closest game, 15-13; and there was Darron going 20-of-29 with three touchdowns against Stanford, giving him his first victory over Luck.
"I was at that Stanford game,'' Jones says, "and as soon as it was over, I made sure to go out on the field. I found Andrew first and congratulated him. And then I come around the corner, and there's Darron. He gives me a huge hug and goes, 'Coach, I finally beat Andrew. I finally beat Andrew.' I knew that was a big thing for him.''
By early December, all the Ducks needed was a victory in the so-called Civil War against Oregon State to earn a trip to the BCS championship. All of Latina's co-workers at Target were Oregon fans now, and Latina was in love with Eugene, too. She called Darron to say she was already trying to book a hotel in Phoenix for the BCS title game, and he shouted, "Don't do that yet! Wait! Wait! Please wait.''
A few days later, the Ducks hammered Oregon State 37-20, and Latina found a place in Phoenix. Masoli, who had played the season at Ole Miss, texted Darron to say congratulations. They had been texting regularly anyway, but now they could finally talk about Auburn. Masoli had played the Tigers during the season; he had some thoughts on whom to pick on. Darron took notes.
Later, Darron sat and watched Newton win the Heisman Trophy, and all that did was put him under the radar again. In the title game, all eyes will be on Newton, when actually, Darron will be arguably the most important player on the field. No one all season has been able to block Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley, so maybe Oregon won't even try to block him. Maybe the Ducks will block everyone else and ask their what's-his-name quarterback to out-quick Fairley by himself. Kelly has been known to do that. Maybe the college football season will come down to how many quasi-car wrecks the kid can survive.
Funny how it all worked out in the end: Darron Thomas in the driver's seat.Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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