- Kieran Darcy, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- On a typical Thursday morning at Chesterfield Greene, a private housing community near Trenton, N.J., Jeff Thomason would be sitting at his desk, in the trailer that serves as the construction staff's office. He might be analyzing a blueprint for a new house. Or maybe gazing at one of his kids' watercolor masterpieces Scotch-taped to the wall.
But not this Thursday morning. His laptop was still on. And his desk was a mess.
But Thomason was nowhere to be found.
His staff, on the other hand, was right outside, already hard at work. Just after 9 a.m., with the temperature hovering around 10 degrees, four of them were outside the main sales office across the street from the trailer, putting up a new sign. The sign was made up of four huge wooden letters that spelled "TOLL", for Toll Brothers, the name of the construction company.
But there was something special about the "T". It was actually in the shape of a football player ... arms outstretched ... wearing an Eagles helmet ... with the number 85 painted across the chest.
Ahhh ... Jeff Thomason!
You see, on Monday morning, Jeff Thomason was an assistant project manager with Toll Brothers, who just happened to be a former NFL player. But a few hours later, he was a member of the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, taking a totally unexpected vacation from his construction job at Chesterfield Greene.
And that sent these guys into a tizzy. Hence the sign ... and the snow around the site spray-painted green with things like, "Go Eagles! Good luck Jeff! TD Thomason!" ... and the tailgate party they already held on Tuesday, almost two weeks before the Super Bowl.
But the biggest reason why these blue-collar guys love Jeff Thomason isn't because he's about to stamp a fairy-tale ending on his football career by playing in the Ultimate Game. It's because he's one of them -- so humble that many of the people he works with outside his group at Toll Brothers have no idea he ever played in the NFL. It's because he doesn't have a single piece of football memorabilia in his office -- just pictures of his wife and three children. It's because he's called Chesterfield Greene every day since Monday, leaving messages to thank the guys for their support and to share his experience with them.
"Knowing a guy that gets to play in the Super Bowl -- that's something I'll tell my grandkids about," said one co-worker, Barry Goldstein.
"He already told me he'd visit my daughter's school after the Super Bowl!" said another, Jim Snyder.
Sounds like quite a teammate.
* * *
The call came around 10 a.m. Monday morning. Thomason picked up the phone at his desk, and heard Eagles tight end Chad Lewis' voice on the other end. Thomason had been thrilled to watch his close friend and former teammate catch two touchdown passes in the Eagles' 27-10 victory over Atlanta in the NFC championship game the day before.
But Lewis had bad news -- he'd injured his foot on that second TD grab against the Falcons, and he wouldn't be able to play in the Super Bowl. Thomason's heart sank.
Then Lewis said, "I want you to take my spot."
"My initial reaction was, 'Come on, dude. You've got to be kidding me,'" Thomason says. But it was no joke -- Lewis had already begun begging the coaching staff to give Thomason a tryout.
The idea wasn't all that far-fetched. Thomason enjoyed a solid 10-season career as a tight end in the NFL. He began with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1992, moved on to Green Bay from 1995-99, and played for the Eagles between 2000-02. His career numbers? Sixty-seven receptions for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns. But after the 2002 season, the Eagles used a second-round draft pick on Rutgers tight end L.J. Smith -- and they no longer needed Thomason.
There was no official press conference. No announcement of any kind. But, besides a one-day tryout with the Carolina Panthers in December of 2003 (in which he was beaten out by Marco Battaglia), Thomason's NFL career was over. He began looking for a "real" job near his Medford, N.J. home, ended up interviewing with a couple of housing developers at Toll Brothers, and eventually was offered a spot in their one-year project manager trainee program. He was about nine months into the program when ...
He got the call.
Around noon, he got another call, from Eagles tight ends coach Tom Melvin. Melvin wanted to hear if Thomason thought he was up to the task. Absolutely. "It's always been a far, far dream of something like this happening," Thomason says. "I never thought it would happen at this point ... but I did little things here and there to keep myself in football shape."
Little things? Most people wouldn't call triathlons "little things." But those are what Thomason's been competing in the last couple of years to stay in shape. That, coupled with his knowledge of the West Coast offense from his playing days in Green Bay and Philadelphia, gave him the confidence that he could still help the Eagles.
Thomason made his boss at Toll Brothers, Mike Assofsky, aware of the developing situation. And when Thomason's cell phone rang during their customary Monday afternoon sales meeting, Assofsky knew what it was about. "I said, 'Jeff, get out of here!'" Assofsky says. "'Go make us proud.'"
It's been a dizzying few days since. Thomason ran home to find his old cleats. Later Monday afternoon, the Eagles put him through a tryout, he met with coach Andy Reid, and they gave him a playbook to go home and study. On Tuesday Thomason passed a physical, signed a contract, and gave a 10 minute, 48 second press conference. Wednesday was his first official practice in two years.
And his "vacation" is just getting started.
* * *
To find Jeff Thomason in the flesh on Thursday, you had to drive 40 minutes from Chesterfield Greene, to the City of Brotherly Love -- specifically, the NovaCare Complex, Eagles headquarters, just down the street from Lincoln Financial Field.
But even there, Thomason was hard to find. He wasn't one of the players scheduled to speak at the podium -- he'd already done that on Tuesday. And he didn't show his face in the locker room before practice while the media was allowed in between noon and 12:45 p.m.
You can't blame him. He's got a lot of catching up to do. Because Thomason's not just roster filler. He's going to see some significant playing time in Super Bowl XXXIX. He expects to be in on about 15-20 snaps during the game, plus participate on special teams.
Thomason does already have his name above a locker -- Chad Lewis' locker, which is about as messy as Thomason's desk in Chesterfield, except it's cluttered with shoulder pads and cleats instead of blueprints and a computer. The locker to his right belongs to Smith, the draft pick who unintentionally ended Thomason's career (till now). The locker to his left belongs to Mike Bartrum, the team's long snapper and Thomason's other close friend on the Eagles. In fact, the Thomasons, the Bartrums and the Lewises all spend a lot of time together off the field.
Bartrum made an appearance in the locker room around 12:30. And he was happy to talk about his old friend ... and new teammate.
"It's so special to have him as a teammate again, even if it's just for one game," Bartrum said. "He looks great, he hasn't missed a step so far. He's got fresh legs -- because those triathlons are tough!"
Offensive coordinator Brad Childress echoed Bartrum. "Jeff came in, and knew all the motions," Childress said. "He hasn't forgotten a thing."
The Eagles' practice on Thursday, from 1:30-3 p.m., was off-limits to the print media. But after practice, the locker room was open again, for about 30 minutes. Around 3:25, Thomason finally showed his face, shuffling over to his locker rather stiffly. He'd already had a long day. He had to arrive at the complex around 6:30 a.m., to get some extra study time in with his playbook ... and appear on the "Today" show with Matt Lauer and Katie Couric.
"I love it," Thomason said. "This is all just so funny."
The guy was obviously quite sore. But still grinning from ear to ear. "Yeah, I took my first couple of shots today," he said, after a chuckle. "Saw a few stars. But I'll be ok."
Five minutes later, he had to run ... well, it looked more like a limp ... to a team meeting. But not before helping out an Eagles staffer who stopped by his locker with a bunch of papers that had pictures and descriptions of houses on them. Thomason scanned them one by one carefully, before settling on one in particular.
"Now that's a nice house," Thomason said.
Maybe he's not on vacation after all.
* * *
Back at Chesterfield Greene, you get the feeling not much house-work is going to get done over the next week and a half. There are more banners to put up. More snow to spray-paint. And lots more interviews to give, for sure.
The guys don't mind one bit. They're all psyched for Super Bowl Sunday. But they're even more psyched for when Thomason returns. Not Jeff Thomason, the pro football player. They want back Jeff Thomason, the boss, the co-worker, the friend. Sure, if he plays well, there'll be speculation that he could play a couple more seasons in the NFL. He might even get a contract offer or two. But he has said he's approaching this game like it's his last.
His teammates at Toll Brothers hope so.
"The bottom line is, he's a great guy, and he's really good at what he does here," said another co-worker, Bill Kowski. "We miss him already."
And to make his homecoming a little more special, the guys have taken it upon themselves to finally add a little football material to Thomason's office. When he returns, he'll find a bunch of Eagles balloons by his desk ... and an Eagles blanket keeping his chair warm.
And maybe he'll have a ring to share with them.
You can e-mail Kieran Darcy at email@example.com.
1dEric D. Williams