Sometime soon, Michael Thomas will begin to pack up his awards.
Into a box will go the community service award given to him by the Miami Dolphins Foundation, a model of a football player reaching out to a child at his side. In will go the key to the city of Fort Pierce, Florida, which its mayor awarded Thomas when October 20, 2015, became a newly dedicated holiday: Michael Thomas Day. In will go a sharp-edged glass slab from Pro Football Focus, Thomas’s third and most recent PFF honor, emblazoned with the words “BEST SPECIAL TEAMS AWARD.” In will go a heavy eagle pendant hanging from a red, white, and blue ribbon: the President’s Volunteer Service Award, presented to him in 2016 in Washington, D.C., along with a signed letter from President Obama. In, too, will go his degrees—his BA in sociology from Stanford; his MBA from the University of Miami, picked up during the 2016 offseason—and maybe some pictures of his stops along the way: Thomas packing up trucks with supplies bound for his hometown of Houston after Hurricane Harvey, his tour of Haitian villages last year with the charity Food for the Hungry, and an image of him standing this spring on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, fresh from an internship in the office of Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who represents much of Houston.
On Capitol Hill, Thomas did his best to blend in during his week with Jackson Lee’s office. He was joined in Washington by two other NFL players, the Chargers’ Cole Toner (interning in Indiana Senator Todd Young’s office) and the Chiefs’ Bryan Witzmann (interning in Illinois Representative Robin Kelly’s office). But try as they might, the trio wasn’t quite capable of going incognito in D.C.: “We look a little different than some of the people who work there,” Thomas told me with a laugh.
When the prospect of spending time in a congressional office was first floated as part of an offseason program run by the NFL Players Association, Thomas, who turned 29 last week, knew right away: “That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “It gave me a chance to actually go up there and take the movement that we’ve been been a part of and say, all right, what work can we do in Congress and politics to make real change in America?”
Thomas won’t say for sure whether he’s thinking about a future in politics. “It’s definitely something I’m interested in,” is the furthest he’ll go. Right now, he’s only thinking about football.
For the first time in his career, Thomas is entering free agency. He doesn’t know—not for sure—whether he’ll ever play another snap, a limbo that has little to do with his athletic ability. He wants to keep playing, of course, keep wrapping up receivers and forcing punts and working at the game that took him from Texas to the Bay Area to Florida, from quarterback to receiver to safety to special teams. He hopes this fall he’ll be able to jog out of some new NFL stadium’s tunnel, get a chance to shake the little hands of nervously gawking kids while wearing some new or maybe familiar team’s jersey. But after all, it’s not up to him.
Just minutes into his first NFL appearance, Michael Thomas picked off Tom Brady. He was so new that after the game he confessed he didn’t even know how to get home from the stadium, and so unknown among his new teammates that wide receiver Mike Wallace would mistakenly refer to him as Michael Jordan. He had yet to take a single practice rep with the Dolphins defense.
In the fourth quarter of a Week 15 game on December 15, 2013, Thomas, who’d been signed off the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad just five days earlier, was called on to play as an emergency nickel back after a string of injuries to other Miami defenders. Then, with just two seconds left on the clock and Miami’s playoff hopes hanging in the balance, Thomas snatched a pass meant for Patriots wide receiver Austin Collie in the end zone, clinching the win for the Dolphins and reducing Brady to rage. “We made plenty of shitty plays,” Brady said on live television during his postgame press conference, taking just two questions before skulking away.
Despite barely playing—his final stat line read, in total: three tackles, two passes defensed, and one interception—Thomas was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. It’s the sort of thing that even now, as Thomas heads into free agency after five years in South Florida, Dolphins fans are prone to looking back on: I was there. I saw it happen.
Before his curtain-raiser in Miami, Thomas was a four-year starter at Stanford, first under Jim Harbaugh and then under David Shaw. In 2007, when Thomas was a tackle-busting star quarterback and offseason basketball player at Houston’s Nimitz High, Harbaugh had made him a simple pitch about becoming a Cardinal: “Other schools want you,” he told him, “but I need you.”
Thomas grew up the only boy in a family with three older sisters. His parents both received law degrees from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, later opening a law firm, Thomas & Thomas, together in Mississippi. The family moved to Houston when Thomas was entering third grade, after backlash to his mother’s run for a local judgeship hurt business to the point that the family firm folded.
“That was at a time where it was frowned upon for people of color, period, to run for judge, let alone a woman,” Thomas told Roll Call last month.
Stanford recruited him as a receiver, and when he arrived in Palo Alto his athleticism led him to cycle through different positions: Some days he played at receiver, some at option quarterback with a handful of specially designed plays. In the end, he settled in as a defensive player.
“It was like dropping a fish into water: He started to swim,” Shaw told me. “One of the things you always look for, especially for a defensive back, is the ability to communicate—to recognize what the offense has shown you and then make a call loud enough for everybody to hear. And Michael’s one of those guys where not only can everybody hear him, they knew that he was right.”
For Shaw, Thomas proved to be a powerful tool off the field, too. Practices would sometimes end with what the Stanford coaches called “wise words,” when someone on the team would be chosen to impart some wisdom on his teammates. One afternoon, Thomas got the nod.
“He tried to let them know that, ‘Hey, you know what—I’m going to hold you accountable to your job, and I want you to hold me accountable to what I’m supposed to do,’” Shaw said. “‘The coaches can demand this of us, but we have to demand it of each other as well.’ And to have that message be sent from a guy that people trusted and believed in—as a coach and as a mentor, you’re so proud that a young man gets it, that it’s not just about how fast you are and how good you are and how talented you are.”
Thomas went undrafted out of Stanford, a sudden lull in what had been a relentlessly forward-charging career. Harbaugh, then with the 49ers, signed him to San Francisco’s practice squad, where he spent the next year and a half toiling in relative obscurity. Then Miami came calling, and suddenly the Brady game happened, and then he was in it for good. He became a team captain and is a three-time PFF All-Pro on special teams, a fact he notes on his Twitter bio alongside the truth as he sees it: “Young man from Houston living a dream!”
Two years ago, Thomas drew national attention when he became one of the first NFL players to join Colin Kaepernick’s quiet protest against police violence and racial inequality, taking a knee during the national anthem as the 2016 season began.
“Enough’s enough,” he told The Palm Beach Post of violence both by and against police. “We’re tired of this.” Weeks earlier, after a shooter ambushed police officers in Dallas following a peaceful protest against police shootings, killing five officers and wounding seven other officers and two civilians, Thomas attended a “Walk for Prayer” against violence that was organized by Jackson Lee in Houston. That December, he wore cleats bearing the names of various victims of police brutality—Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, and Shantel Davis—along with an EKG scan of a heartbeat going still painted on the side.
After Donald Trump denounced the protesting players at a rally last September, proclaiming that any player who kneeled during the pregame anthem was a “son of a bitch” who ought to be fired by his team, Thomas took questions from reporters in the locker room the following Sunday. “It just amazes me with everything that’s going on in this world, especially involving the U.S., that’s what you’re concerned about, my man?” he asked the cameras. “As a man, as a father, as an African American man, and as somebody in the NFL, as one of those sons of bitches—yeah, I took it personally.”
Then his voice started to crack.
“It’s bigger than me,” Thomas said. “I got a daughter,”—3-year-old Genesis, with his wife of four years, Gloria—“she’s gonna have to live in this world. You know what I’m saying? And I’m gonna do whatever I’ve got to do to make sure she can look at her dad and be like, ‘Hey, he did something and tried to make a change.’”
Dolphins safety Michael Thomas started breaking up when talking about Trump calling him "a son of a b!tch." pic.twitter.com/Z4wroPcvzW— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) September 24, 2017
While many players initially involved in the protests resumed standing as the 2017 season wore on, Thomas continued to take a knee. He joined the NFL’s Players Coalition, the group that sat down with commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners last fall in an attempt to find common ground on the growing number of protests. In November, Thomas left the coalition along with a handful of other members, saying that the group wasn’t working in the best interest of players. The same day, the NFL offered to donate $89 million over seven years to various organizations devoted to causes of African Americans and low-income citizens. The remaining members of the Players Coalition accepted, and some ceased protesting on the field.
Alongside Dolphins teammates Kenny Stills and Julius Thomas, Thomas continued to kneel through Week 16 of last year, when a knee injury sent him to the injured reserve. (Julius Thomas was likewise sidelined by an injury the preceding week, leaving just Stills on the field for the anthem over the final few weeks. He continued to take a knee.)
In January, Thomas told Bleacher Report’s Natalie Weiner that he knew being among the last players to continue carrying the protest forward could darken his prospects in this spring’s free agency. Months after Kaepernick’s protest started making news, the then–29-year-old quarterback opted out of his contract with the 49ers; that he failed to attract any interest from others teams led many to conclude he was being stonewalled as a result of his activism.
Some teams, notably the Super Bowl champion Eagles, were actively supportive of their players’ outspokenness in a year of political fractiousness. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, another member of the Players Coalition, sought to redefine athlete activism not as a team distraction, but as a rallying point for teammates and their communities alike. But the NFL is still an overwhelmingly conservative place, and Thomas, who visited with the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this week, spent most of last year playing special teams. He’s one of the best at it—the best, if you ask PFF—but he could imagine a certain kind of owner looking at him and everything he stands for and thinking, “No thanks.”
Even that, perhaps, would be worth it.
“What we’re trying to get done is not going to happen overnight,” he told Bleacher Report, “and it’s definitely not going to change with us—there will have to be another wave of players to carry the torch, because they’re going to try to get rid of us.”
“My wife knows even if they do give me the Kaepernick treatment and keep me out of the league this next year, I’ll be fine,” Thomas said in the same interview. “I’ll be able to find a job, I’ll be able to support my family.”
If you happened to live in Palo Alto in the early 2010s, you might have come across Thomas someplace worlds away from the bright lights of Stanford Stadium.
“I don’t think he’d ever auditioned for anything before,” Dylan Rush told me. Rush was producing a performance of the 1993 Tracy Letts play Killer Joe for his Stanford senior project when an out-of-season Thomas turned up at the audition. Although his sum of relevant experience consisted of a minor role in a high school production of Winnie the Pooh, Thomas won the lead part of Joe.
To call Killer Joe bleak is an understatement. “It’s a very dark play—not dark humor, dark dark,” Rush said. Much of that darkness comes from the titular Joe, a Texas detective and hitman-for-hire whose downward spiral leads him to violence and a murky kidnapping scheme. In the 2011 movie version, Joe was played by a grimly menacing Matthew McConaughey.
This posed a problem: Thomas, who’d gotten the role in part because of how intimidating his 5-foot-11, 188-pound frame made him, just couldn’t do dark. “Michael was way too nice of a guy,” Rush said. “He’s so open and so happy, and to get him into the mind-set of this evil person—it was quite hard.”
So Rush and the production’s director did what they could with their too-cheery murderer: They changed the role to fit him. “The Killer Joe character that Michael portrayed was understandable and almost lovable in his confusion,” Rush said. “When he tried to play it dark, it just didn’t work.”
The resulting performance, according to his fellow cast members, was magnetic.
“He’s a very charismatic guy, and that meant Killer Joe was a sort of very charismatic yet villainous person,” said Rachel RoseFigura, who starred opposite Thomas. “I think it was fantastic for the character. It’s a great antihero.”
Thomas was an enthusiastic presence at rehearsals, memorizing his lines before anyone else. “If you hadn’t known that he didn’t have a lot of theater experience, you wouldn’t have known,” RoseFigura said.
The whole Stanford football team—coaches and all—came out to see it. Shaw was sitting in the second row. “He was in that role,” Shaw said. “To see him enjoy it and have as much passion for that as he has for football was fun to see—to see him throw himself into something and be really, really good at it. Even some of the older guys who’d graduated heard about it and were in town, and they tried to come by and watch it as well.
“You want to root for a person like Mike,” he said.
The production sold out every night of its run.
The magnetism Thomas showed on stage has a way of coming out at his free annual summer camp, run at Nimitz High’s football stadium with Apex Academy, a tutoring program for young student-athletes that was founded by Kaleb Thornhill, the Dolphins’ director of player engagement, and Travis Key, a former NFL defensive back. At Camp Mike T, which began three years ago, young football players from around the Houston area are welcomed in. They play a little football, of course, but the emphasis is elsewhere, on things like financial literacy and computer science lessons and sessions on getting into college. Every kid in high school goes home with SAT and ACT prep books.
“I knew when I started this that academics would be a big part of it,” Thomas has said of the camp. “I value my education so much, and I want that for all of these young men.”
Thomas speaks often of community and of the support he got as he grew up, including in his first days in Houston when his immediate family had to move in with relatives as his parents sought to regain their financial footing. And he talks about his desire to give back. His definition of community is ever-changing: It’s Houston and Greater Miami and Palo Alto and Haiti’s Bellevue La Montagne region and every locker room in the league. And maybe, in the not-so-distant future, someplace even bigger.
In Washington, D.C., Thomas found himself suddenly in the thick of things, drafting memos and answering phones for Jackson Lee, who represents Texas’s 18th District.
If there’s a boon to the current era of politics, according to Thomas, it’s what others might cite as the era’s worst, or at least most headache-inducing, problem: You can’t get away from it. The round-the-clock coverage and deep partisan divide have the benefit of forcing people to be plugged in, creating activists where there might not have been before. “It’s definitely a time where more players are just aware of what’s going on in America,” he said, “and they want to see real change.”
If Thomas did eventually head down the road of politics, he would join a long line of athletes-turned-politicians. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine him following in the footsteps of someone like Colin Allred, a fellow Texan who spent five seasons with the Titans before leaving the NFL. He subsequently attended law school at UC Berkeley and could challenge U.S. Representative Pete Sessions for his seat in Texas this fall.
“Mike comes across as a very honest, open, heartfelt person who wants to do what’s right,” Shaw said, “and at the same time, he wants to win.”
Thomas’s versatility has occasionally flummoxed reporters trying to pin him down. He proudly refuses to just give canned quotes about football; after Texans defensive end J.J. Watt raised $37 million for Hurricane Harvey recovery last fall, Thomas told reporters, “That’s why athletes shouldn’t just stick to sports.” Instead, he dips in and out of discussing raising money for water purification systems in Haiti, working through the sometimes furious responses to athlete activists, and—oh yeah—weighing playing at nickel back versus safety.
But if he did end up back in D.C., there’s at least one person who wouldn’t be surprised: former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Rice, who has taught political science at Stanford since her time in George W. Bush’s administration concluded in 2009, is a famously diehard football fan. During Thomas’s sophomore year, Rice was named an honorary captain for the Stanford football team’s game against Notre Dame.
Afterward, she and Thomas, who didn’t take a single political science course at Stanford and so never made it into Rice’s classroom, struck up an improbable bond that stretched beyond football. As Thomas was getting ready to graduate, he overheard Rice discussing him with someone else. “She said, ‘Oh, Mike, when he gets done playing, he’s going to get into politics,’” Thomas said. “And I was like, huh?”
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I honestly wasn’t thinking about politics.”
Almost a decade later, it seems that Thomas—the guy too nice to play a villain, too ambitious for a quiet offseason, and too hopeful to stick to sports—just might change his mind.