Each time Boise State running back Derrick Thomas straps on his pads, tightens his cleats and jogs onto the field for practice, he can’t help but think about how far he’s come.
When the junior college transfer takes the field in front of 70,000-plus fans Saturday at Husky Stadium in Seattle for the season opener at Washington, he might have a tough time controlling himself.
Thomas lists Pittsburg, Texas, as his hometown but he went to high school in Alabama and junior college in Kansas. It’s been a windy road since his football career started in fifth grade when he played for his older brother’s Pop Warner team.
But he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I really think about it a lot,” Thomas said of the journey that brought him to Boise State. “That’s what keeps me motivated and keeps me hungry and humble.
“It’s very exciting, but it’s also humbling, because this is a place I’ve always wanted to be and I’m here now and I’m doing whatever it takes to be successful in this position and be the best I can be while I’m here.”
Thomas was promised nothing when he signed with the Broncos out of Butler County Community College and enrolled at Boise State in time for the spring semester and spring practices.
Well, running backs coach Keith Bhonapha actually promised him one thing.
“He told me if I came in and worked, my success would be determined by my work,” Thomas said. “And that’s what I’m about, working hard and grinding for everything I get.”
Thomas originally signed with Alabama State after graduating from Northview High in Dothan, Ala., but ended up making his college debut at Butler County Community College in the small town of El Dorado, Kan.
After not playing in 2010, Thomas had 302 carries for 1,622 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons at Butler County from 2011-12 and helped the Grizzlies reach the NJCAA national championship game last fall.
He then turned down SEC power Ole Miss among others to sign with Boise State in December, arriving in time to attend classes for the spring semester and participate in spring practice.
“When coach Bhonapha came to recruit me, he talked to me and a lot of the things he said really hit home with me and made me think a lot about my future,” Thomas said. “After I had a talk with my coach, I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
Listed at 6-foot, 208 pounds, Thomas is one of several big, strong, physical running backs in the Boise State stable. His size and appearance — even the hair style — causes some to confuse him with starting running back Jay Ajayi.
And for a team that typically gives carries to three, four and even five running backs per game, Thomas figures to be in the mix for playing time behind Ajayi this fall with sophomore Jack Fields, redshirt freshman Charles Bertoli and true freshman Aaron Baltazar.
“I think he’s one of those guys that is very hungry and he wants an opportunity to get out there on the field,” Bhonapha said. “Anytime you get a junior college guy, you know their time is limited and he knows that on that field is where he wants to be. So he takes that focus and that preparation and is going hard 24/7, asking those questions and trying to prepare himself to get on the blue turf.”
Thomas has a special bond with football since a young age. It’s been one of the constants in his life, and as he prepares to play in his first game as a Bronco on Saturday, he surely won’t forget where it’s taken him.
Asked to describe himself as a player, Thomas smiled.
“Hungry,” he said. “Very hungry. Starving actually. I’m ready for success.”