Coming out of Stanford in 2012, defensive back Michael Thomas went undrafted before signing with the San Francisco 49ers. He was seen as a developmental safety for the team, someone who they liked and wanted to keep, but was not ready for regular use at the NFL level. He was stashed on the team’s practice squad for nearly two years.
In December 2013, the Miami Dolphins beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-28 in Week 14, but saw special teams contributor and reserve cornerback R.J. Stanford break his leg in the game. The Dolphins immediately set their sights on Thomas, signing him on Tuesday as soon as the league offices opened for the week.
And suddenly, a true underdog story was born.
The Dolphins wanted Thomas, but nearly passed on him when he failed to answer the phone. “When I woke up, there were four missed calls and five texts,” Thomas said after the team’s Week 15 game against the New England Patriots, according to Gregg Rosenthal. “My agent, Christina Phillips, left me some messages: ‘Wake up, a team’s trying to claim you ... but if you don’t get right back to them, they’re going to move on and go with someone else ... WAKE UP!’
“I didn’t waste any more time — I called her right away, and she put me on the phone with (then general manager) Jeff Ireland, and he got me on a 2:30 flight. My sister started helping me (get) as much as I could into a suitcase. For all I know, I was minutes away from missing out on my big chance.”
Thomas arrived in Miami leading into Week 15, but was never even able to take a snap during practice, then defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle told the media. There was no plan to play Thomas, who needed time to learn the defense. Except, football happened in Week 15, and the Dolphins needed an extra defensive back. In stepped Thomas.
After five days with the team, Thomas played 16 defensive snaps that Sunday. He finished the game with two tackles, a pass breakup and one of the most memorable interceptions ever.
The Dolphins scored on a 14-yard Ryan Tannehill to Marcus Thigpen to take a 24-20 lead with 1:15 remaining in the game. Of course, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady used those 75 seconds to put New England back in position to win the game. He started with an 11-yard pass to Danny Amendola, with Thomas making the tackle. After a two-yard screen pass to Shane Vereen, the Patriots used their first timeout.
Following two incomplete passes, the Patriots were facing a 4th-and-8, with Brady finding Amendola for 12 yards, then the Patriots used time out number two with 52 seconds remaining. Brady connected with Amendola again, this time for 24 yards, to move into Miami territory, setting up 1st-and-10 from the Miami 31. After a spike to stop the clock, Brady again looked to Amendola, gaining 12 yards. New England called timeout with 27 seconds remaining.
The stands were buzzing. Everyone knew how this was going to end. Brady was again going to break the hearts of the Dolphins and the fans.
Except, no one knew Thomas was about to become a hero.
Five days. No practice snaps. No plan to play.
Brady took the snap from the Miami 19-yard line with 27 seconds remaining. He looked to Amendola in the endzone. But there was Thomas to break up the play and save the touchdown.
A hero. Soon to be immortal.
After an offsides call against Cameron Wake, the Patriots found themselves on the Miami 14 with 16 seconds to play. Brady threw incomplete to Julian Edelman. Brady threw incomplete to Michael Hoomanawanui.
The Patriots were facing a 4th-and-5 from the Miami 14 with just seven seconds to play. This is where the dagger comes out and Brady does what Brady always did. Brady dropped back, looked for Austin Collie for the game winner - and Thomas somehow came down with the ball and Miami’s 24-20 win.
The stadium erupted louder than I had ever heard it. My son was standing on the chair next to me yelling and I could not hear a word. It was insanity. It was amazing. It was unforgettable.
First NFL game. Five days with the Dolphins. No practice snaps. Sixteen game snaps. And a play that will never be forgotten.
“When [Brady] looked across the line of scrimmage and he saw, okay who’s 31? Whatever the play was, don’t worry about it, we’re going after this guy,” Thomas said after the game. “It was fourth and the game from the 14 or something like that and coach called the perfect coverage. I had help from Reshad Jones, we were doubling the guy, he went away so I was able to free up and next thing I know I saw the ball coming to me. It was like a movie, all in slow-motion. I ended up catching a game winning interception against Tom Brady. I think, to say the least, it bought me a little time to show what I can do on the field.”
An undrafted free agent buried on a practice squad to hero in the span of five days.
An underdog turned hero.