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From March Madness to the Super Bowl

Posted Jan 27, 2014

Less than five years ago, Julius Thomas was preparing to lead his Portland State basketball squad to the NCAA Tournament. Now he's in the Super Bowl.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- In March, 2009, Julius Thomas was leading his Portland State team into the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history.

A captain on the basketball team, Thomas had lettered in the sport four times. But he was about to make a big transition -- but one that wasn't entirely unheard of.

"It seems kind of odd to say my goal was to become a professional football player in one year, but some guys had done it before me and had some success," Thomas said. "Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, guys that have made great careers and they're tremendous athletes. They definitely paved the way for me. I think that what they did made it possible for me to then get drafted and have this opportunity."

Thomas decided to make the leap to football. And of course, he had a glamorous position in mind as he walked on to the team.

"I was like, 'Coach, I'm going to be a great wide receiver for you guys," Thomas laughed. "The first day of practice, the tight ends coach said, 'Julius, you're over here.' I was like, 'What? Hold on, I don't know about all that.' But (Head) Coach (Nigel) Burton, he sat me down and we talked about it and he told me that he felt if I played tight end I'd be able to create matchup problems. I really thank him for helping me decide to play tight end. It was a great move on his part to not let me play receiver. I've loved playing tight end ever since."

The biggest transition, Thomas said, was learning to block.

"Catching footballs is a little bit different than catching basketballs, but you're still used to catching things, timing objects and getting both hands on them," he said. "So I don't think that took very long to change at all. But blocking is sport-specific. The only time you'll be blocking in your sports career is if you're a football player playing tight end or lineman of some sort. So that did take a little bit of time to get adjusted to. So many small things that you guys probably wouldn't even imagine all was a learning process."

He went on to earn first-team All-Big Sky Conference honors after hauling in 29 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns. Nine of those catches went for 20 yards or longer, and 18 of them picked up first downs.

Fast forward three years and the 2011 fourth-round pick has increased that production exponentially at the professional level.

This season, Thomas was selected for his first Pro Bowl -- of course, he had other engagements in New Jersey -- after catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. Now he's preparing to play in the Super Bowl.

"This isn't something that I imagined doing when I was 20 years old getting ready to play in the NCAA Tournament," Thomas said. "I wasn't thinking, 'Man, if you just fast-forward that clock a little bit, you'll be competing in the biggest game in America.'"

He went from one-year college player to a key cog in the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. And there's even an enormous photo of the tight end adorning the Super Bowl media center in New York.

"Is my helmet on? OK, that's good. So I won't get recognized too much," he smiled. "That's a lot of people walking by seeing that thing."

Thomas' journey to this point is a big story during the lead-up to Super Bowl XLVIII. And with all the media attention surrounding the players, it would be understandable if Thomas simply wanted to get back to work on the practice field. But doesn't think the Broncos ever stopped working.

"We practiced Saturday, we got in a little later yesterday and we're practicing again today. But that's what we're here for. We're here to achieve something," Thomas said. "I'm looking forward to practice because this is the time of year you've got to stay on top of it. You've got to continue to enjoy it, even throughout this week. We have a tough team to play and we've got to make sure we're on top of everything we need to do."

"It's just a blessing to be here," he said. "I've been very blessed in my athletic career, so I'm going to enjoy it and am very much looking forward to participating in the game on Sunday."