HE'S NOT A RUNNING BACK, A RECEIVER OR EVEN A STARTER. OREGON'S DE'ANTHONY (DAT) THOMAS IS SIMPLY A TOUCHDOWN WAITING TO HAPPEN
The man who discovered the most enthralling player in college football is just another suburban dad tutoring 8-year-olds in the art of the toss sweep. They gathered around him on a recent weeknight at Holmes Memorial Stadium in Diamond Bar, Calif. The little Diamond Valley Steelers were decked out in their black-and-gold uniforms. He showed them how to pitch the ball, how to catch it with two hands and how to cradle it like a favorite stuffed animal. He called plays in the huddle—"28 toss right"—and when one of his tailbacks fumbled, he barked, "We're better than that!" He sounded like your typical Pop Warner coach until practice was over and he summoned the boys to take a knee on the shiny artificial turf. You knew his pep talk might break from the norm when he started dancing near the 50-yard line. "Repeat after me," he instructed, eyes sparkling behind his green-rimmed sunglasses. "I want you spooned and groomed, dipped and whipped, suited and booted, gooted and looted."
The Steelers appeared confused and delighted at the same time. "Coach Snoop," one of them blurted later, "what does that mean?"
Seven years ago Snoop Dogg established a youth football league in Los Angeles that was predictably unorthodox. Fathers with criminal records were allowed to coach. Touchdown celebrations were permitted and occasionally encouraged. Snoop's team, the SYFL Rowland Raiders, cruised to road games in a tour bus with 27 TV screens and 70 speakers. More than 1,000 underprivileged kids from South L.A. signed up, and not because of the pimped ride: Entrance fees were only $100, with 50% off for siblings, and most of the chapters were in inner-city neighborhoods near their homes. Among the first generation of players was a 12-year-old running back named De'Anthony Thomas, who joined the Crenshaw Bears.
On a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 2005, the Bears played the Raiders at Holmes Memorial, back when the field was grass and dirt. Snoop sat in the bleachers with his buddies Big D and Mike Smoov, and Big D said the Bears were going to win. Snoop bet him $200 they wouldn't. "The Bears got a guy who will score every time he touches the ball," Big D claimed.
Snoop chuckled. "Yeah, right," he said.
On the opening kickoff, De'Anthony fielded the ball six yards deep in the end zone and brought it out. "You couldn't even really see him," says Smoov. "He was a cloud of dust."
Snoop felt $200 leaving his pocket. "I think it took him seven seconds to get to the end zone," Snoop says. "He was like a snake in the grass." Snoop grabbed his phone and called a friend from Crenshaw known as Coach K Mac. "I just saw somebody," Snoop said, "and I've got to know his name."
K Mac didn't need a description. "Oh," he replied. "That must be the Black Mamba."
Snoop rushed up to the press box, grabbed the microphone reserved for the public address announcer and hollered over and over again, "The Black Mamba!" Down on the field, De'Anthony didn't know what the term meant or why one of the world's most famous rappers seemed to be speaking in tongues, but his childhood would never be the same.
Thomas sits on a couch in the lobby of the Casanova Center, home of the Oregon athletic department, as a construction crew hammers away at yet another addition. A lineman from the 1970s named Mike Williams spots Thomas and approaches. Williams explains that he lives in Los Angeles and has been following the Mamba for years. "It's still kind of weird to me," Thomas says. "I was just playing the game I love, and I ended up in the spotlight."
College sports are littered with former prodigies who peaked young. But Thomas is now 19, a sophomore with short braids and a baby face, doing for the Ducks what he did for the Bears. Last year he scored a touchdown once every 7.8 times he touched the ball, and this season once every 4.4. "What you saw in Reggie Bush at USC," says Oregon starting tailback Kenjon Barner, "you see in De'Anthony Thomas."
Because he is 5'9", 176 pounds, the Ducks treat Thomas like a vintage sports car they just drive around the block on Saturdays. In the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin last season they gave him two carries, and he rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns. This season he is up to four carries per game, for 76 yards on average. LaMichael James, the 49ers' rookie running back and Oregon alumnus, texted one Ducks coach last week, "You've got to get him the ball!" Thomas is not technically in the starting lineup; he's a second-string tailback and wide receiver who is also a kick returner, punt returner and gunner on special teams. He's the lone reserve in the running for the Heisman Trophy. "You watch the NFL, you watch college, there's no one like him," says Oregon left tackle Kyle Long, son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. "He's the next generation of position. He's not a running back or a receiver. He's a bullet."
People have a tendency to make crackling sound effects and invoke obscure cartoons when they describe Thomas. He is a blur of green or yellow, black or silver, whatever palette the Ducks have chosen that day. He clocks a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, but as former Wisconsin safety Aaron Henry says, "That joker doesn't really get going until after 40." In a game against Washington State last season Thomas caught a swing pass in the left flank at midfield, split two defenders and sailed down the sideline. A Cougars' safety cut him off at the 25-yard line, but Thomas dodged right, then left, then right, then left. Four times he spun that poor safety in a circle, leaving him dizzy by the time they crossed the goal line. "We laugh in the film room," Long says. "All the folklore, all the fairy tales, they're all true."
Thomas grew up the oldest of five sons of a single mother, Gaylian Dupree, a former track star at Los Angeles High. When De'Anthony played for the Bears, he used to dash to the right sideline, pause for a beat, charge all the way back to the left sideline, race down the field and do a front flip into the end zone, landing on his cleats. At 14 he was asked for his first autograph, and at 15 he received his first recruiting letter, from Oregon. "I thought he was too small," says Ducks running backs coach Gary Campbell. "Then I turned on the film and realized he probably wouldn't get hurt because nobody could touch him."
At Crenshaw High, De'Anthony liked to juke and jitterbug, the way he did in the Snoop Youth Football League. Head coach Robert Garrett convinced him that one hard cut, from the hash mark to the sideline, is more effective than all those stutter steps. "We didn't even lift weights at Crenshaw," says USC linebacker Hayes Pullard. "We just ran. We had to chase De'Anthony."
Thomas led Crenshaw to two city championships. As a senior he was named the No. 1 athlete in the nation by Rivals.com, and he turned in the best 200-meter time in the country (20.61). Kids mobbed him for pictures after games, and Garrett had to limit his interviews. "He was a household name in L.A.," says Barner, a Southern California native, "and he was still in high school."
Kobe Bryant has become known as the Black Mamba, the name of a vicious African snake, but Snoop insists that Thomas was called that first. Snoop's sons, Cordell and Corde Broadus, befriended De'Anthony and invited him to the house for dinners, sleepovers and trips to Magic Mountain. "He became like another brother," says Cordell, a sophomore receiver at Diamond Bar High with a scholarship offer from UCLA.
When USC hired Lane Kiffin as head coach in January 2010, recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron called Thomas "priority one" and secured a commitment in May. The Ducks say they backed off. "He was the highest-profile kid I've ever seen come out of the city," says Campbell. "It was like everyone made up their minds he was staying." Crenshaw is less than five miles from USC, and the schools have long been linked. Garrett was a consultant on the 1991 movie Boyz n the Hood, in which Crenshaw star Ricky Baker is headed to USC before he is shot and killed.
Gangs are still common in the area, but Thomas was insulated from them so thoroughly that he might as well have been in a gated community. "The Bloods, the Crips, everybody loved him," says Coach K Mac, now the defensive coordinator for Snoop's Steelers. "He could go anywhere with no problem. He represented South L.A."
When you ask Garrett for a Thomas highlight reel, he responds, "There are about 20,000. Everybody here has one." Thomas won't watch them, though, recoiling at images of his breakneck runs. On the day after games he would grab his fishing pole and bike to Hahn Park, where he tossed casts into a pond stocked with catfish.
"When it comes to everything else," he says, "I like things kind of slow." Despite his flashy moves and celebrity connections, Thomas is excruciatingly shy, a self-described mama's boy forced to become the man of the house. As he looked ahead to a future at USC, he grew daunted by all his hometown entanglements. "In L.A. there was so much family, so many distractions, so many people seeing what I was doing," he says. "I needed to be on my own and grow up."
A week before signing day in 2011, Garrett called Oregon linebackers coach Don Pellum and told him that Thomas was still interested in the Ducks. Campbell was on the East Coast and immediately caught a flight to Eugene. Barner was tabbed as the host for Thomas's visit. Oregon has traditionally siphoned players from Southern California, but it had almost never beaten USC for a local gem like Thomas. "Most guys on their visit want to go to parties," says Barner. "He was different from anybody I've ever had. He was almost childlike. He just wanted to hang around and play video games all night."
Barner had expected Thomas to be arrogant and aloof, given the mania that surrounded him. "I'm nobody," Thomas told him. He committed to Oregon before he left, and against Campbell's warnings he strolled through LAX in green. During a tearful announcement, he vowed to return to Crenshaw and coach.
Everybody has a theory as to why Thomas reversed field so suddenly. Barner thinks he wanted to be the little brother for once. Campbell thinks he was weary of the hoopla. Another Ducks coach claims USC asked him to play defensive back. "We'd have let him play anywhere he wanted," Orgeron counters. "To this day I don't know what happened or why. It was a hard one to take. I'm still puzzled by it."
Orgeron can't help but wonder what the USC offense would look like with Thomas alongside quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
Snoop wears a USC windbreaker, but even his crew acknowledges that Oregon provides the best system for Thomas. Eugene is known as Track Town U.S.A., and the Ducks fit neatly into the city's endorphin-laced ethos, with a speed-freak offense that doesn't waste time on huddles. "You may be fast," says Oregon right guard Nick Cody, "but this is where you come to get faster."
Thomas's grandfather, Rayfield Dupree, taught him proper running technique by the time he was in kindergarten, and to this day Thomas adopts a sprinter's posture, holding his head so still that you could balance a Gatorade bottle on his helmet, and pushing the balls of his feet deep into the turf, turning it into a spongy springboard. While most running backs slow down to make their moves, Thomas accelerates into every cut, planting the right foot when he's turning left, the left foot when he's veering right.
"To propel yourself forward, you have to apply force into the ground," says Oregon track coach Robert Johnson, for whom Thomas was a member of the 4 √ó 100 relay team that finished second at the Pac-12 championships last spring. "Guys in other sports aren't always efficient at that. De'Anthony brings elements of the track world to football."
Thomas has a new nickname, DAT, which inspires DATMAN T-shirts at Autzen Stadium and cries of "Look at DAT!" In the opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 1, almost every time Thomas went in motion, half the defense shifted. None of Oregon's 2012 opponents have dared kick off to Thomas. Of course he would prefer a feature role, but he doesn't mind that he is being preserved as carefully as Stephen Strasburg. "He's the most selfless kid I've ever been around," says Oregon coach Chip Kelly. "He never asks for more touches. He's more pissed when we take him out as a gunner."
Thomas still can't bear to watch his highlights, and on the day after games he still grabs his fishing pole. He's found a patch of dirt behind Kowloon restaurant in Eugene, along the Mill Race, a tributary of the Willamette River. Surrounded by cottonwood trees, he casts for trout while his girlfriend reads a book. There he can sit still for a few precious hours, before the whistle blows and it's time to get suited and booted.
Are Thomas and the Ducks now the Pac-12 favorites? Stewart Mandel's Mailbag answers the game's biggest questions. SI.com/cfb
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING
GREEN STREAK In what now amounts to a typical afternoon, Thomas touched the ball 10 times against Tennessee Tech for 222 yards and two scores.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (THOMAS)
CATCH A WHIFF Thomas is more than just speed; his elusiveness can leave defenders grasping at air like cartoon bad guys.
ROBERT BECK (THOMAS)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
MAMBA'S BOYS Thomas jilted his hometown Trojans for Eugene, Track Town USA, where the Ducks' no-huddle attack plays to his strengths.
ICONS BY THOMAS FUCHS