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Positioned to succeed

New Patriot Thomas values his versatility, determination

Adalius Thomas, a Pro Bowl selection with the Baltimore Ravens last season, is being counted on to bolster the Patriots’ linebacking corps.
Adalius Thomas, a Pro Bowl selection with the Baltimore Ravens last season, is being counted on to bolster the Patriots’ linebacking corps. (For The Globe Photo / Adam Hunger)

NIXBURG, Ala. -- Adalius Thomas has scars. Some are obvious. The 6-inch gash on his forehead, the long, thin slice that cuts underneath his left eye across the top of his nose are both remnants of a car accident. Others are not. They're buried deeper, created by slights he's been enduring since high school. The scars, both physical and mental, trace to a small town in Central Alabama, 75 miles southeast of Birmingham.

Nixburg doesn't have a post office or a traffic light. It's just a strip of highway, two-lane Route 9, with houses on either side. You could blow through it without knowing it's there. Nobody just stops in Nixburg. You either live there or you're visiting someone.

About 75 people came to Thomas's home here on the first day of the 2000 NFL Draft. It was supposed to be a day Thomas, then a 22-year-old defensive end out of Southern Mississippi, would never forget. It was, but for all the wrong reasons. It was the day he didn't get drafted.

Three rounds went by without a call, two more the following day, when about half of the friends and family returned. Thomas was finally taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round with the 186th overall pick, one selection before the Patriots picked safety Antwan Harris out of Virginia and 13 before New England tabbed Tom Brady. Thomas was out playing with his two pit bulls when he got the call, having long since stopped waiting for it.

"I was thinking this draft thing is overrated. It was just a big disappointment," said Thomas, during a recent interview in Foxborough. "It was kind of like tears of frustration and tears of joy; it's still a blessing that you get a chance to play, but it was a bittersweet thing."

Now, Thomas, New England's prize free agent acquisition, is on the same team as Brady, signed to a five-year, $35.04 million deal last month to upgrade a linebacking corps that was exposed in the AFC Championship game loss to the Colts. For the first time in his career, Thomas is getting what he deserves. As his father, Reverend Adonis Thomas, pastor of the Flint Hill Baptist Church in nearby Alexander City, said, his son has turned a stumbling block into a steppingstone.

The 29-year-old Thomas comes to Foxborough with a reputation for versatility -- he played eight positions in his seven seasons in Baltimore -- durability -- he's missed just three regular-season games since 2001 -- and big-play ability -- he has five career defensive touchdowns, four of which have come in the last two seasons.

Like Brady, the 6-foot-2-inch, 270-pound Thomas has blossomed, but he still carries a chip on his shoulder.

"I think you have to," said Thomas, who earned a Pro Bowl selection, his first as a defensive player, last season with a career-high 11 sacks. "You carry it not from a standpoint that you're bitter, but you carry it from a standpoint that you know that everything that everybody says about you isn't true. That's even from the standpoint of when I came here and people said, 'Baltimore is not losing much.' That's fine. That's your opinion."

With the big contract, which included $20 million in bonuses ($12 million signing bonus and $8 million option bonus, payable starting in 2008), comes the responsibility of proving he's worth it. Thomas has always had to prove his worth on the field. He was lightly recruited coming out of high school, as only Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State offered scholarships. He was overlooked in the early rounds of the draft, despite being a two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and setting a school record for sacks with 34 1/2 at Southern Miss., and he was, perhaps, undervalued on a Ravens defense laden with stars such as vociferous linebacker Ray Lewis, rapacious safety Ed Reed, and sackmaster Terrell Suggs.

Deion Sanders, who played two seasons in Baltimore with Thomas and is now an analyst for the NFL Network, said Thomas never got his just due.

"You know how someone is just not that high draft choice, not that guy you thought was going to be this or that?" said Sanders. "He was just that guy. He wasn't that high draft choice. Lewis was, Reed was, Suggs was. He wasn't."

Sanders said teammates knew Thomas's value and so did defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who nicknamed Thomas, "The Coordinator."

"Ray Lewis was the leader by media and on game day, but AD was a leader. He was the leader. He knew all his assignments. He knew everyone else's assignments and then he played special teams. He touched every aspect of the game. You would see him just busting his butt and they really didn't want to give him his credit."

The hardest hit
The biggest blow Thomas has ever taken didn't come on draft day. It didn't even come on a football field. It came in the passenger seat of a 1966 Ford Galaxie on the roads of Central Alabama.

Thomas, the middle child of Adonis and Eva Thomas's five, was 14 when he was in a head-on collision in 1991. He and his older brother, Evoris, who was at the wheel, were on their way to pick up their younger siblings, Combralius and Ashia, from daycare in Alexander City. They were five minutes away when a driver traveling in the opposite direction on the two-lane stretch of highway pulled out from behind a dump truck and slammed into them.

"I was dozing on and off in the front seat and I hear skid marks," said Adalius Thomas. "I open my eyes and I'm back out just like that. As soon as I opened my eyes it was like boom, boom. Never felt anything. I never saw anything. I wake up. I hear my brother moaning. He's in pain. I can't see. I keep trying to open my eyes, but I can't open them. I can't open my eyes to save my life. Glass is all into my eyes.

"I flew into the windshield facefirst. A piece of glass was lodged into my head, like a triangle piece. I feel it and I pull it out and blood just goes everywhere. I can feel it. I bled from 4 o'clock to 8 o'clock."

His face awash in a crimson tide, Thomas needed more than 400 stitches to close the gashes. He also broke his left foot when the motor crashed back through the car. His brother survived, needing just stitches in his head after crashing into the steering wheel. Thomas is intense when he talks about the accident. The parts of it he remembers he recalls with vivid, graphic detail.

"I found out that he probably went through some things that we actually didn't know about, listening to him talk about it now," said Adonis Thomas, Adalius's father. "If your kid is involved in an accident, after he survives and he gets well you think that everything is pretty much back to normal, but deep down inside he looked at it and saw himself a little bit different."

Adalius agreed. "After that I realized that nothing is really worth worrying about," he said. "I don't take everything serious. I'm very easy going . . . I like to have fun. I think life is too short. Everybody is put here for a purpose. I feel like my purpose is it to make people smile."

Thomas brings smiles to the faces not just of football fans. He is highly active in charitable endeavors. He established the Adalius Thomas S.L.A.S.H. (Sportsmen Lifting Academics & Sponsoring Hope) Fund, which as its primary mission aims to mentor children in grades 3-7. He holds a free football camp in Hattiesburg, Miss., each April. He held a yearly chess tournament for kids at the Ravens' facility. He works with the Russell Medical Center in Alabama to provide care for those who cannot afford it.

Thomas said that altruistic spirit comes from his father, recalling stories of how Adonis would aid strangers stranded on the side of the road or cut firewood for elderly neighbors in Nixburg. "We've always believed in helping people that are in need," said Reverend Thomas. "We've always tried to do everything we could to help somebody else."

Thomas said that despite his switch to the Patriots he plans to continue mentoring six boys, fourth- and fifth-graders, who attend the Johnnycake Elementary School in Baltimore. Thomas's wife, Sheri, with whom he has two children, is a former teacher at the school.

"I'm a person before I'm a football player," said Thomas.

Hoop dreams
Position flexibility, as the Patriots call it, has been a part of Thomas's package since his days at Central Coosa (County) High School in Rockford, Ala., but it hasn't always been valued.

"In high school we used him a lot of different places: tight end, linebacker, defensive end, defensive back -- wherever you wanted him to line him up," recalled Central Coosa principal Keith Bullard, who was also Thomas's high school football coach. "His senior year we had discipline problems so we needed him at tailback one game. He ran for 250 yards and a touchdown. We played Elmore County. When I saw their coach, he said, 'That was an awful trick you played on me that night.' Adalius could play anywhere you wanted to put him."

His senior year at Central Coosa, Thomas scored 19 touchdowns on offense and four more on defense. Not bad for a basketball player. Growing up, Thomas played football for fun, but basketball was his passion. In the yard of the ranch-style home Thomas grew up in, there is an arid swath of dirt and dust in front of the basketball hoop, which is only a few feet from the highway, protected by an embankment. The pounding of the basketball has vanquished all vegetation.

Reverend Thomas still comes out and shoots sometimes. He remembers fondly playing basketball with his three boys. "People would come to visit and play us, but the thing was nobody comes here and wins," said the elder Thomas, an electrician who two years ago became the pastor at the Flint Hill Baptist Church. "We didn't let nobody come out here and beat us. One of the Thomases was going to win."

Most likely, Adalius. His senior year he was named the Class 4A Alabama Player of the Year, leading Central Coosa to a 31-1 mark and the state championship. A bruising 6-2, 220-pound power forward, Thomas averaged approximately 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, according to his coach, Joe Belyeu, who won the first of his four state titles with Thomas in 1995.

When Thomas agreed to go to Southern Miss., it was partially because Jeff Bower, the Golden Eagles' football coach, had agreed to let Thomas try to play both football and basketball. Thomas spent one season playing hoops in Hattiesburg, and went up against the likes of future NBA players Kenyon Martin and Danny Fortson.

But 6-2 power forwards don't go far, so Belyeu, who was also an assistant on the football team, told Thomas to pursue the gridiron. "I know right now he's glad he did that. I'm glad. The whole community is glad," said Belyeu.

Series of bad calls
The other reason Thomas ended up at Southern Miss. and not Alabama or Auburn is that recruiters misjudged his talent. Central Coosa went 5-5 in Thomas's senior year, which to that point was the best mark since the school was founded in 1988. Bullard said the school's lack of success prejudiced people against Thomas.

"I sent a tape to a Division 2 school that shall remain nameless. I don't know if the guy didn't watch it or what," said Bullard. "They said he didn't fit into their system and they were recruiting certain positions. That guy didn't stay in business for too long."

Tyrone Nix, now the defensive coordinator at the University of South Carolina, was a member of the Southern Miss. staff when Thomas arrived. He said that Randy Butler, then defensive line coach and now associate head coach for Bower, deserves the credit for recruiting Thomas.

"He started at tight end and we stole him on defense," said Nix, who was then coaching outside linebackers. "We saw the ability he had. We said, 'If we could get him on defense . . . ' and we convinced Coach to put him on defense and the rest is history."

Nix said Thomas displayed versatility at Southern Miss. as well, lining up as a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 linebacker. The coaches even used Thomas at inside linebacker during his senior year.

"I think some of that movement helped him a lot from a playmaking standpoint and evidently some of it hurt him because I don't know what the deal was with him in the draft and being selected so low," said Nix, who was a groomsman in Thomas's wedding. "The thing I'm most proud of is that we were right about the kid and he is now being rewarded. He was strong enough to prove people wrong."

Slash and burn
Survival of the fittest, that's the name of the game in pro football, and Thomas learned that early as a sixth-round draft choice, often getting yelled at for breakdowns on plays that weren't necessarily his fault.

"When I went to Baltimore they had a lot of older guys there and they had a phrase of, 'The more you can do, the longer you stay around.' It kind of stuck," said Thomas.

So, Thomas decided to do it all, earning the nicknames "Slash" and "The Coordinator," for his ability to play multiple positions in Baltimore's defense. It's almost easier to name a position Thomas, who made his first Pro Bowl on special teams in 2003, hasn't played. He's lined up as a defensive end, a 3-4 nose tackle, a 4-3 defensive tackle, a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 3-4 inside linebacker, a 4-3 outside linebacker, a safety, and even at cornerback, all thanks to his startling athleticism.

Remember when Falcons quarterback Michael Vick broke his leg in an exhibition game in 2003? The guy who chased him down was Thomas, who was spying on Vick as a 3-4 nose tackle. Sanders swears Thomas can really play safety, which he did against the Steelers in 2005, when Reed and Will Demps were injured. The Ravens put Thomas there knowing the Steelers like to crack-back block on the safety in the running game. No receiver wants to block a 270-pound safety or get hit by one.

"If AD wanted to play free safety, Sean Taylor and Roy Williams couldn't touch him," said Sanders. "There ain't a receiver alive that's going to come across the middle. AD is going to kill him. He really can do it. He's just that type of athlete."

With Reed and Lewis missing significant time in 2005, Thomas was voted the Ravens' MVP by the Baltimore media, leading the team with nine sacks and setting a franchise record with three defensive touchdowns. He also had two interceptions, three forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. Last season he had a career-high 11 sacks, second on the Ravens, and returned a fumble 57 yards for a touchdown in a 27-0 victory over Pittsburgh.

Thomas said one of the reasons he signed with the Patriots is because of how coach Bill Belichick utilizes players in different roles.

"The scheme that they run here, it fits my personality as far as how I play and the positions that I play," said Thomas. "Belichick has been very creative as far as the things he's done over the past couple of years."

Thomas chafes at the idea that he is a product of the Baltimore system and will fizzle out like other players who have left the Ravens for greener pastures.

"You can't directly correlate someone's success to a team," said Thomas. "First of all, the player has to stay healthy. I think a lot of the guys who have left there haven't been able to stay healthy. That's part of this game. It don't matter what system you're in, if you're not healthy you can't play."

But he's not bitter about Baltimore allowing him to get away. "They gave me a chance when nobody else would, so why would I be bitter with [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] or anybody else? It's a part of the business that you have to deal with."

Still, Ravens offensive players should beware when Thomas returns to Baltimore as a Patriot on Dec. 3. He'll have something to prove.

He always does.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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