Behind the competitive fire that fuels Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas' sin? He needs to feel aggrieved. If Thomas doesn't feel overlooked, he doesn't feel seen at all. Daymon Gardner for ESPN

Editor's note: This story was originally posted in November. It has been updated with new information.

BEFORE MICHAEL THOMAS well and truly went off against Philadelphia on divisional round Sunday, before he logged the full sweep of his franchise-record 12 catches and 171 yards, he looked for Drew Brees on the sideline early in the second quarter. With the broadcast gone to commercial break, Thomas had one brief moment to talk to his quarterback.

"I'll take over this drive," he told Brees.

The Saints were down two touchdowns, shut out completely in the first quarter, but had just gotten the ball back courtesy of a Marshon Lattimore interception. After the change in fortune, Thomas stepped in close, right in Brees' face, to make his point.

He's never had this level of trust with a quarterback before, so he knows he can say it. He knows he'll be heard. He knows Brees will look for him even in the tightest openings, the most claustrophobic of spaces, like he would later on their third-quarter, go-ahead touchdown when Thomas had just a foot-and-a-half of breathing room between himself and Eagles cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc. (According to NFL Next Gen Stats, that was Thomas' NFL-leading fourth tight-window touchdown -- a completion made with less than 1 yard of separation -- of the season.)

Brees had only one answer to Thomas' offer.

"I know you can," Brees told him.

He did. One play after the Saints converted a fake punt on fourth-and-1 to salvage yet another sputtering drive, Brees stepped back, looked left, looked center, then spotted Thomas 21 yards down the field with nothing but green turf around him. He'd run for 21 more yards after the catch, and the takeover, like he swore, was on.

That, in the end, is what Thomas is after. He wants to let you know -- the fans, his teammates, his coaches, his opponents -- exactly what he feels capable of. He wants to let you know, again.

THE ATHLETE-WITH-something-to-prove story is not an uncommon fable in sports, of course, and Thomas checks all the boxes. Does he play angry? Boy does he ever! Does he play hungry? You bet! Does he play desperate? But of course!

Chip on his shoulder is the turn of phrase bandied about most often regarding Thomas -- by him, by his cohorts -- and it's quickly clear that that is exactly ... right. "Oh, he takes any and all smoke," says Cam Jordan, his teammate in New Orleans.

But here's the thing: Thomas does more than take any and all smoke. He manufactures it. Real, imagined; true-to-size, funhouse-mirror distorted. He convinces himself the smoke is there, always, stalking him like a shadow.

"I feel like I've been having to earn it my whole life," he says. "That's just how my story's been. I found a way."

That time in high school when he was just a raw, late-blooming junior who couldn't crack the lineup? He found a way, in the spring that followed, to have the best offseason his high school coach says he has ever seen. That time when his monster offseason gave way to a monster senior year at Taft High but still didn't yield the big-time college offers he craved? He found a way, eventually, to lure Ohio State, after a brief interlude at a military prep academy to fine-tune his skill set. That time when he was redshirted as a sophomore in Columbus? He found a way, the very next season, to reinvent himself as a starter, culminating in a balletic, tiptoe catch at the edge of the end zone in a playoff win over Alabama. That time when five receivers were taken off the 2016 draft board before his name was called in the second round? He found a way, in the three seasons since, to transcend them all -- along with most other wideouts around the league to boot. No receiver outpaced Thomas' 125 catches in 2018. Only five topped his 1,405 yards. And now he's one win from finding his way to the damn Super Bowl.

Over the course of a two-hour interview in October, he repeats the refrain with religious, pathological fervor -- I found a way, I found a way, I found a way; the affirmation uttered 27 times in two hours.

He repeats this mantra as if it's a verbal tic, because he needs to find a way. To be aggrieved. If Michael Thomas doesn't feel overlooked, he doesn't feel seen at all.

PERHAPS HE WAS just born this way. Thomas has always been small -- "skinny as a piece of chicken without meat on it," says his uncle, Keyshawn Johnson (yes, that Keyshawn Johnson). "Frail," Thomas concurs.

Still, his father, Michael Sr., mistily recalls a drive home from Pop Warner when an 8-year-old Michael sat in the passenger seat and nudged his dad, the twinkle of a challenge in his eye, and asked, "Guess what I did today?" The skinny, frail kid couldn't fathom why he was relegated to the sidelines during games, so at his latest practice, he squared up against Hayes Pullard -- future Los Angeles Charger and a Hulk of a child the rest of the team deemed untouchable -- and found a way to tackle him.

As a high schooler, he grew up but not around -- 6-foot-3, 180 pounds. As autumn 2010 bled into winter 2011, his famous uncle called coaches up and down the West Coast, extolling the virtues of his 17-year-old nephew. "This is the best receiver in the entire state," Johnson told them. But no one -- not even local USC, Johnson's alma mater, or UCLA -- bit. "You guys are blind," he insisted.

Eventually, offers would arrive, but not the offers Thomas figured he merited, and that drove him batty enough to pin blame on his high school coach. The coach must've been underselling his speed to prospective recruiters, he decided; something must explain this affront to his talent. There had to be something, because despite that pile of other potential scholarships waiting for him -- physical proof that he wasn't criminally and wholly overlooked -- Thomas felt criminally and wholly overlooked.

At the time, Thomas swallowed this indignity, and others -- his redshirt season at Ohio State, the parade of receivers drafted ahead of him. But he has spent his career trying to purge the curdled aftertaste with, according to his teammates, a manic, almost deranged strain of competitiveness. ("I don't know if I've ever played with a guy as competitive as Michael Thomas," Brees says.) He arrived for his first OTA in New Orleans in 2017, snagged a touchdown in the end zone over a veteran safety -- the identity of whom Cam Jordan protects, for pride's sake -- then stood over the vanquished vet and stared daggers at him, a challenge. "We were like, look, the way you're acting? You better be acting like this on the field too," Jordan recalls. Thomas came back to practice the next day and challenged the same safety again. And again the week after.

His first three seasons with the Saints are pockmarked with similar stories from Thomas' teammates recounting his extreme competitive streak (Eli Apple, New Orleans cornerback and Thomas' former Ohio State teammate, dubs him a "madman").

In his teammates, Thomas seeks the same thing that consumes him: a manic commitment to find a way. He likes that he has contemporaries in New Orleans with "chips on their shoulders." Players, like him, who were counted out at one time. Guys such as Alvin Kamara and Brees -- but especially Brees. Who found a way more than the too-short-for-the-NFL Purdue system quarterback who went on to become the league's leader in career passing yards?

"I understand what it's like being the underdog," says Thomas, the two-time Pro Bowler. And you can just make him out, maybe five, maybe 10 years down the line, perhaps a 150-reception season or two under his belt, lamenting the injustice visited upon him. Underappreciated still!

Here's the thing about Thomas. He doesn't so much break records as pulverize them. He has caught 85 percent of the passes thrown his way this season, smashing the mark set by Wes Welker in 2007 (79 percent) among receivers with at least 100 catches in a season. (All the while, averaging nearly 2.6 yards more per target than Welker.) In December, he practically lapped the field for most receptions through a player's first three seasons in the NFL, collecting 321 catches to top the previous record of 288, held by Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. In January, he set a new franchise best for most receiving yards in a postseason game, bypassing Marques Colston's 144 receiving yards with 171 of his own. And yet he still seems unsure if he's breaking through. On the same night in November when Thomas rewrote a different piece of Saints history, this time for most receiving yards in a single game -- 211 in a win over the Rams -- he commemorated his 72-yard touchdown Joe Horn-style, retrieving a flip phone hidden in the goalpost. Was his celebration an attention-grab dressed up as an homage? Was it a demand for recognition?

He deflects, calling it nothing more than fun for fun's sake. Big game. Big play. Big mood.

"We beat an undefeated team in the Dome," he says. "The celebration? It could have been left out, of course, but I think people overthink it."

He bristles at feeling slighted. He bristles without slight. He bristles at the insinuation that slight is even on his mind. Which all begs the question: Who would Michael Thomas be if he couldn't run on the fuel that is everyone else's doubt?

"DOUBT IS CONFUSION," Thomas says. "I was once confused early on."

Uncertainty is a dirty word to Thomas and once -- just one time, he insists -- he allowed himself to dwell in it. Sitting in Urban Meyer's office before the 2013 season, absorbing the shock of an unanticipated and unwanted redshirt as a sophomore, he let external doubt rot into something uglier, more corrosive. Self-doubt.

It didn't take, though, he says, and save for that one short-lived glitch in his system as a 20-year-old in Columbus, never has. He's confident as hell. He'll lavish praise on his teammates and the trust he has in them, ticking off their names like a teacher taking roll call -- "Mark! Alvin! Tre'Quan! Cam! Austin!" -- then pivot inward. "There's no limit to what I can do," he says. "I'm doing stuff people aren't doing, that people have never done before. So I can't really put a limit on myself."

So what, when this is all said and done, will his career tombstone say?

"Probably a lot of things that end with 'most in the NFL.'"

But Thomas' self-assuredness is both flagrant and, somehow, fragile.

Perhaps that's why he knows how to nourish a grudge. When Matt Kerstetter, his old high school coach, ran into Thomas at the Elite 11 in Houston in February 2017, Kerstetter had just returned from the American Football Coaches Association convention. "You know how many friggin' college coaches I ran into who were telling me how much they missed on you?" Kerstetter told his old receiver.

"Yeah, everybody wants to claim they knew something now," Thomas barked back.

A year earlier, John Morton, the Saints' wide receivers coach in 2016 -- who happened to be USC's wide receivers coach when the program passed on recruiting Thomas in high school -- was still voicing concerns about Thomas leading up to the draft that April. Thomas told Kerstetter, a friend of Morton's, to deliver a message: "Tell him don't miss on me twice."

Breezily confident; easily triggered -- then and now. In January, when Thomas was awarded first-team All-Pro for the first time in his young career, he celebrated the nod in typically defiant form, taking to Twitter to announce his thoughts on the matter. "Never underestimate a person who has something to prove."

Even accolades can sound like aspersions when you want them to.

THIS SUMMER, IN the waning minutes before kickoff of the Saints' preseason game against the Chargers, Michael Thomas strolled through the Los Angeles defensive backs' pregame huddle on the field. His message to his imminent opponents: I'll be the alpha dog today.

His old quarterback at Ohio State, Cardale Jones, sat in the Chargers' locker room afterward, listening to his teammates grouse about Thomas' antics, and laughed to himself. "Yeah, that's Mikey," Jones thought. "He's gonna let you know he's a dog."

And it's true that, for a man who swears up and down he doesn't like to run his mouth ("It's better to just walk it than to talk it," Thomas declares at one point), he does chirp. He chirps so much and with so much panache that Cam Jordan has anointed him "Steve Smith Jr.," a nod to the onetime NFL trash-talking virtuoso. So Thomas will insist one minute he doesn't think you need to be a diva, nor a glutton for the spotlight, to succeed as a wide receiver in this league. "What do you consider success? Is success the guy who's a loudmouth, but not leading in this, and this, and this?" he posits. "Or is it the guy who's making history every week? That's cool. That is successful to me."

The next minute, he'll poke again, to see if he can't rustle up just a little more doubt to feed himself. If he says something to you, you might just snap back. Fresh fodder!

"I play better when I'm mad," he says, stating the obvious. "But having somebody say something crazy to me? I got to prove something."

Back when Thomas was a senior at Taft High, before he made it to Ohio State or New Orleans or the NFL history books in his young professional career, he logged on to Twitter one day and gave himself an avatar. "Cantguardmike," he christened himself. At the time, he might've been the only person sure he was unguardable. He might not be the only Michael Thomas apostle anymore, but that hardly matters.

"I call myself 'Cantguardmike,'" he says. "I can't be out here getting covered and locked up and not showing up on the sideline. If I'm Cantguardmike, that doesn't make sense. I'd be lying to myself. I'd be lying to the world."

But go ahead. Tell him you can guard him. He begs you.