For N.F.L. Draft, the Biggest (XXXXXXL) Sleeper
GALVESTON, Tex., April 21 — On the edge of the Texas Gulf is a 370-pound football player who can execute a perfect forward flip.
When he lands, the ground trembles.
The player’s name is Walter Thomas, and as he kicked his size 16 feet overhead Saturday morning, onlookers studied the sculpted giant with curiosity and awe. It was the kind of reaction Thomas usually elicits from professional football scouts.
“I feel like I’m a big secret,” Thomas said. “The secret of the draft.”
The National Football League draft, which begins Saturday, does not really have secrets anymore. Prospects are timed and tested, interviewed and investigated, over and over again. Entire dossiers are prepared for second-string players.
Thomas is as close as modern football can come to an old-fashioned sleeper. In the past two years, his only playing experience was at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Miss. He played in two games, both losses. Then he was arrested on a charge of conspiracy to commit robbery, according to the Tate County (Miss.) Circuit Clerk’s office, and never played college football again.
Judging by his credentials, perhaps Thomas should not be drafted. Judging by his dimensions, however, Thomas has to be drafted.
Big Walt, as he is known, is a 6-foot-5 defensive tackle who wears a size XXXXXXL jersey. He bench presses 475 pounds and squats 800 pounds. Weight lifters at the Galveston Health and Racquet Club stop their workouts to watch him.
Football teams everywhere are filled with big men, but many of them can barely move. Thomas has run the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds, faster than some N.F.L. tight ends. He is the rare tackle who can catch a running back from behind.
“The guy is a dadgum Russian gymnast,” said Randy Pippin, the head coach at Northwest Mississippi.
Thomas’s flexibility has become part of his lore. He does handstands and handsprings, broad jumps and cartwheels. When he gets excited, he will do a back flip.
“I never thought a body that big could flip in the air,” said Ron Holmes, who coached Thomas at Ball High School in Galveston. “I wouldn’t have believed it unless I’d seen it with my own two eyes.”
Three months ago, Thomas was little more than a novelty act. He declared for the draft as a 21-year-old junior, but unlike most underclassmen heading to the N.F.L., he had no highlight reel to send scouts and few statistics for them to analyze. The Web site nfldraftscout.com ranked him as the 74th-best defensive tackle.
“It was a different situation,” said Martin Magid, Thomas’s agent. “He was coming from the basement.”
Magid, who represents several professional football players, lobbied for Thomas to be included in a predraft all-star game called Texas vs. The Nation. When the workouts for that game began, Thomas was an afterthought. When they ended, he was an Internet phenomenon.
Draftniks found a new darling. Bloggers were breathless. Draftdaddy.com reported that Thomas was “unstoppable” and “nimble” and “drew reactions ranging from gasps to smiles to a simple shake of the head in disbelief.”
In the draft evaluation process, workouts are nearly as important as games, and Thomas is a workout wonder. He was invited to Mississippi State’s annual Pro Day and seized much of the attention, even though he did not attend Mississippi State.
N.F.L. scouts, always on the lookout for that unique blend of size and agility, were seduced by a dancing goliath. This month, Thomas was ranked as the 15th-best defensive tackle in the draft. He hopes to pattern himself after the N.F.L. tackles Ted Washington (6-5, 365 pounds) of the Cleveland Browns and Jamal Williams (6-3, 348) of the San Diego Chargers.
“He is definitely a topic of conversation right now,” said Gil Brandt, former vice president for player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, who is now an analyst for NFL.com. “A lot of people are talking about him.”
Thomas represents the hard choice that every team faces at some point on draft day — to pick a player with supreme physical ability and a questionable past, or to go with a player who has limited talent but a proven track record.
Thomas would not be such a secret in the draft if he had not buried himself in college. He played at Oklahoma State as a freshman in 2004, but failed out of school before his sophomore season. He spent 2005 trying to regain his academic eligibility and went to Northwest Mississippi in 2006.
“People like to tell me, ‘As big as you are, you’ll always get another chance,’ ” Thomas said. “But I think I’ve used up all my chances.”
Thomas acts contrite and gentle, but his behavior can still be erratic. An interview for this story was scheduled for Friday morning in Galveston. Thomas arrived early Saturday, apologizing profusely that he confused the dates.
Thomas was accompanied by Martha Overton, a 54-year-old whom he calls his second mother. Thomas went to school with Overton’s daughter, Elizabeth, and steadily ingratiated himself in her family. Now, he appears in all of their Christmas pictures. When he leaves Martha Overton’s sight, he gives her two bearhugs.
“Walter has a lot of people who care for him very deeply,” Martha Overton said.
Thomas needs the support system, especially in the new N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell recently announced a personal-conduct policy that threatens teams for repeatedly signing troublemakers. When Thomas visited the Jets, the Dolphins and the Browns, they grilled him about his arrest, he said.
He might as well have answered in rhyme. Thomas stars in a Galveston hip- hop group called Tre Side, and he recently wrote a rap about football, the mistakes he has made and his desire to correct them.
From the stereo of his first car, a Ford Expedition that he picked up Friday, Thomas blasted one of his raps. He repeats the same line in a husky baritone: “I’m tired of wasting time.”
As a prospect, Thomas is intriguing because of both his baggage and his potential. In the two games he did play last season, his numbers were mind-blowing: 16 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss and 4 sacks.
“You absolutely cannot run at him,” said Les Miles, the Louisiana State University coach, who recruited Thomas to Oklahoma State. “You have to go in another direction.”
Thomas cannot expect to be picked until the second day of the draft — rounds four through seven — but he should immediately become one of the biggest players in the league, and probably the biggest player on his new team.
Thomas has always been the largest guy in the room. In the fifth grade, he was barred from Pop Warner games in Galveston because parents felt he had an unfair advantage. By the time he entered Austin Middle School, he was pushing 300 pounds.
“He took up a whole side of the line,” said Jim Yarborough, a Galveston County judge whose son played against Austin Middle School.
More than any specific game, Yarborough remembers the first time he shook hands with Thomas. “It was like he swallowed my whole hand,” Yarborough said.
Growing up, Thomas was somewhat self-conscious about his size, so he befriended the smallest kids in school. They played a game called “Cut the Cake,” in which they found the biggest building in town and raced each other around it.
Today, Thomas still has many of the same friends, and few of them weigh more than 150 pounds. He could bench-press three of them at a time.
“That’s where I got my speed,” Thomas said. “I had to keep up with all those little guys.”
To demonstrate, Thomas took off his size 16 sneakers, slid into a white tank top and did one of his forward flips on the grass next to a beachfront apartment building. He stuck the landing. The expression on his face was part grimace and part grin.
A man watching from his apartment balcony came running. The man wore an Ohio State T-shirt and had many questions. Who is this specimen? Does he play football? Would he be interested in going to college at Ohio State?
But Thomas was already in his Expedition, driving down Seawall Boulevard, blasting music by the rapper Slim Thug, another performer who is not particularly slim.
For a few more days, Thomas can still keep himself a secret.