Thomas defying odds in pursuit of NFL dream

Ian Thomas knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

He reflects upon it every day.

For 21 years, the former Indiana tight end has lived a life of improbability. He endured hardship as a child, losing both of his parents by the age of nine.

Taken in by his oldest brother, Thomas steered away from the dangerous streets of Baltimore, developing into a three-sport standout by his teenage years.

Although academic concerns forced him to initially take a route through junior college, Thomas eventually landed in Bloomington. Now, as one of the most intriguing tight end prospects in the 2018 draft class, Thomas is on the cusp of beginning his NFL career.

Not a day passes without him counting his blessings.

“I’m just defying the odds as I go,” Thomas said.

Tuesday marked the latest checkpoint in Thomas’ improbable path to professional football. Following a strong showing at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine, Thomas continued his pursuit of an NFL future by working out for scouts at Indiana University’s annual pro day at Mellencamp Pavilion.

He was one of 11 Hoosiers showing off for representatives from 28 teams, backing up a belief that he could be the first IU player to come off the board during the NFL Draft later this month.

Thomas ran routes crisply and effectively on Tuesday, while also demonstrating his blocking technique. He let his numbers at the NFL Combine speak for themselves, pointing to a solid performance in the weight room last month at Lucas Oil Stadium.

There, Thomas put up the second-best broad jump among tight ends at 123.0 inches. His showing in the vertical (36.0 inches) ranked third at his position and he also ran a 4.74 40-yard dash.

CBS Sports ranks Thomas as the fifth-best tight end in the class, and it’s believed he could come off the board in the third or fourth round.

“Talking to all the NFL scouts, they believe he has so much upside,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “That’s not always the case when the guy’s been through junior college and then two years (at a four-year school). I think that’s so intriguing for them. He’s so big and can run.”

Indeed, he can.

Thomas developed as a physical specimen during his two years at IU. The 6-foot-4, 259-pounder stood as one of the most physically imposing players on Indiana’s roster last season, carving out a role as a receiving tight end inside the IU offense.

Unfortunately, injuries limited him at times during the 2017 campaign. Even so, Thomas finished second among Big Ten tight ends with 15.0 yards per reception and tied for third with five receiving touchdowns.

He started all 10 games in which he appeared, catching 25 passes for 376 yards.

“I think it was pretty obvious what he can do,” Allen said. “I think it’s becoming pretty obvious that he has a chance to be even better in the future. He may be the top guy drafted (among IU hopefuls). Time will tell, but in terms of by position, he’s really, really a guy that has a unique skill set that they’re all looking for.”

Thomas, who also participated in this year’s Senior Bowl, has a visit to the Jacksonville Jaguars scheduled for next week. Others have inquired along the way.

Since the end of IU’s season last November, Thomas has remained in Bloomington to train with Rick Danison, one of Indiana’s strength and conditioning coaches.

He’s focused on his future, while also remembering his past. Long ago, the orphan from Baltimore learned to appreciate even the smallest opportunities that came his way.

Now, Thomas is staring at the big one in front of him.

“It’s not over yet,” Thomas said of his journey. “I gotta keep pushing.”


  1. Thomas’s story reads like a movie; he has gone through a lot to get to the point he can play in the NFL. I hope he makes it and has success getting with a team that is TE friendly. He has some unique skills as a big TE that can make him a valuable player on an NFL team.

  2. This reminds of the special teams thread. A few years back Jeff King was playing at Virginia Tech. He was a solid tight end but he shined on special teams for the Hokies. That got his foot in the NFL door. He went on to have a very successful NFL career playing for 8 years, mostly as a starter.

    There are never enough quality tight ends in the NFL and the good ones are household names to most football fans.

  3. Just to overcome the loss of both parents by the age of nine is an amazing story. I’d love to see this young man drafted in the third round and then go on to have a successful career. This is exactly the type of story that potential IU recruits need to hear, and why Allen and staff need to continue looking for players overlooked or under-appreciated by the major programs.

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