By Matt Derrick, Chiefs beat writer for Sports Radio 810 WHB and ChiefsDigest.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the Chiefs lost wide receiver Marcus Kemp Saturday night to a knee injury, it wasn’t long before the phone of De’Anthony Thomas started to ring. The Chiefs needed a replacement, but they wanted someone that filled more than one need.
“It’s important to get somebody back, but also somebody that can bring some juice,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said Wednesday. “This kid loves to play football, he loves to practice, he enjoys it. That’s the type of people and character that we want.”
In Thomas, the Chiefs found their guy. General manager Brett Veach kept tabs on Thomas throughout the offseason, monitoring the recovery of his twice-fractured right leg. Kemp had established himself an an heir apparent of sorts to Thomas on special teams as a gunner and coverage player. Kemp thrived in that role after Thomas went on injured reserve last October.
That makes Thomas a natural option with Kemp gone for the season, says special teams coordinator Dave Toub.
“When Kemp went down, obviously there was a hole there, and he kind of fills that hole for us, plays a lot of the same positions,” Toub said. “Different type of guy, more of a speed guy, not as physical, but he brings a lot to the table for us and it’s good to see that he’s healthy, and he looks good out there right now.”
On Tuesday Thomas made a triumphant return to the field. He entered practice late after first squaring away his contract and completing his physical. The Chiefs Twitter account announced the return of Thomas to the team at the same moment he lined up to receive a kickoff during special teams drills.
After Thomas got his hands on the ball and cut down the sideline, teammates cheered. That’s how he sees himself as a player, someone who brings energy to the sidelines.
“I do stuff on the field to motivate my other teammates to want to step it up a little notch,” Thomas said. “Every play I make it’s not about me, it’s for my teammates to see we can step it up, or it’s a motivational play.”
For his part, Thomas wasn’t sure when, or if, he might get a chance in the NFL this season. He spent the offseason getting his body ready just in case.
“It’s really been up in the air, but I just stayed patient, disciplined with myself,” Thomas said after practice Wednesday. “Just training my body and just getting ready not ever knowing what was going to happen. I just stayed focus and stay disciplined and just handled what I had to do.”
Thomas spent a good chunk of his offseason preparing for a possible track and field career. He met a track coach who encouraged him to consider running the 60-meter indoor event. During a recent training session, Thomas covered 362 meters in 45 seconds. But it was just a side hustle until his first love came calling.
“I’m a football player, I love football, and I just seen it as another challenge,” Thomas said of his budding track career. “I was just whatever one came first, and this opportunity came, so now I’m just dialed in on this and getting back to doing what I do.”
Thomas already made one heroic return to the Chiefs from injury. He first fractured his right leg on a punt return against the Broncos in the Week 17 finale in 2017. The gruesome lower leg fracture required immediate surgery in Denver. He recovered in time for the 2018 campaign, but in October he fractured the leg a second time in what the team termed a “freak accident.” The bone surrounding the screw in his leg cracked, requiring another repair.
Never, however, did Thomas think his football career was over.
“I took my mind off of it, and I feel like that’s what made it heal faster,” he explained. “Taking my mind off of it and not worrying about it and letting it heal naturally.”
Thomas also dealt with another offseason issue away from football. Authorities in Allen County, Kansas pulled him over for speed on Jan. 26, and the stop resulted in a misdemeanor charge for possession of marijuana. The case was closed Aug. 6 with Thomas a total of $664 in fines as part of a diversion agreement. If Thomas meets the court’s requirements and stays out of legal trouble, the charges will be dismissed in 12 months.
Thomas said he tried not to focus on the legal troubles and set them aside.
“I just saw it as a distraction to me, and I didn’t let it interfere in my process,” Thomas said. “I just kept focused and stayed disciplined with my workouts, and now I’m just getting back to doing what I do.”
The Chiefs have just six more practices remaining before they take the field at Jacksonville starting the regular season. Bieniemy says the five seasons Thomas spent in Kansas City before this year will help with his acclimation to this year’s team.
“He’s been with our organization for a number of years, he knows the culture, he knows the system, he understands how we do things,” Bieniemy said.
The Chiefs were speedy offense last year with Thomas in the lineup, but that accleration gets cracked up a notch with the addition of burners such as Mecole Hardman, Darwin Thompson and Tremon Smith on offense.
“I do got to pick up my pace because these guys are moving,” Thomas joked.
He hopes his speed can add to what certainly appears as the fastest offense in the league.
“I watched a few games, I could just see the electricity from special teams to offense to defense, so that got me fired up,” Thomas said. “Now I’m just back to bringing a little bit more spark and bring a little bit more flavor to it.”
Thomas said he understands there will be adjustments. “You know Andy Reid,”, he explained, “his mind moves like 100 miles an hour, so he’s always throwing different stuff in.” He also understands his role and what the Chiefs expect from him.
“I’ve always been a contributor to all the teams I’ve been on,” Thomas said, “so just getting back to contributing, whether it’s on special teams or offense, just making plays and doing whatever I can to help this team out.”