Behind the competitive fire that fuels Michael Thomas

Where Michael Thomas ranks among NFL's top WRs (1:28)

The NFL Live crew discusses what has made Michael Thomas so dominant this season, and why he is in the elite class despite being undervalued. (1:28)

Michael Thomas repeats his mantra like it's a verbal tic.

"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 -- never once dipping below 100 yards receiving in a game -- 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.

In a coffee house in New Orleans' Lower Garden District, Thomas leans forward in a metal chair that's just this side of too small. At 6-foot-3, Thomas is tall, but not outlandishly so. He's sculpted, but somehow still lanky. He's sequestered in the corner amid the shop's spartan interior, exposed beams and naked bulbs suspended overhead, lacquered brick wall to his side. On his left wrist, written out in full, is Ephesians 6:10-11: "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil." And as 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 looks and sounds like a man in confession.

His sin: He needs to find a way. To be aggrieved. If Michael Thomas doesn't feel overlooked, he doesn't feel seen at all.

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

The athlete-with-something-to-prove is not an uncommon story in sports, of course, and Thomas checks all the boxes. Does he play angry? Boy does he ever! Like a swarm of bees knocked loose from their hive, angry. Does he play hungry? You bet! Like a ravenous animal unleashed on a T-bone, hungry. Does he play desperate? But of course! Like a drowning man gasping for air, desperate.

He's an all-you-can-eat buffet of clich├ęs, and here's why that matters: 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's there, always, stalking him like a shadow.

Perhaps it's genetic. His uncle, Keyshawn Johnson -- that Keyshawn Johnson, who demanded the damn ball for a decade in the NFL -- thinks it might be. That Thomas' makeup, his compulsion to feel he's overcoming something, anything, was simply inherited from the woman who raised him.

"Her name was Vivian Jessie," Thomas says, carefully and with reverence, like even his grandmother's name is something precious. Jessie was the person who taught Thomas how to pray when he was young. They'd kneel together, at the foot of his bed, and recite the words she coached him on together: Our Father, who art in heaven. She was the one who'd record Johnson's games on the VCR, stockpiling VHS tapes that she and Thomas would watch together on a loop. She was the one to whom Thomas swore he'd make the NFL, a promise that felt like something nearer to solemn vow after Jessie passed away just before Thomas turned 18. He figured he owed her for all those scuff marks, scars from years of tossing footballs inside, that he had left on her walls.

"I have so many memories," Thomas says, then falls quiet for a moment. "I just ... miss her."

Before Thomas, she raised Thomas' dad, Michael Sr., Keyshawn and their four siblings on her own in South Central L.A. She survived poverty and single motherhood and their attendant hardships, and drilled that survival into her grandson. Beat the odds, she told him; beat those naysayers. In other words, find a way.

And so he began to seek out odds and naysayers. Insults became his oxygen.

Eight years ago, as the autumn of 2010 bled into the winter of 2011, Keyshawn Johnson 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; nor his crosstown rival, 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 wagered; something must explain this affront to his talent. 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.

Thomas swallowed this indignity, and others -- his redshirt season at Ohio State, the parade of receivers drafted ahead of him -- at the time. 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," Drew Brees says.) He arrived for his first organized team activity in New Orleans, 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 two-and-a-half seasons with the Saints are pockmarked with stories like Jordan's, Thomas' teammates recounting his competitive streak in ways that intimate Thomas is bloodthirsty and maybe just a touch disturbed (Eli Apple, New Orleans cornerback and Thomas' former Ohio State teammate, dubs him a "madman").

They'll tell you if Thomas drops a pass, or misplays a route, or fumbles his footwork -- in practice, not a game -- he unleashes a self-directed verbal tirade that sounds like something akin to tongues. "I have no idea what he's saying. Nobody knows what Mike is saying," Jordan confirms. They'll tell you he spews so much invective at himself, they'll turn around thinking, surely, he must be talking to someone. "Sometimes I hear it," safety Chris Banjo says, "and I'm like, 'Wait? Was that to me? Was he talking to me?'"

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 Drew Brees -- but especially Drew Brees. Who found a way more than the too-short-for-the-NFL quarterback, the guy from Purdue, 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 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!

He has caught 90 percent of the passes thrown his way this year. He has an outside shot at eclipsing Marvin Harrison for the most receptions in a single season. And yet he still seems unsure if he's breaking through in the way he thinks he should. On the same night Thomas broke the Saints record 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 goal post. Was his celebration an attention-grab dressed up as an homage? Was it a demand for recognition?

"Yeah, this was a big stage," he'd say after.

He bristles at feeling slighted, but bristles without slight too, which 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.'"

How about 200 receptions in a season? No one has come close to 200 receptions in a season. Marvin Harrison, keeper of the all-time record, managed only 143 way back in 2002! He can't do that! Right? "You can't be selfish," he says, demurring briefly before he continues. "But of course."

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

Perhaps that's why he knows how to nourish a grudge, tending to it like it's a plant to ensure it's never without sunlight or sustenance. When Matt Kerstetter, his old high school coach, ran into Thomas at the Elite 11 in Houston in February of 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 Southern Cal'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 this message: "Tell him don't miss on me twice."

Breezily confident; easily triggered -- then and now. One month ago, in the hours after the Saints played the Redskins in early October, Thomas tweeted a litany of grievances directed at Washington cornerback Josh Norman. On the Saints' first offensive play from scrimmage, Norman told Thomas he'd be on him all night. Thomas took that as a literal challenge. "Like you said," Thomas says, addressing Norman directly even when Norman is thousands of miles away from this coffee shop on an industrial block of New Orleans. "It's gonna be all night. I still have 24 hours. It was all night, right? I'm gonna punk you on this, too."

Three weeks later he'd rage-tweet again, this time at Reggie Bush, after the former Saint argued Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans has done as much (or more) as Thomas, with less (no quarterback named Brees in Tampa Bay). Bush heaped praise on Thomas too; the debate only bubbled up as part of a larger discussion on who'd make the cut for the five best wide receivers in the league. But 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 L.A. 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." And in 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 onto 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 may 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.

ESPN's Mike Triplett contributed reporting.