FOXBOROUGH - It took him a couple of series to settle down.
Donald Thomas hadn’t played a regular-season game in two years. Suddenly, last week against the Dolphins, he was starting at left guard for the Patriots against the team that drafted him.
“It was crazy,’’ Thomas said. “You’re thinking, ‘What if I get to start against my old team,’ and then it happens.’’
The faces were familiar.
Randy Starks, Kendall Langford, Paul Soliai.
“Everyone was exactly the same from when I left,’’ Thomas said.
There was some chatter during a TV timeout after the second series, but Thomas couldn’t bring himself to take the trash talk seriously.
“It was weird because I was so used to going against those guys in training camp every day,’’ he said. “I was just like, ‘Man, shut up. You’re just running your mouth. I know you. We’ve hung out together. You’ve come to my house to play video games. I’ve been to your house. Shut up.’ It was cool, though.’’
There was a time when Thomas was the best-kept secret on the Dolphins’ offensive line. One injury changed that.
It was the first game of the 2008 season, the first game of Thomas’s career. He was a sixth-round pick with upside who had come in and started every preseason game.
He had a connection with coach Tony Sparano, as both had roots in Connecticut. Sparano liked the way Thomas worked. So when the Dolphins opened the season against the Jets, Sparano said the right guard spot was Thomas’s to lose.
Of all the plays, it happened on a field goal attempt. Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins started the chain. He rammed into the long snapper, who in turn crashed into Thomas’s leg.
Thomas watched the play on film, but just once.
“I don’t know exactly how it happened, but you see my knee came up, then you see my foot pop up, and then you see me try to put it back down and it pops back up again,’’ he said. “I still see it clear as day right now.’’
He continued playing with his left foot pointed outward, pushing off of it sideways. He was hobbling more than he was running.
“It was completely torn,’’ Thomas said. “I could feel the bone clicking in there because it was nothing holding the toe. They had to put a steel plate in the bottom of my shoe because my shoe wasn’t even bending.’’
He had never been seriously injured. Maybe a fractured knuckle from his high school baseball days or a sprained ankle. He was told the next morning he needed surgery for a Lisfranc injury.
Thomas played two games of high school football. His school, Career Magnet, didn’t have a team. He played two games for West Haven High, before it was determined he couldn’t play for a school other than his own. He became a power-hitting first baseman instead, but when he didn’t get the scholarship offers he wanted from colleges, he decided to go to the University of Connecticut solely for academics.
“You go from being an athlete your whole life to just being in class,’’ he said. “I was bored out of my mind.’’
He went to a couple of UConn football games his freshman year. He saw players around campus. One day, a few of them were in the gym playing basketball. They looked at him - 6 feet 4 inches, 310 pounds - and the questions began.
“You go to school here?’’
“Yeah,’’ he said.
“Why don’t you play football?’’
He told them the story.
They said, “You’re bigger than a lot of the guys on the team already. You should try out.’’
He thought about it, and decided to walk on to the team. From there, it was a whirlwind. He went from the scout team to setting the wedge on kickoff returns to starting at guard to going to the Hula Bowl, then the East-West Shrine Game, then the NFL combine. Then the draft.
“It happened so fast,’’ he said. “The season flew by. I was having a good year and it was, like, easy. I was actually surprised.’’
The injury in Miami was the first time he had seen a red light. He spent six weeks in a cast, six in a boot.
“A lot of people don’t come back from that injury,’’ he said.
He had every intention of coming back better, stronger. The Dolphins won the division title that year. Thomas wasn’t on the field but he was around so much - never missing a meeting - that the year again flew by. He was cleared to lift weights in the spring, then during the second week of workouts he tore his pectoral muscle.
“Freak accident,’’ he said. “I’m like, ‘Am I cursed.’ ’’
Thomas was worried. He would miss organized team activities, he thought, and people would start wondering about him. He recovered quickly, was cleared the week before training camp in 2009, and played in all 16 games, but because of an ankle injury only started 12. But things weren’t the same.
The next year, the Dolphins drafted a guard in the third round.
“From here, it was like I was at the bottom looking up,’’ Thomas said.
He was buried on the depth chart, and eventually released.
“It hurt,’’ he said. “It hurt my pride more than anything.’’
Things began to turn for him in training camp this year with the Lions. They didn’t keep him, but when the preseason ended teams were interested, including the Steelers, Buccaneers, and Patriots, who had Thomas on their radar during the 2008 draft.
“Definitely, we had interest in him,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “But there was a degree of a lack of total history and production from him that was somewhat circumstantial, and how do you project it? Is that the kind of player that we like to work with? Yes. After watching in Miami and going down there and really winning the starting position and then being available and all that, we had a chance for him this year. I think it’s worked out well.’’
With left guard Logan Mankins battling a strained medial collateral ligament, Thomas’s role may increase.
“I’m excited for Donald Thomas,’’ said right guard Brian Waters. “I’m excited for those young guys who really stepped up, because that shows that these guys are ready and willing, and they deserve to be in this league, and deserve to be in this locker room.’’
Thomas, now 26, feels like a veteran, and regardless of the situation he faces - goal line, short yardage, two-minute drill, blitzes - he’s prepared. “You control what you can control,’’ he said. “You can’t control everything. You take it how it comes.’’