"Oh man, do I have a story for you," Michael Thomas said, a few minutes after emerging from the sweetest postgame shower he'd ever experienced. "You won't believe how I got here -- and how I almost didn't get here."
Thomas, the unlikely hero of the Miami Dolphins' pivotal, 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots Sunday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium, was talking about the abrupt cross-country journey that ended with him cradling Tom Brady's pass in the end zone with two seconds remaining -- a surreal climax to his first NFL game.
Thanks to a pair of huge plays in the final 27 seconds by their fantastic fill-in, the Dolphins (8-6) now control their playoff destiny. But as fate would have it, when Thomas' long-awaited opportunity arrived last Monday morning, the 24-year-old defensive back came perilously close to dropping the ball.
"We had a must-win game against Seattle last Sunday," Thomas said, "and it was a great victory. My sister was in town, and afterwards I took her out and we celebrated with some teammates. Normally, I'd be up early the next day, but we'd been out late having a good time in San Jose, and I slept until about 10 o'clock.
"When I woke up, there were four missed calls and five texts. My agent, Christina Phillips, left me some messages: 'Wake up, a team's trying to claim you ... but if you don't get right back to them, they're going to move on and go with someone else ... WAKE UP!'
"I didn't waste any more time -- I called her right away, and she put me on the phone with (Dolphins general manager) Jeff Ireland, and he got me on a 2:30 flight, and my sister started helping me (get) as much as I could into a suitcase. For all I know, I was minutes away from missing out on my big chance."
If the Dolphins -- who've rallied to win three consecutive games and four of five after dealing with the immediate fallout of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin alleged bullying drama -- complete their improbable path to the postseason, they'll be forever grateful that Thomas opened his eyes and entered their world. Because on Sunday, in a setting that typically ends with Brady reaffirming his impervious and imperial aura, it was Martin's anonymous friend and college teammate who bummed out the living legend and arrived in the nick of time.
Among the Dolphins who made a point of meeting Thomas last Tuesday when he arrived at the team's training facility was star pass rusher Cameron Wake, who went undrafted out of Penn State in 2005 and lasted just two months on the New York Giants' roster before reinventing himself in the Canadian Football League, ultimately hooking on with Miami in 2009.
"Well, I mean, I can definitely relate, having been a guy who had to make the most of his opportunity when it came," Wake said after Sunday's game. "I really don't even know how much of my story he knows. But this is the NFL -- you have to be ready to do whatever your job is whenever they put you in, even if it means you have to put the team on your back. Because it may be the one play that decides everything; you literally never know. (Ten) of our games have come down to one score. That means every single play could be the play, and that's how you have to treat it."
Said Thomas of Wake: "Oh yeah, I definitely know his story. It happens every year. A guy comes off the practice squad or from Canada or out of nowhere and he gets an opportunity and makes the most of it. I'm so glad the Dolphins trusted me enough to put me in that position."
With Sunday's game -- and possibly the season -- hanging in the balance, the Dolphins turned to Thomas out of necessity. Season-ending injuries to cornerbacks Dimitri Patterson and R.J. Stanford provoked the signing of Thomas, who'd been given a weekly raise by the Niners as an incentive not to bolt but jumped at the chance to join Miami's active roster.
It was a challenge -- given his unfamiliarity with the team's defensive signals, Thomas leaned on safeties Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones for pre-snap explanations. He'd had a good feeling about his new teammates since arriving on Tuesday, when he encountered a group of players which, in Wake's eyes, "came together during OTAs back in April, when all the coaches left the room and we talked and committed ourselves to buy in and rely on one another -- every man in here."
That resolve has helped hold them together during the still-ongoing independent investigation into Incognito's treatment of Martin, with both offensive linemen currently on leave from the team. And Thomas, the newest Dolphins player, has remained in regular communication with Martin, who reacted with excitement upon learning of his ex-college teammate's signing.
"He was nothing but happy for me," Thomas said. "That's my man. It wasn't weird for me when I came here; it wasn't even the elephant in the room. It wasn't a distraction. Everybody here is resilient. It's a very close-knit team. And guys are ready to win. They've embraced me since Day 1."
Now fast forward to Day 6: When second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill drove Miami 60 yards on nine plays late in the game, putting them ahead on a 14-yard touchdown pass to unheralded running back Marcus Thigpen with 1:15 remaining, Thomas took the field as the emergency nickel back against a likely Hall of Famer known for dropping dimes.
Sure enough, after the Pats (10-4) used their final timeout with 27 seconds remaining, Brady took a snap on first-and-10 from the Miami 19 and went up top for Danny Amendola on the right side of the end zone. Thomas left his feet and realized in mid-flight he couldn't make a play on the ball. For a split second, he thought he might have been beaten for a game-winning score.
"He actually had the ball in his hands," Thomas said. "I remembered what my position coach in college, (current Stanford defensive coordinator) Derek Mason, always used to say: 'Keep fighting and play through until the ball's on the ground.' I knew I was going through his hands."
The playoff picture
How would your team's prospects look if the season ended today? See where each team stands in the playoff picture midway through the season. **More ...**
Thomas punched the ball free with one hand, and after an offsides penalty on Wake, Brady threw two more incompletions to set up a winner-take-all, fourth-and-5 snap from the 14 with seven seconds to go.
"Even if my guy makes the catch, if I tackle him inbounds, the game's over," Thomas said. "So I played (on the) goal line. Then I saw the ball in the air, and it was all about making a play."
As Brady threw for Austin Collie in the middle of the end zone, Thomas stepped in front, snatched the ball out of the air and fell backward to the turf. Then he started crying, and the tears grew even more pronounced when he left the field and entered the tunnel heading toward the Dolphins' locker room.
Said Thomas: "A couple of teammates came over -- I'm not sure who, because I don't know everybody's name, I can't lie -- and they said, 'After all you've been through, your hard work is paying off.' I think I even called out to my mom: 'Mama, I did it!' It's just so overwhelming."
It's also another layer to the unique, still-evolving story of the 2013 NFL season -- and a reminder that we should all be ready for unexpected twists at every turn.
For now, here's the way we stack the two-dozen-plus-eight franchises that make up America's preeminent sports league, with the inevitable inquiries as accompaniments:
31) Washington Redskins: How many of the people railing against Shanahan because he went for two to decide Sunday's game against the Falcons celebrated the coach when he successfully parlayed a similar decision into a thrilling victory five years ago?