July 27, 2013 Updated: July 28, 2013 at 8:25 am
ENGLEWOOD - In a sport that thrives on violence, Julius Thomas takes a road less traveled. He is a thinker, a reader.
Problem is, he's had way too much time to think and read. For most of his first two season with the Broncos, the imposing tight end has been injured. So Thomas dived into a pair of books.
His Broncos playbook.
"If there was a bright side to being hurt," Thomas said, "it was being able to learn the game."
And his Bible.
"There's a verse - 2 Timothy, 6-7 - that I read a lot."
The verse says: "For the Spirit (that) God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline."
On a Sunday, when the NFL is king, this is a story about an NFL tight end with Bible ties, not gang ties, and Thomas knows that won't move the needle.
"If I had to make a quick assumption as to why Christian athletes aren't as popular, it's because that's not what people want to see," Thomas told me after practice Friday.
"That doesn't sell newspapers and magazines. As athletes, the big stories are when we do something wrong."
Part of the intrigue in training camp is trying to identify the next breakout player.
Is it Montee Ball, the rookie running back?
Is it Derek Wolfe, the defensive end with a nasty streak, or David Bruton, a candidate to assume a starting spot at safety?
Is it Thomas, the former college basketball player?
Whether it's a power forward who rattles the backboard in a basketball game or a tight end that demands a double-team, certain athletes grab your attention at first sight.
Thomas is one of those.
On a Broncos roster with its share of unusual storylines, his story is striking.
For one, Thomas didn't play football from his freshman year of high school until his senior year of college - seven years. Instead, he played basketball.
Yet the Broncos drafted him in the fourth round in 2011.
For another, Thomas has one career reception, for 5 yards, in two seasons in the NFL.
So in this training camp, why is Thomas mostly working with the first-team offense - Peyton Manning's offense?
That tells us the Broncos see something the football world hasn't seen yet. This is a team built for a Super Bowl championship. The Broncos wouldn't be wasting time, or reps, on a tight end if they didn't believe he could make a big impact.
During a 7-on-7 drill, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Thomas powered through two defenders to make a difficult catch on a perfect throw from Manning.
The impressive reception drew applause, and a question.
"Who's No. 80?" one fan asked.
In his first three years at Portland State, Thomas played basketball.
Is he the next Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez - a former basketball player who can develop into an NFL player?
Or is he simply another gifted athlete who only passes the eye test?
"I feel that God has blessed me with athletic talents," he said. "I don't know what my limit is, but I know I can do some big things."
If Thomas can stay healthy, I tend to agree.
When a player has spent more time on the training table than on the field, it's convenient to suggest he is injury-prone.
But Thomas played 121 basketball games at Portland State, a school record, so that doesn't seem like the case. More likely, his luck stinks.
Good thing his faith doesn't.
"When you're going through tribulations and it's one thing after another, it's easier to doubt your faith. It's easier to doubt the Lord," Thomas said.
"I never allowed that to creep into my mind. I thought, 'God brought me here for a reason.' I told myself, 'You played one year of football in college and he brought you all the way here. That wasn't you. That was Him. So get out of His way. Do the right things. And He'll make it happen.'"
The Broncos have a pair of reliable and steady tight ends in Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme. In Thomas, they have a potential game-changer catching passes from Manning.
Now can't a good guy catch a break?
"What I've learned is that no matter what you're going through, God has a plan," he said. "You learn throughout the Bible that He doesn't always reveal His plan to you. Some people have to go through so much and continue to have that faith before God reveals what he's planning.
"That's been important for me to keep in perspective."