UK Football

Heated football battles with dad helped drive Kentucky freshman wideout

Kentucky freshman Clevan Thomas said, “Receiver just stuck out to me. I loved it. I love the craft, the work. I fell in love with that position.”
Kentucky freshman Clevan Thomas said, “Receiver just stuck out to me. I loved it. I love the craft, the work. I fell in love with that position.” Staff file photo

Maybe one day Clevan Thomas will make a game-winning catch in the Super Bowl over one of the best defensive backs in the country.

But even then Kentucky’s true freshman wide receiver likely will never beam with pride more than he did two years ago when he finally caught a pass over his dad.

“You know how Michael Jordan had his brother and he thought if he could beat his brother, he could beat anybody?” the younger Clevan Thomas asked. “That was my dad for me. … I caught a bomb over him and I was like, ‘I just did that!’”

His dad remembers it a tiny bit differently.

“He caught a slant, so it’s not like a deep post route or something,” Clevan Thomas Sr. said this week.

Then he reluctantly added: “But yeah, it happened.”

Maybe it’s not a big deal to some kids to finally get the best of their father, but Clevan Thomas’ dad isn’t just some out-of-shape rec league player.

At the time of the disputed catch, Clevan Thomas Sr. was still playing professionally in the Arena Football League, where he was a three-time defensive player of the year.

Clevan Thomas was photographed with the Foster ArenaBowl Trophy after the San Jose SaberCats’ 55-33 victory against the Columbus Destroyers to win ArenaBowl XXI on July 29, 2007. Doug Pensinger Getty Images for AFL

“I was still training, still working out, still playing,” said Clevan Thomas Sr., a starting cornerback on Florida State’s title team in 1999. “I’m not going to take it easy on him or give him anything.

“I wasn’t playing around either, and he actually caught the ball. From that moment, I guess it really did something to him, gave him confidence.”

It was the shot of confidence the younger player needed, getting a catch over the player he names as his “sports hero” in the UK football media guide.

“I was like if I can go against my dad, I can do it against somebody my own age,” Clevan Thomas Jr. recalled. “So when I did that, I just thought positively about receiver. I was like: This is my position right here.”

Thomas had played all over the field during his high school career in Miami, including stints at linebacker, defensive back, wide receiver and tight end.

In middle school, the self-described “chunky kid” even played some offensive line before growing into his 5-foot-11, 205-pound body.

The older Clevan Thomas is honest. He admits that he had hoped that his son would gravitate toward the defensive side of the ball, to the position that helped earn him a place in the Arena Football League Hall of Fame.

But there was something in that catch, something in those workouts against one another that drove the younger Clevan.

“Receiver just stuck out to me,” said the 5-foot-11, 205-pound freshman. “I loved it. I love the craft, the work. I fell in love with that position.”

Florida State’s Clevan Thomas fended off Florida defender Rob Roberts during a game on Nov. 18, 2000. Al Diaz Miami Herald

When you see your son fall in love, your plans for him fall away.

“I told him you’ll never make it to college or as a professional if you don’t have a burning need to play that spot,” the father said. “If you want to be a wide receiver, I support you and help you as best I know how.”

This “burning need” his father describes has helped Thomas stand out at Kentucky, a place that the older Clevan encouraged his son to attend.

Even early in spring camp, the true freshman caught the eye of his teammates and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.

“I’ll tell you what he does: he battles,” Gran said. “He’s understanding it. He reminds me a little bit of Benny (Snell) in terms of his mentality and how he’s going about it as a freshman.”

Gran liked that Thomas absorbed the playbook like a sponge, even asking to play not one but both slot receiver spots. That showed UK’s offensive coordinator the mental toughness of the true freshman.

Kentucky freshman receiver Clevan Thomas talks about what attracted him to UK from Miami, Fla.

That fortitude was tested again recently in preseason camp, Gran said. But he saw Thomas come out looking solid on the other side, including catching a touchdown in the Cats’ final scrimmage.

“He had a couple practices where we was kind of I don’t know about lost, but he was just still learning and then all of the sudden, the light clicked on and he had three practices in a row that were really good,” Gran said of Thomas.

“He understands it; he’s getting better and he’s physical when he runs the ball and he loves football.”

It’s a love that runs deep. Passed along from father to son.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Senior receivers Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson, along with receivers coach Lamar Thomas, talk about Kentucky's freshman receivers Josh Ali, Isaiah Epps and Clevan Thomas Jr.

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